Photography by Julian Finney/Getty Images
It’s not new
Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson
September 24, 2018
It’s not new. Rather, it’s just the latest incident that reveals a continuing prejudice that disparages women of African descent. This time, it comes at the hand of an Australian cartoonist who unflatteringly depicted Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka during their U.S. Open finals tennis match.
Clearly, Serena got the worst of it. Consider the caricature. Serena Williams is drawn with exaggerated features—an obese body, fleshy lips, a protruding tongue, large breasts and masculinized arms, with kinky hair wildly flying. Such depictions of African-descendant women are as old as those sketched by the European explores who first “discovered” people on the African continent. Compared to a European standard of beauty, these images were used to emphasize what explorers considered as the bestial unattractiveness of African women.
In this current depiction, is the cartoonist saying that Serena Williams is ugly? She is certainly rendered in a most unattractive manner. But given the persistence of a racialized stereotype of beauty, one could question whether the characterization speaks more pointedly to the looks of black women. The sharp features, full lips, body types with protruding buttocks and breasts, and course hair have all been used to draw stark comparisons between what passes for beauty and what does not. It is not new.
Then, consider the issue of anger. Serena is depicted throwing a tantrum, while jumping on a broken tennis racket. She was described as hysterical during her match, which demonstrates a sexist double standard. When men exhibit anger, they are being passionate, red blooded or male. When women exhibit anger, they are hysterical, unhinged and irate. This sexist double standard becomes a triple threat when black women show such emotions. Black women who dare allow their tempers to flare are considered angry. This “angry black female” labeling suggests an additional degree of unacceptability because in their anger, black women are deemed to be unreasonable.
Again, this isn’t new. During the time of enslavement in the United States, the matriarch—the strong African American woman who defended her family and community—was maligned for her strength. Sapphire, a female character from the 1950s “Amos ’n Andy Show,” was labeled angry because she emasculated black male characters. These lasting impressions provide license to conclude that any black woman—from Michelle Obama to Omarosa Manigault Newman— provoked to a level of aggravation can be labeled an “angry black female.” Once labeled, the designation becomes permission to dismiss. Too few will consider the merits of Serena’s argument during her U.S. Open match. What they will remember, instead, are the outbursts.
But Osaka is not left unmarred in this cartoonist’s characterization. Prejudice continues in her rendering as well. Naomi’s father is Haitian, and her mother is Japanese. She is clearly a woman of African descent. However, in the cartoon, she is depicted as a slender, white woman with blond hair. What is the message that we are to derive when a black woman is depicted as white? Could it be that her biracial heritage makes her more acceptable? Could it be that her demeanor—soft-spoken, deferential and compliant—demonstrated that she knew her place and, therefore, was judged more favorably? Again, this isn’t new. Blacks who understood their place were always viewed as “good” versus those who did not. When you did not know your place, you were uppity or a troublemaker. But in this case, when you know your place, you’re drawn as white.
I wish I could say that I am outraged by the cartoon, but I am not. Instead, I am wearied. How long must women of African descent suffer the insulting, racist, body-shaming tactics that continue to suggest ugliness and unattractiveness? How long must women of African descent be labeled as angry and dismissed because we too can be passionate? How long must we be “white washed” in our obedience and compliance, silenced to the point of invisibility? How long?
How long must women of African descent suffer the insulting, racist, body-shaming tactics that continue to suggest ugliness and unattractiveness? How long must women of African descent be labeled as angry and dismissed because we too can be passionate? How long must we be “white washed” in our obedience and compliance, silenced to the point of invisibility? How long?
In 1965, following the march from Selma, Ala., the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was asked, “How long?”
“Not long,” he replied. “Because no lie can live forever.”
I’m not quite ready to declare such closure in this instance because these lies about black women have lasted an awfully long time. However, I am encouraged when I read the opinions of white men who pushed back against these negative and stereotypical characterizations. I am encouraged when I see women speak out against these injustices. I am encouraged because there has been outrage instead of silent acceptance, which connotes complicity.
Perhaps, with that encouragement, it might one day be possible for a black woman to voice her anger and not be ridiculously caricatured or negatively labeled for doing so. Now that would be new.
The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her book “Spiritual Practices for Effective Leadership: 7Rs of SANCTUARY for Pastors” is available through Judson Press.
She will present the workshop “Leadership Lessons for the Good: Realizing Transformation from Oppression” at ABHMS’ “Space for Grace: Thy Will Be Done,” November 14-16, 2018, in Philadelphia. REGISTER TODAY for this national conference that seeks to explore critical issues of mission engagement, discipleship and church transformation facing Christians today.
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