Notes on the Angry Black Woman in White Comedy

Posted: September 21, 2015 in Cara Blouin
Tags: , , , ,

angieHi, white ladies! Oh my god, you all look so cute. I love your dresses, are they vintage? OK, here’s the deal. Ever since I watched Trainwreck three times I can’t stop thinking about the ways that we (white feminists) keep throwing black people under the bus.

Why, why, why, when we are finally getting the opportunity to tell our own stories in our own voices are we turning around and deliberately using black people the way white men’s stories have always used us?

In Trainwreck, Amy Schumer goes out of her way to create a flawed, deep, complex female character for herself, and then for no discernable reason, adds this scene where she is on the subway when it stops in the tunnel. She asks the black woman next to her “why is it stopped?” and gets a classic Angry Black Woman response, something like “Do I look like the MTA to you? Do I have metrocards coming out my ass?” We never see the woman again, Amy gets where she’s going on time, there is literally no reason for this scene to be in the movie except that it is hilarious how black woman are always angrier than a situation warrants.

White ladies, has anyone ever called you “crazy?” That particular dismissal stings so badly because it is grounded in every bitches-be-crazy story and she’s-on-the-rag joke ever told. It’s not about who you are or what you feel, it’s about what you are. Those stories and jokes don’t exist for no reason. They’re used to explain you, which means to discredit you. “Angry” is like that for black women.

If you’re not familiar with the Angry Black Woman, don’t worry, you are. She usually has her hands on her hips, and is shaking her finger from side to side. Often she is in a service position and her angriness is the obstacle to a white person’s getting some very reasonable thing that they want. White people are afraid of her both because she might cause violent harm (after taking out her earrings), or because she brings them in contact with their discomfort about race.  She got her start in minstrel shows around reconstruction. (If you want to know more about the deliberate way that tropes were created to discredit black people after the Civil War, I strongly recommend this series of short videos from the Jim Crow Museum.)

The ABW trope is consistently used to shame and silence real black women. For example, Michelle Obama consistently gets accused of being an ABW. But much more to the point, when the terrifying video of Sandra Bland’s arrest became public, people rushed to imply that she deserved not just violence and arrest, but ultimately her death because she didn’t behave in a deferential way to the police.

White ladies, I know you’ve got some sense of that feeling. The real terror that teaches us not to respond rudely to a man who catcalls us tells black women to be polite when they are beaten in the street.

Black women who speak up about racism or misogyny are easily dismissed as “angry.” And white women, who should totally know better, totally buy into it. You’ve seen this little bit of comedy a million times: white woman says something that black woman misperceives as racist, camera cuts to the black woman’s angry look. Immediately, white woman starts falling over herself to explain, but it’s too late. The ire of the unreasonable black woman is already piqued. The joke seems to be about the awkwardness about the white lady, but it’s actually about the danger of the black lady, and how necessary it is to tiptoe around black people, who might explode with anger at any moment, even though, and this is the heart of the joke, it’s all just a misunderstanding. There’s no reason to be angry, the white woman meant well and the ABW jumped to conclusions. Like she does.

Tina Fey, I’m so sad to say, is the absolute worst with this.  Let’s set aside the fact that she repeatedly used blackface on 30 Rock. (It’s a bad sign when you start by setting aside blackface.) She went back to the hapless white lady/angry black lady bit again and again on the show. There are whole episodes centered around the joke that Tracy Jordan’s wife, Angie (a classic ABW) can manipulate poor, white Liz by accusing her of being racist. The message? Black people have power over white people, because we’ll do anything to avoid being misperceived as racist.

You know, in the same way women have power over men, because they’ll do anything to be allowed to sleep with us.

Except we don’t. But men believe we do, and that has real consequences. It makes them angry, and they begin to resent this imbalance of power. That’s where we get men’s right’s activists. It’s twisted, and it’s dangerous, and the same thing happens to black people when white people perceive themselves as helpless before the accusation of racism. And that’s where the most dangerous racism flourishes. When we start to believe that we’re correcting an imbalance that is actually in black people’s favor. That story makes racist thoughts and actions possible and it makes them seem appropriate.

You might see a person like Eliot Roger as a misogynist who killed six innocent women. But you might also see him as a lonely nice guy who just couldn’t bear the rejection of hot, powerful sorority girls who laughed at him and dismissed him, and took justified revenge. And it’s easy to see him that way because that narrative existed long before he killed those women.

The ABW narrative makes sure that every time a woman like Sandra Bland speaks up, we are primed to dismiss her.

So why are white feminists telling that story? It’s like we’re saying to men ‘feminism is scary, but it’s not BLACK WOMAN scary!’ And that means we’re willing to betray black women to advance ourselves. And that makes our feminism a big racist joke.

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ProfileCara Blouin runs the Art Church of West Philadelphia, a gathering space for art and community, and is a freelance director and new-play dramaturg. She is best known in Philadelphia for producing Dan Rottenberg is Thinking about Raping You and The Republican Theater Festival. Other Philadelphia credits include Josh Hitchens’ The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Curio Theater,) and the world premiere of Joy Cutler’s Pardon My Invasion. Cara is the facilitator of “The Souls of Black Folk” series for new plays at the Painted Bride Art Center and has served as a teaching artist at Drexel University and the Community College of Philadelphia. She was also the founder of the New York-based Stone Soup Theater Arts, and the Universal Culture School in Hunan, China, which teaches English to Chinese teenagers using an arts curriculum.

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