When Fani Willis, a Black woman and district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, indicted former president Donald Trump in September, right-wing media pundits responded quickly with racist attacks. She was called a “thug,” while former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani referred to her as an “incompetent, sloppy prosecutor.” Despite the fact that only 1% of top prosecutors are Black women, casting Black women as unlikeable, aggressive, and threatening figures is a common pattern of behavior seen across sports, politics, and entertainment, historically dating back to chattel slavery. Indeed, the “angry Black woman” is among the most enduring tropes in our culture, visible on-screen and off-screen.
In August, Argentine player Paola Suarez accused tennis sensations Serena and Venus Williams of being “arrogant and unfriendly.” But what right-wing talking heads don’t realize is that Black women don’t owe anyone likability — particularly when that likability is defined by requirements to tolerate profound disrespect or adopt a level of humility rarely required by others.
Our culture expects Black women to remain humbly in their place or risk being called “uppity” or “ungrateful.” For example, in the world of professional sports, bravado is celebrated. The late boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali famously referred to himself as “the greatest of all time.” However, Black women such as Williams and Sha’Carri Richardson, who are arguably the greatest in their fields, aren’t allowed similar bravado. Instead, they are expected to remain in their place.
This past August, Richardson became the fastest woman in the world when she ran the 100-meter dash in 10.65 seconds in Budapest, Hungary. She rightfully referred to herself as “that girl,” a woman of achievement who is deserving of respect, after winning the race at the 2020 US Olympic trials, before being disqualified for the Tokyo Olympics for a positive drug test. Instead of focusing on her athletic prowess, much of the sports world demonized her for past mistakes. Adding insult to injury, Richardson was not extended an invite to ESPN’s 2023 ESPYs. Instead, Richardson was expected to shrink herself to avoid offending anyone, and she was asked to remain humble to remain palatable for the masses. Despite the fact that Black women represented a mere 9.4% of all women in the 2020 U.S. Open, when Black women enter fields where they have traditionally been excluded, the status quo critiques them to keep them out.
In addition to being forced to show humility, Black women are expected to endure disrespect and hardship in their professional lives. For instance, as a Black female physician, I experience race and gender-based microaggressions daily, even though Black women represent fewer than 3% of the profession. Recently, a surgery colleague undermined my decision to intubate a critically ill patient in front of the entire team. He looked to my trainees, all men, to confirm my decision-making, because he didn’t think that I looked like a doctor — or at least not one with sufficient decision-making skills. More scrutiny was placed on how I responded than the harmful actions delaying patient care.
This expectation of hyper-endurance feeds the dangerous, harmful “strong Black woman” myth by expecting Black women to endure discrimination without validating our pain and emotions. The trope, whose initial intent was to inspire and empower Black women, contributes to the medical field ignoring our physical and emotional pain and feeds the idea that our socioeconomic and personal needs should come last in political movements. Ultimately, this myth that we are strong or magical dehumanizes us.
Moreover, the expectation that Black women should endure misogynoir, or a hatred of and aversion to Black women, manifests itself in multiple ways. For example, when a Louisiana State University basketball champion Angel Reese’s team won the NCAA women’s basketball championship against the University of Iowa, Reese waved her hand in front of her face, implying that her skills were unmatched and no one could compete with her. Another basketball player named Caitlin Clark, a White woman, used the gesture throughout the season and was applauded for it, but as a Black woman, Reese was met with scrutiny. When Black women’s very existence in predominantly White spaces is a radical act of defiance, the public demands that we endure disrespect in ways that don’t upset the status quo.
When gender intersects with race in the courtroom or sports field, Black women often find themselves in a precarious position. Despite our accomplishments, humility is expected and demanded, alongside composure in the face of unchecked racialized harassment. For example, a recent study in Harvard Business Review showed that participants are more likely to attribute the anger of Black female employees to personality than external factors, causing Black women harm in the workplace. Additionally, parents and educators need to stop socializing girls to be nice and well-behaved while boys are allowed to be boisterous and assertive. These factors contribute to Black girls being six times more likely to be suspended than White girls for similar offenses.
Black women do not owe society likability, humility, or superhuman strength. We are owed the same compassion, support, and humanity extended to our peers. It is our collective responsibility to address the impact of harmful stereotypes of Black women, and question their relevance in our culture, media, and sports fields. Doing so will not only reveal their sinister cause, but give Black women much-needed complexity in our identities and grace in our humanity.
Dr. Katrina Gipson is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. She is the founding Program Director of the Health Policy Fellowship at Emory and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project and AcademyHealth.