Let's Talk About the "Angry Black Woman" Catch-22

by Evette Dionne

I was 12 the first time I exchanged blows with my older brother. Our fight left marks on both of us, but I don't remember the reason we were fighting. We could've been throwing fists over unfinished chores or his lack of respect for my personal space. Either way, our parents separated us and sent us to our respective rooms to calm down before convening everyone in the kitchen for a family chat.

Those were a long 30 minutes. I cycled through several emotions as I gathered myself. Sadness. Anger. Guilt. And more guilt. The guilt was suffocating. It wasn’t a guilt about having expressed emotion through violence. Rather, it was a guilt over the idea that I’d now be perceived as angry.

And if being 12, black, and large had taught me nothing else, it was that anger was an emotion I should sidestep whenever possible. A harsh word from me draped tension over my family as they tiptoed around me and my emotions. Calm down and stop being so angry were phrases I heard whenever I expressed myself without a filter.

Nobody has time for an angry black woman whose rage is on a hair-trigger. That line of reasoning, seen in the #WhatJayZSaidtoSolange hashtag, makes Solange's anger appear irrational. Tensions could’ve been simmering for hours, weeks, months, or even years, but it’s much simpler to depict Solange as an emotional woman with no control over her anger.

Watching "elevator-gate" — aka the leaked TMZ footage of Solange Knowles wailing on her brother-in-law, Jay Z— unfold this week, I am reminded of that fight with my brother. More importantly, I'm reminded of the way we understand black women’s rage in our culture today.

The three-minute-long video has no audio, so we will never know what provoked Solange to attack her sister’s husband. Given the infamous secrecy of the Knowles-Carter clan, it is almost guaranteed that we’ll never receive official statements from any party involved. But the public response to both Solange as an attacker and Beyoncé as an onlooker reveals something we should all be alarmed by: We still don't know how to talk about a black woman's anger.

Of course, black women have long been portrayed as angry. People who consider themselves more "progressive" may suggest that our anger originates from wounds that should’ve long-ago healed. But that simplification, and other assumptions, are condescending.

In the immediate aftermath of the TMZ report, troubling memes emerged on social media. Some depicted Solange as a character from The Matrix, while others used Jay Z’s lyrics to undermine Beyoncé herself. While memes can provide comedic relief, they also show us the lens through which we’re viewing these sisters to begin with.

Resorting to violence is unacceptable, no matter how much bigger your target is. But referring to Solange as an angry black woman or mining her social media accounts for old tweets that referenced violence does little to address the fact that we are still scandalized by any display of anger from a black woman, even when she clearly isn't a serious physical threat.

Solange's approach to expressing her anger can — and rightfully should — be criticized, but we don’t know what triggered her specific emotions. Moreover, reducing Solange’s ire to a meme signals how reluctant we are to create space for black women’s rage.

An unnamed writer at Clutch writes about our refusal to recognize black women's anger as legitimate.

Calling a Black woman angry is nothing more than tactic to minimize and dismiss our feelings. The Angry Black Woman stereotype is nothing more than a whip to keep us in line, shame us into suppressing our emotions, and bully us into swallowing our hurt because discussing what’s really going on makes others uncomfortable.

Audre Lorde, a Black Feminist writer and poet, addressed that paucity in a keynote delivered at the 1981 National Women’s Studies Association conference. In that speech, Lorde validates anger as a rightful emotion that women of color must have access to. She specifically refers to anger as an emotion "loaded with information and energy" that "can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change."

Lorde is referring to using anger as fuel for fighting personal and institutionalized racism and sexism. Her willingness to acknowledge anger’s usefulness challenges the cultural cues black women, in particular, receive about being angry.

For me, heeding Lorde's message was essential to surviving graduate school. Encountering professors who told me I'd never be successful in a doctoral program and administrators who attempted to convince me not to study black women was devastating. The anger that facilitated that confrontation with my brother 12 years ago began emerging once again, but I knew I couldn't resort to violence. Instead, I used that rage to fuel my research and writing.

We’re told that harboring anger is the antithesis of happiness, and that in order to achieve the latter, we must release the former. Nobody has time for an angry black woman whose rage is on a hair-trigger. That line of reasoning, seen in the #WhatJayZSaidtoSolange hashtag, makes Solange's anger appear irrational. Tensions between her and Jay Z could’ve been simmering for hours, weeks, months, or even years, but it’s much simpler to depict Solange as an emotional woman with no control over her anger.

Black women, like many women, are often told not to speak the truth to male authority figures. We are told to smile instead. Smiling eases the discomfort we experience as we navigate a world designed to oppress us.

But smiling can also be a façade. Just ask Beyoncé. After witnessing her sister attacking her husband, she exited the Standard Hotel with a grin plastered on her face. It was apparent that Solange and Jay Z were unnerved, but Bey remained committed to selling an untarnished image to the cameras. There is no weakness in that decision.

Beyoncé was presumably protecting herself, her husband, and her sister from cameras and prying reporters, but on social media, Beyoncé was chastised for remaining uninvolved and seemingly imperturbable. Criticizing her neutral approach to the altercation tells black women that in certain circumstances, we are supposed to be angry. Very angry.

The fact that Beyoncé was instead calm is being taken by some to indicate weakness, or an inability to defend her spouse. Either way, she loses.

We may never know what the catalyst was for Solange's outburst, but we do know that black women are damned if we’re angry and damned if we’re calm. It's no wonder I felt such shame that night I fought my brother. And it's no wonder I still struggle to learn just how to wield my rage today.