Attack of the Angry Black Woman

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In a recent interview with Roland Martin, Rachel Jeantel’s attorney Rod Vereen discloses a heartbreaking statement from Rachel about her friend, Trayvon Martin:

“…he was one of the few guys that never made fun of me, about the way I dressed, about the way I talked, about my hair, about my complexion, you know, about my weight.”

In a few months we will know if a jury believes that George Zimmeran was compelled to follow Trayvon Martin because of his race. We will find out if Trayvon paid the ultimate price for one of the most perpetuated and prevalent stereotypes in the media: the thuggish image of a young black man. One thing we know now, however, is that there is yet another victim of tired stereotypes and prejudices in this case, and that is Rachel Jeantel.

Within minutes after taking the stand, the Internet was abuzz with jokes and memes criticizing and disparaging this young woman who had the courage to be a witness in the trial of a murdered friend. Testifying is not an easy thing to do, not for a 49 year-old, a 29 year-old and certainly not for a 19 year-old, reliving what has to have been one of the most traumatic events of her life. Few of her critics know that English is Jeantel’s third language: she speaks Haitian Creole and Spanish as well. She is introverted and was clearly uncomfortable facing an aggressive attorney charged with defending a man who murdered her friend. So what made thousands of people think it was ok to beat up on a teenager taking the stand to bear witness in a trial? Why would any human being with an ounce of empathy think it was ok to tweet:

@Chrxstophvr: That fat black girl testifying in the Trayvon Martin case belongs on a plantation somewhere picking cotton.

@NeshobaCountyMS Rachel Jeantel hurt more black folks today than 1,000,000 Paula Deens singing 10 lil niggas.

Perhaps the most telling tweet came from Olympic athlete Lolo Jones.

@lolojones Rachel Jeantel looked so irritated during the cross-examination that I burned it on DVD and I’m going to sell it as Madea goes to court.

Television and film has desensitized us to women that look like Rachel Jeantel. After all, isn’t she just another Angry Black Woman?

In the same way the media has projected the image of the thuggish young black man, television shows and films LOVE their larger than life Angry Black Woman. You know who I mean, she’s in every blockbuster movie and on every primetime show. She’s usually dark complexioned but sometimes a lighter complexion and very rarely fair-skinned. She’s almost always overweight, but sometimes very thin. She’s loud, but often doesn’t need to utter a word; she just gives that look and rolls her eyes. She is usually over thirty, but sometimes in her twenties and often in her forties. She is a bus driver, a DMV clerk, the First Lady of the United States, a nurse, a sassy maid, an annoyed woman in line at the grocery store, the nanny or the secretary. Any time a television show or film needs to portray an unwelcome authority figure, or a pushy character with little patience and lots of attitude, but also provide comic relief, they send in Angry Black Woman.

Full disclosure: I often wear the unfortunate label of an Angry Black Woman. I’m sure some of you do, too. It is a funny idea because if you know me you know that I am a cheesy goofball who is obsessed with romantic comedies and listens to Howard Stern and alternative rock music from the 1990s. I am also very passionate about my work and have a strong sense of fairness, so when I think those things are being challenged, I am not afraid to fight for the integrity of a project or speak out against something I believe to be wrong. Bear in mind that in doing so, I behave no differently than my white female peers, but when the message is coming from the mouth of a woman who looks very similar to image of the Angry Black Woman the media keeps reinforcing in our minds, it’s perceived much differently. It makes life tricky and a bit frustrating. It also makes social life unintentionally hilarious when some idiot at a party rolls his neck and shakes his finger at me and then greets me with a “hey, girrrl!” and then goes on to tell me Shen-nay-nay was one of his favorite characters. I can never tell if that is a compliment or a horrible insult.

“These kinds of terms – combat, aggression, anger – stalk black women, especially black women who are dark-skinned and plus-sized like Rachel, at every turn seeking to discredit the validity of our experiences and render invisible our traumas.” – Brittany Cooper, Salon Magazine

The most surprising comments about Jeantel, I found, came from the black community. Shouldn’t we be lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down? But then I paused for a moment and realized that we are the biggest producers of films and TV shows portraying Angry Black Women. Some of the most egregious examples of the Angry Black Woman appear in films created by black filmmakers or for films targeted to black audiences. I was devastated to see that Oprah Winfrey’s first scripted shows for her network OWN would be created by Tyler Perry, guaranteeing the continuation of stereotypes that Oprah has herself faced. Mama Hattie, from Perry’s Love Thy Neighbor is the quintessential comedic angry black woman. Tyler Perry’s Madea, Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Tyler Perry’s The Family that Preys – basically everything Tyler Perry makes features this type of woman as a cartoon character or a viper. Honestly, what is Tyler Perry’s problem with black women?

In her book Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher talks about the stage in adolescence when girls learn to be nice rather than honest.

“Girls who speak frankly are labeled bitches. Girls who are not attractive are scorned. The rules are reinforced by visual images…”

To Pipher’s statement I would add that black girls who speak frankly are labeled as being angry and rarely taken seriously and if they have to testify at murder trials they may run the risk of public shaming and standing in the equivalent of modern day stocks, until we have more Olivia Popes and fewer Madeas. I think about Jeantel when I read that part of Pipher’s book. She learned a hard lesson during this trial. I hope she’ll continue to be honest and not worry too much about being nice.

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