IT MIGHT be tempting to dismiss last week’s Twitter feud between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj as a mere battle between two oversized egos but in doing so, we ignore the points that Minaj was trying to highlight.
Her belief that black women are perceived differently by the media (predominantly controlled by white men) was validated by the manner in which she and Swift were portrayed in coverage of the “spat”. Photographs accompanying online stories were markedly contrasting, images of Minaj looking angry and Swift appearing innocent and harmless.
This archetype of the “angry black woman” is by no means a new one: This caricature could be seen to be the equivalent of the “criminal black man” stereotype, resulting in both black men and women being erroneously seen as a threat to white communities.
Melissa Harris-Perry, the author of Sister Citizen, says that being a black woman in America is like trying to stand up straight in a “crooked room”, and that black women are often rendered as “shrill, loud, argumentative, irrationally angry, and verbally abusive”.
A study called ‘Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Over Policed, and Under Protected’ was published by the African American Policy Forum Report in 2014 and found that black girls are six times more likely to face suspension than their white classmates, the report noting that “Black girls may be subject to harsher disciplinary interventions because they are perceived to be unruly, loud, and unmanageable… Teachers sometimes exercised disciplinary measures against black girls to encourage them to adopt more ‘acceptable’ qualities of femininity, such as being quieter and more passive.”
The problem is not superceded by wealth or success, as evidenced by the Nicki Minaj incident. A New York Times profile of the phenomenally successful creator of shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal begins with the line “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How To Get Away With Being An Angry Black Woman’.”
Michelle Obama, first lady of the United States, suffers countless articles referring to her “resting bitch face” and a 2008 New Yorker cartoon went so far as to depict her in army uniform and holding a machine gun. In a commencement speech at Tuskegee University in May of this year, Obama spoke about how this caricature “knocked me back,” saying: “As the first African-American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?”
If not being represented as angry, black women are often portrayed in a hypersexual manner or having their traditional forms of beauty appropriated by white women. Cultural appropriation has been discussed in great detail recently, especially when Kylie Jenner made the decision to wear her hair in cornrows and was called out by the Hunger Games actress, Amandla Stenberg. Many felt the reaction was exaggerated, saying that it was “just hair”, with Stenberg suffering from the “angry black girl” stereotype again.
In insisting that it’s just hair, we once again miss the point — black women are often censured for their bodies but when white women emulate them, they are seen as desirable and attractive. As Stenberg pointed out “Black features are beautiful, black women are not... This, at least, seems to be the mentality surrounding black femininity and beauty in a society built upon Eurocentric beauty standards. While white women are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips and tanning their skin, black women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally.”
So when Kylie Jenner wears her hair in dreadlocks for a Teen Vogue shoot she is described as “edgy” but when black actress Zendaya, 18, wore her hair in a similar style to the Academy Awards this year, Giuliana Rancic, a host on E! Network’s Fashion Police said: “I feel like she smells, smells like patchouli oil...or maybe weed.” Cultural appropriation was taken to its zenith in June when Rachel Dolezal, an American civil rights activist and former African studies instructor, was exposed by her (white) parents as falsely assuming the identity of a black woman.
Tanning her skin and curling her hair, she managed to pass as a light-skinned woman of colour, and even claimed to have been the victim of racially-motivated abuse. Considering the racial tensions in the US at present and the potential of indiscriminate police brutality that black women (and men) face on a daily basis, the decision of a white woman to pretend to be black seems grossly insensitive. It is also perplexing, when one considers the disparity between the lives of black women and white women in the states.
According to federal law enforcement data, black women are more likely to suffer from domestic abuse, and black women only earn 64 cents to every dollar a white man will earn. (White women earn 77c to every $1 a man makes.) So was Minaj’s tweet just a cosseted popstar complaining because she didn’t get a VMA nomination? No. It was much more important than that.