Watching Black women win is one of our favorite things. Conversely, it seems to be one of society’s least favorite things. Just look at the past four days.
Only two days after South Carolina coach Dawn Staley called out the media for the way it (and other coaches) described her team’s intense style of play, the media has cast two distinct visions of women basketball players giving it their all to lead their team to the NCAA women’s basketball national championship.
All season long, Louisiana State University’s Angel Reese has received criticism for exhibiting the same passion and showmanship for which University of Iowa player Caitlin Clark has been praised. So, what’s the difference? Angel Reese is an outspoken, hyper-confident Black woman. Black women are not allowed to freely express themselves in ways that white women have historically been praised for, whether it is displaying passion or vulnerability. When Black women are expressive in the form of crying, it is caricatured and broadcast on a loop. When Black women are expressive in the form of boasting, it is denounced as classless and disrespectful.
Why are people threatened by talented, outspoken, confident Black women?
It is misogynoir, plain and simple. Dr. Moya Bailey, a Black feminist scholar, writer, and activist, describes misogynoir as the anti-Black racist misogyny Black women experience. Misogynoir is a modern-day form of Black women’s dehumanization. It shapes the lived experiences of Black women in a variety of settings, particularly in sports media. It is a reminder that Black women are not allowed to exist as their whole selves. Black women should not feel safe enough to express themselves openly, honestly, and expressively. There is an abundance of empirical scholarship that supports the presence of misogynoir in college athletics settings, but even still, fans and consumers will insist sports are an aracial space. How can that be true when after displaying the same behaviors and gestures, Reese is called a “classless piece of shit” and “a fucking idiot”, while Clark is praised and called the “queen of clap backs”?
Again, we ask, why are people threatened by talented, outspoken, confident Black women? Because we are not supposed to be all those things, all at once. Nearly 20 years after Jennifer Bruening wrote about how Black women athletes’ authentic selves are silenced in mainstream media, her piece still speaks to how Black women are represented. When the media and fans call Clark one thing and Reese another, it affirms the narrative that when white women do it, it’s acceptable; but when Black women do it, it’s a problem.
This narrative perpetuates the silencing and misrepresentation of Black women athletes. Instead of celebrating Black women’s successes, allowing them to express their joy, consumers instead choose to project stereotypes informed by their own anti-Blackness, racism and misogynoir. This is eerily reminiscent of Don Imus’ 2007 racist comments when he described the predominantly Black Rutgers women’s basketball team as “rough girls”, “hardcore ho’s” and “nappy-headed hoes”. This is all coded, racist language. If you’re racist, just say that. Representing Black women in ways outside of these stereotypes is a threat to the status quo. It’s a threat to others’ perceived power and superiority over Black women. Black women should not be punching bags for the media.
In a time of rampant anti-Blackness, Black people’s contributions are often erased or undervalued. The attempt to dismiss Reese’s accomplishment, in favor of pushing stereotypical narratives, is evidence of what this looks like for Black women athletes. As Black women athletes compete at the collegiate level and professionally, misogynoir devalues their achievements, difficulties, and hard work. Reese’s representation demonstrates how Black women’s emotions are weaponized against them to fit media narratives that inherently dehumanize them. When the media is constantly policing their behavior, their attitude, and their appearance, it sends the message that Black women do not belong in these spaces as their whole selves. It reinforces that Whiteness and the white gaze are the guidelines by which all behavior will be compared. Anything outside of that is classless, disrespectful, or idiotic.
Unfortunately, this is not a new situation. Malcolm X told us way before America showed itself late Sunday evening: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” The dehumanization of Black women in this anti-Black society demands radical action. Black women athletes deserve better. They deserve to be free and safe. They deserve respect and to be depicted in a manner representative of their character, values, and potential. They deserve spaces in which they can be their authentic selves. If you don’t plan on representing Black women in this way, leave us alone and/or pass the mic to someone who sees our value.
Dr. Ezinne Ofoegbu is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership at Santa Clara University.
Leslie Ekpe is a Ph.D. student at Texas Christian University.