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Renée Graham

Serena Williams and the Angry Black Woman

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Globe file photos

Hold your tongue. Don’t raise your voice.

Mind your manners. Don’t cut your eyes.

Watch your attitude. Act like a lady.

Oh, and if you’re a black woman, never, ever get upset or you’ll be forever tagged as that most terrifying and despised creature: the Angry Black Woman.

That’s the lingering stench of a women’s US Open final that few will soon forget. When Serena Williams confronted a chair umpire who accused her of cheating, she wasn’t defending her honor — she was being an Angry Black Woman. When she demolished her tennis racket in frustration, she was acting like an Angry Black Woman. When Williams argued after a judge penalized her by first awarding a point, then a game, to eventual winner Naomi Osaka, it wasn’t a world-class athlete’s passion on display. She was just another Angry Black Woman.


Always, that’s how this goes down. Any woman who dares to stand up for herself is bitchy, difficult, and deserving punishments few men would ever face. Yet for black women, caught between the rock of racism and the hard place of sexism, it’s exponentially worse.

Our anger is considered scary and terrifying. Regardless of the circumstances, we’re portrayed as out of control, neck-rolling devils, as if there’s no reasonable basis for our views. Angry is just a thing black women are and, therefore, our discontent is dismissed as nothing more than talking loud and saying nothing.

Just as the #MeToo movement was never solely about sexual misconduct in Hollywood or the loftiest media circles, neither is what happened to Williams confined to a tennis court. That’s why the incident cut so deep for many of us. We’ve seen it, heard it, and lived it all before.

As first lady, Michelle Obama never publicly displayed even a hint of anger — and was still called an Angry Black Woman. “That was one of those things that you just sort of think, dang, you don’t even know me, you know?” Obama told Oprah Winfrey in an interview. “You just sort of feel like, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ You think, ‘That is so not me!’ But then you sort of think, ‘Well, this isn’t about me.’ This is about the person or the people who write it.”


It’s likely some of those same people are writing and talking about Representative Maxine Waters, who has spoken forcefully against President Trump’s racism and his destructive policies. Conservatives depict her as just another Angry Black Women, a shortcut to invalidating her opposition.

We should expect the same treatment for Ayanna Pressley, fresh off of her stunning win against 10-term congressman Michael Capuano in last week’s Massachusetts primary. “The Trumpists are psychologically incapable of dealing with a strong, boldly progressive African-American woman; the sight of such a woman speaking her mind triggers a primal and uncontrollable rage among the MAGA minions,” a recent Washington Monthly article stated. As a Boston city councilor, Pressley built her career as a voice for the disenfranchised; that will be enough for Fox News or some other right-wing outlet to shape her concerns into rabid, unreasonable anger.

Of course, these labels are meant to remind us that we exist at the capricious whims of perceived white benevolence. And while it’s mostly white men, don’t think men of color are immune to attacking the strength of black women. In his song “Bye Baby,” rapper Nas says:

Should’ve saw the meaning, angry black woman

Actions of a demon, I’m leaving

(It’s worth nothing that singer Kelis, Nas’s former wife, has accused him of physical abuse, which he denies.)


As black women, we’re expected to be seen and never heard, and if we’re viewed as overstepping, the penalties will be swift. That’s what happened to Williams. It’s ironic, because society regularly denigrates black women, and when we get angry, our reactions are used against us. When black women are angry, we probably have every reason to be.

I am black. I am a woman. I am angry. And especially in this current political climate, I shouldn’t be expected to kowtow or apologize for any of that.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.