How to get away with racism

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This is what we talk about when we talk about angry black women.

Over the weekend, the Internet skewered Alessandra Stanley for her latest television review for the New York Times, “Wrought In Their Creator’s Image.” If you haven’t read the piece, it’s a tone-deaf appraisal of TV writer/executive producer, Shonda Rhimes, and the popular black heroines she’s brought to life on network television.

Known for a well-documented history of factual errors, Stanley is no stranger to criticism of her work. But in this instance, she committed an error of poor judgment, thanks to inherent sexist and racial biases. Stanley’s rather antebellum view of black women was roundly criticized by numerous media outlets. Most everyone who commented on the piece agreed, it was offensive from the first sentence: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.'”

With that poorly chosen opening line and play on words, Stanley framed being an “Angry Black Woman” as analogous with committing a crime, like, murder. Whether intentional or not, she implied that Rhimes is getting away with a violation of the natural order. Her carelessly applied label of Angry Black Woman was all it took to reduce Shonda Rhimes from mega-successful TV producer to a cunning criminal. This forces us to consider what exactly is it that Rhimes is getting away with? 

Stanley, however, isn’t the only one who recently reduced a black woman working in TV to a harmful stereotype. On Thursday, one day before Stanley’s review hit the Internet, news spread online about the Metro Transit Authority of Los Angeles, which announced it had decided to pull ads for Red Band Society from 190 buses. As part of the hype campaign for Fox’s new television dramedy, the advertisements referred to Academy Award-winning actress, Octavia Spencer, as a “scary bitch.”

These promotional materials were yanked after wide protests at a recent Metro committee meeting. As reported in the L.A. Times, one of the protesters at the MTA meeting, Jasmyne Cannick, said, “I don’t know if I find it more offensive because I’m black or more offensive because I’m a woman.”

Whether conscious of them or not, the stereotypes Alessandra Stanley and the Fox marketing department drew upon are America’s historical attitudes about black women. “Scary bitch” and “Angry Black Woman” conjure those old-fashioned stereotypes, which reaffirm the limited social roles available to black women in modern American society.

Since the days of human bondage, American culture has imagined black women as either a) a “Mammy” b) the “Jezebel” or c) a “Sapphire.” Coming out of slavery, these were the primary classifications used to label black women, in order to determine the value she offered to white men. Black women have suffered for centuries at the hands of these three particular stereotypes.

For instance, there’s the role of a Mammy. She’s a desexualized woman that’s permissible to white people because she doesn’t challenge the nature of a white family. As a guide on black antebellum stereotypes from Dr. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University explains,

Mammy was portrayed as dark-skinned, often pitch black, in a society that regarded black skin as ugly, tainted. She was obese, sometimes morbidly overweight. Moreover, she was often portrayed as old, or at least middle-aged. The attempt was to desexualize mammy. The implicit assumption was this: No reasonable white man would choose a fat, elderly black woman instead of the idealized white woman. The black Mammy was portrayed as lacking all sexual and sensual qualities. The de-eroticism of mammy meant that the white wifeand by extension, the white familywas safe.

At the other end of the spectrum was the Jezebel, her role was that of a willing rape victim:

The Jezebel was depicted as a black woman with an insatiable appetite for sex. She was not satisfied with black men. The slavery-era Jezebel, it was claimed, desired sexual relations with white men; therefore, white men did not have to rape black women.

And lastly, we have Sapphire, the one with the least value to white men. She was sexually unappealing like the Mammy, but she’s unwilling to be a victim of white men or black, and thus, she was deemed problematic, except as a source of humor, like when she turned her anger against black men or chided her white masters:

The Sapphire Caricature portrays black women as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing. This is the Angry Black Woman (ABW) popularized in the cinema and on television. She is tart-tongued and emasculating, one hand on a hip and the other pointing and jabbing (or arms akimbo), violently and rhythmically rocking her head, mocking African American men for offenses ranging from being unemployed to sexually pursuing white women.

Although African American men are her primary targets, she has venom for anyone who insults or disrespects her. […] The Sapphire Caricature is a harsh portrayal of African American women, but it is more than that; it is a social control mechanism that is employed to punish black women who violate the societal norms that encourage them to be passive, servile, non-threatening, and unseen.

Many scholars, like Dr. Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, author of Behind The Mask Of Strong Black Women, theorize that the notion of a “strong black woman” was a cultural way to deal with the guilt and shame surrounding slavery:

It was part of the justification for treating a group of people like they weren’t human, so you could exploit them without second thoughts. It’s a very comfortable narrative to say in spite of slavery and segregation, poverty and abandonment; black women have made it. That means they’re no longer on our ‘we have to worry about them’ list.

Which returns us to the question Alessandra Stanley seemed wont to consider: Are black women finally making it on their own terms?

To anyone paying attention, black women have been succeeding on their terms for a long time. I shouldn’t have to point this out, but the First Lady is an accomplished black woman. Stanley may spend her hours considering fictional Washington D.C. from Scandal, but in real-life, the leader of the free world is married to a black woman who defies easy categorization or stereotypes. It’s not that black women aren’t succeeding, it’s that their success is often rendered invisible if, like Michelle Obama, they fall outside of the traditional stereotyped roles of a Mammy, a Jezebel or Sapphire.

As Pligrim reminds us, these labels have consquences. “Black women executives who voice disapproval at company policies run the risk of being seen as Sapphires, especially when the policies involve race and race relations,” Pilgrim writes. “The black woman who expresses bitterness or rage about her mistreatment in intimate relationships is often seen as a Sapphire; indeed, black women who express any dissatisfaction and displeasure, especially if they express the discontentment with passion, are seen and treated as Sapphires.”

According to Pilgrim, the Sapphire label (like its Angry Black descedant) is a “slur, an insult, and a label designed to silence dissent and critique.”

Thus, casting Shonda Rhimes in the role of an Angry Black Woman continues to measure her value to white men, or in defiance of them. The label of Angry Black Woman is not a compliment; if anything, it’s indicative of the discrimination black women continue to face. Yes, black women, likely, have more reasons than most to be angry. They face excessive provocation due to the racism of our society, but when we point a finger and label someone an Angry Black Woman, we only point at the stereotype, at our collective American racism.

How often do we see smiling, happy, carefree, black women on television? How often do we hear about the strides black female executives have made to change corporate culture? How many people have ever heard of Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox? I’d wager millions more people have seen Tyler Perry sell his stereotype of an Angry Black Woman in the cineplex, as it’s far easier to capitalize on stereotypes than defy them.

You’d think after years of watching television, Alessandra Stanley would’ve figured that out, and since it’s the 21st century, she’d celebrate Shonda Rhimes’ work, not perpetuate a harmful stereotype of her blackness. If we truly are in the golden age of television, as critics often argue, our language should be as forward-thinking as our programming.

Photo via Disney ABC Television Group/Flickr (CC BY N.D.-2.0)