The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Serena Williams’s frustration was far too familiar for many black women

Serena Williams argues with umpire Carlos Ramos during her women's singles finals match against Naomi Osaka of Japan at the 2018 U.S. Open. (Jaime Lawson/Getty Images for U.S. Tennis Association)

The scene at the women's U.S. Open final, stunning and unprecedented as it was, felt all too familiar for many viewers at home. Yet again, a woman, in this case a black woman, was being reprimanded for expressing anger, for defending herself.

As the chair umpire docked Serena Williams a game for what he deemed verbal abuse, women — particularly African American women — on social media recalled all the times they too were disciplined for showing emotion. They shared instances in which they felt the need to stifle their anger in the workplace, or retype emails out of fear of sounding too combative.

Damita Adams, of Louisville, thought of when she was laid off after pushing back against a male colleague in a position of authority, she told The Washington Post. She thought of the time when she called out a co-worker for a decision that was against company policy and was told that she was being “too aggressive."

"I have to make sure that things are worded properly in every single aspect,” said Adams, a 43-year-old who has worked in numerous marketing and event-planning jobs. What Williams experienced on the court, she said, “reflects what we live every day."

After Williams's outburst, for which she was later fined $17,000 by the U.S. Tennis Association, tennis stars and observers argued that men have behaved far worse on the court and have never been penalized. For psychology experts, this reinforced a gender bias long supported in research — that when men openly express anger, it elevates their status, while when women express anger, it hurts their status, said Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings and director of the Center for WorkLife Law.

Studies have also shown that women, particularly women of color, feel more restrained when expressing anger. In a recent survey of almost 3,000 lawyers, for example, Williams found that 56 percent of white men felt free to express anger, compared with only 40 percent of women of color and 44 percent of white women. Sixty-two percent of white men said they are not penalized for being assertive, compared with only 46 percent of women of color and 48 percent of white women.

A previous study, published in 2015 in the journal Law and Human Behavior, suggested that in group decisions, particularly jury deliberations, expressing anger might lead men to gain influence, but women to lose influence. The study consisted of a computer-mediated mock jury in which 210 people believed they were deliberating with five other participants.

“We found that when men expressed their opinion with anger, participants rated them as more credible, which made them less confident in their own opinion,” the study's co-author, Jessica Salerno of Arizona State University, told a university publication at the time. “But when women expressed identical arguments and anger, they were perceived as more emotional, which made participants more confident in their own opinion."

When Serena Williams pushed back against the chair umpire, she triggered a perfect storm of stereotypes, all of which may have fueled the response to her behavior, Joan Williams said. The stereotypical woman is supposed to be “modest, self-effacing and nice,” Joan Williams said. Meanwhile, men are supposed to be “ambitious, competitive and direct."

Being a new mother, the tennis star may have also triggered the stereotype about mothers, that their “raging hormones” can lead to escalated emotions, the professor said.

Then there's the long-running label of “the angry black woman,” the stereotype that when black women show emotion, they are aggressive or rude. It seems to come up “whenever you see a black woman displaying emotion in some shape or fashion … whether they are in the boardroom or whether they are on the tennis court,” said Ashleigh Rosette, an associate professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

A team of researchers with the Harvard Business Review analyzed the career paths of dozens of African American women who reached a C-level executive position or similar leadership positions, and found that successful black women must “walk a tightrope of emotional expression."

"Although eager to advance, they may be penalized if they appear 'too ambitious, ’ ” the authors wrote. “They are often characterized as 'intimidating,' and their mistakes are apt to be held against them, especially when the 'angry black woman' stereotype is triggered."

The “angry black woman” stereotype, that black women are domineering and aggressive, can be traced all the way back to the late 1920s, when the “Amos 'n' Andy” radio show began airing with a mostly white cast that mocked black behavior, according to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. The character Sapphire Stevens led to the “Sapphire caricature,” an early version of the “angry black woman.” She is “tart-tongued and emasculating, one hand on a hip and the other pointing and jabbing (or arms akimbo), violently and rhythmically rocking her head,” the Jim Crow Museum wrote.

Decades later, the stereotype continues to come up in reference to the likes of Michelle Obama, Shonda Rhimes and ESPN's Jemele Hill. And in the case of Serena Williams, the more she continued to press the chair umpire on the court, “the more she transgresses the stereotype,” Joan Williams said. But the tennis star chose to take that stand.

"She's not willing to just conform and be likable, and more power to her,” Joan Williams said. “She's creating more room for women in the culture because she's unwilling to do that."

Still, Rosette acknowledged that Williams's platform, her place as a cultural icon, gives her a certain level of behavioral freedom — a freedom hard earned after being expected to hold in her emotions time and time again. Others on social media agreed.

"Serena can afford to speak up,” tweeted Christiana Amarachi Mbakwe. “This debacle will fade and she’ll be ok. The average black woman can’t afford to speak up and if she says something she won’t survive the consequences."

"Spare a thought for the little black girl whose teacher has it out for her because she dared to speak her mind and for the black women who can’t afford to voice their opinions,” she added.