The Angry Black Woman
Why are D.L. Hughley and other men perpetuating the stereotype?
After learning about a recent interview on NPR with Michel Martin, in which comedian D.L. Hughley proclaimed that:
"I've never met an angrier group of people. Like black women are angry just in general. Angry all the time. My assessment, out of, just in my judgment, you either are in charge or they're in charge, so there's no kind of day that you get to rest."
I had to hear the entire interview and read the transcript for myself. I reasoned, "This has to be comedy! He's being sarcastic, right?" Unfortunately, I was wrong. This wasn't just another example of the many ways that black male comedians had historically used black women as the butt of their jokes.
When pressed further by Martin, Hughley tries to clarify, saying, "I don't like the way they process—no, I don't. I enjoy their company. I do not like the way that they reason. You can't understand them."
Hughley's comments reveal not only his own dislike of black women, they also exemplify deep-seated societal anxieties about the power of black women.
Let me say from the onset that like everyone else in the United States of America, D. L. Hughley has "freedom of speech," but he also has "the right to remain silent" and anything that he says can be used against him (and black women) in the court of public opinion. Instead of being part of the solution, he chose to add to the public practice of using the stereotype of the angry black woman to ridicule African American women.
Not surprisingly, black women used social media to fire back at Hughley. Hughley's defenders pointed to the angry violent behaviors of some black women on reality television as proof that he was correct, while others labeled Hughley's critics "angry" in an attempt to dismiss their legitimate concerns and anger about his statements.
There are a number of complex factors that reinforce the stereotype of the angry black woman. First, because of racism, black men and women who actively fight against injustice have been constructed as dangerous threats to the status quo. Second, because of sexism, groups of women who challenge male privilege have been dismissed as man-haters who want to dominate men. The image of the angry black woman emerged at the intersection of these racialized and gendered stereotypes—the embodiment of uncontrollable femaleness and blackness combined.
Historically, black women who are confident and unafraid to speak their truth have been accused of being angry as a way to silence them, and the mass media has provided us with a steady diet of images that reinforce this negative stereotype. For example, the media coverage of black revolutionary activists like Angela Y. Davis, Kathleen Cleaver and Assata Shakur in the 1970s painted a vivid image of black women as angry and dangerous conspirators who plotted against America.
Unfortunately, this can happen to any black woman who confidently asserts her right to speak in a public arena. Representatives Cynthia McKinney and Maxine Waters have often been characterized as angry when they confidently assert and defend the rights of black people. Even the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, is not immune to having this stereotype leveled against her. During the 2008 presidential campaign, she was accused of being angry when she expressed being really proud of her country for the first time.
Defending against attempts by those in power to construct black women and men as angry is nothing new. Even Hughley is keenly aware of these controlling images, when he jokes in his book about President Obama's attempts to dodge charges that he is angry. During the interview, Michel Martin reads Hughley's words:
"If you're going to be treated like any angry black man, then maybe you should start acting like one. The entire street is behind you and many, many other streets like mine. And all we need is for you to give us the word. What we more than anything, Mr. President, is for you to lead."
Comedic value aside, this passage shows that Hughley is keenly aware of the ways that stereotypes about dangerous black men function in this country. He also recognizes that President Obama has to negotiate this stereotype as he pursues his national agenda.
It is amazing that Hughley doesn't understand how his comments about angry black women directly feed into the long held stereotype that black people are angry, dangerous, and to be feared. Rather than further perpetuating these stereotypes, someone like Hughley, who has a voice, should use his position to educate and nullify false perceptions about black men and women.
Professor Lakesia D. Johnson is author of the new book, “Iconic: Decoding Images of the Revolutionary Black Woman”