From the Crunk Feminist Collective comes some good reflections on gender, race, and the culture of tennis.
So, here’s the deal: in her recent U.S. Open match, Serena Williams was angry at a call. Yep, athletes get angry all the time, and their behavior isn’t necessarily mature or justifiable. I don’t actually have much interest in parsing out the good and the bad of Serena Williams’ response. The question I am interested in is how is the anger of a black woman “read” differently than the anger of a white man?
The article from the Crunk Feminist Collective answers the question this way:
Moreover, the USTA loves angry heckling players—as long as they are white men. Early in the tournament, there was a video and interview tribute to Jimmy Connors, a player legendary for his angry outbursts on the court. In the tribute they devoted extended time to showing one of the more famous of these outbursts, in a celebratory manner. White anger is entertaining; Black anger must be contained.
The video being referenced is definitely worth watching. What kind of freedom do white men have to express their anger, that women, particularly black women, do not have because of racist and sexist stereotypes?
One of my areas of research is the study of affect—I am interested in the display or covering over of emotion. Who gets to show what kind of emotion in the public sphere? Because of existing stereotypes about the “angry black woman” or the “emotional woman,” angry is read very differently based on the gender and race of the one who is angry. Do most of us realize that this way of managing who can and cannot show anger is racism and sexism at play?
When a white male player gets angry and throws his racket down, how do you “read” him? Is this behavior entertaining and/or read as a display of power? And, perhaps most importantly, do you immediately associate his behavior with his race and his gender, the way Serena Williams is liable to get represented as the “angry black woman”?
I have often noted how much more room white men have for being angry, without gendered and racist stereotypes raining down to curtail their expression. I am a white woman, so I don’t receive the “angry black woman” stereotype, but I am more than aware that if I show my anger or other affect in a heated debate I am setting myself up to be seen as an “emotional” woman? And we all know that in western culture, “emotional” is a bad thing—in our philosophical discourse, it’s the opposite of reason, the opposite of the “mind,” the opposite of “male,” the opposite of civilized “whiteness.” And yet, I would suggest that for some reason white male anger is usually not **read as “emotional” at all, but rather read as a display of power and authority within the codes of white-patriarchy.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, how our very display of emotions—and how that display is read and interpreted—is so historically constructed? The things we might take as so “natural,” like a human being showing what they feel, is actually quite regulated and controlled by larger structures of power and privilege, whether or not we are consciously aware of such regulation.
**(Note: When I say white male anger is not read as “emotional,” I speak here of hegemonic reading practices, or those interpretive practices exerted by a dominant group. Clearly, based on subject position and cultural context, individual people read differently.)