by Anahvia Taiyib
There seems to be an elusive weighting system that decides how wronged a Black woman must be before she expresses anger. We’re held up to a moral standard that is hypocritical at best––every time we are angry, we are just reinforcing stereotypes about Black women’s violent, “sassy” nature. We’re expected to be emotionless superhumans, stoically accepting abuse and wrongdoing with a straight face and dry eyes because we are “strong.”
Black women are not allowed to authentically speak our truths, to express a wide range of emotions like the human beings we are. We are at once “strong” and “angry”––never neither. “Strong Black Woman” stereotypes are used in jest on television and in everyday interactions because somehow Black women being financially and emotionally independent is a joke, one that can be reduced to a head roll, a finger snap, and a poor attempt at African American Vernacular English.
This one-dimensional view of Black women and our emotions has been once again underscored by a recent piece in The New York Times by staff writer Alessandra Stanley. Stanley comments on Shonda Rhimes, a successful Black director, screenwriter, and producer (and a new show coming from her production company, ShondaLand, called How to Get Away with Murder). The opening sentence of her piece speaks volumes on how Black women are not allowed to be complex human beings with complex emotions:
“When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away with Being an Angry Black Woman.’”
Stanley believes Rhimes’ leading Black female characters, such as Olivia Pope from Scandal and Dr. Miranda Bailey from Grey’s Anatomy, “reset the image of African American women on television.” These characters are intelligent, successful, outspoken women with sexual desires who express a range of emotions, including anger. According to Stanley, Black female characters should be “benign and reassuring” like Clair Huxtable from The Cosby Show, who Stanley describes as a “serene, elegant wife, mother, and dedicated lawyer.”
Stanley says that Rhimes’ shows, which feature Black heroines, are “mercifully free of uplifting role models, parables and moral teachings.” Who is Stanley, a White woman, to say that images of successful Black women with successful careers, complex love interests, and faults are not positive images for Black women and girls to see on TV? I question how much of The Cosby Show that Stanley has seen if she characterizes Clair Huxtable as serene and benign, because Mrs. Huxtable has on numerous occasions been the complete opposite––because the show’s creators have the right to depict her as a reflection of reality and not as an “ideal woman.”
Stanley’s portrayal of Rhimes’ characters is one-dimensional––her assertions that Pope is “the mistress of a married president while also maintaining an on-again-off-again affair with a black-ops czar” and that Dr. Bailey is “a brilliant surgeon who terrorizes interns” are particularly striking because she makes no mention of these characters’ White female counterparts. What makes Pope, Dr. Bailey, and How to Get Away with Murder’s lead Professor Annalise Keating any more “angry” than Vice President Sally Langston from Scandal,
the woman who, in a homophobic rage, kills her cheating husband and blames it on the devil? Or more angry than Quinn Perkins, also from Scandal, who physically tortures a man to get information out of him, even though her partner backed down because he couldn’t bring himself to do it?
Stanley seems disappointed that although Rhimes’ heroines are Black, her shows’ main theme is not racial tension and struggle. Race is supposed to be a “sensitive, incendiary issue” on television shows like Rhimes’ that create a “multicultural world [in which] there are many African Americans at the top of every profession.” Why do television shows have to paint Black life as one big struggle? Why can’t Black characters just be––as people? Rhimes’ shows offer a one-hour time slot of enjoyment for Black viewers each week when we can relax and indulge in a drama-filled show that treats us as people––people who have love affairs, who have their hearts broken, and who are sometimes mean––without being slapped with racist caricatures and labels.
People like Stanley used to make me feel ashamed for expressing perfectly healthy human emotions. I’ve received more than my fair share of neck rolls and z snaps from White peers in response to me being angry after being hurt. And while it is no walk in the park, every day I try to be courageously me. For me, to be courageous means to be who you are, to speak your truth. Whether you’re calm and collected or your body is trembling, eyes seeing red––just speak it. You’re not required to make your lived experiences with trauma or marginalization palatable and easily digestible for others. You’re allowed to make mistakes because you’re human. Say what you mean, not what others want to hear. If someone wants you to sugarcoat your truth before they extend help or compassion––run. Run to someone else who appreciates you as the multifaceted, imperfect human being that you are.
If I’m hurt, I’m going to cry. If I’m angry, I’m not going to suppress it. If I’m sexually interested in someone, I’m going to pursue them. If I succeed in something, I will not downplay my achievement. People like Stanley, who try to squeeze me into a box, are now a source of encouragement to be unapologetically me. Like my mama always said, let ya haters be ya motivators.