I still remember the first time I saw my mom get really, truly mad at someone (who wasn’t in our family).
I was 10, and we were at a Stater Brother’s opening, waiting in line to get the free ice cream cone they were offering. An elderly white woman was behind us, and accused my mother of cutting in line. My mother, who is generally calm, simply said we hadn’t cut and turned back to caring for my brother and me.
Then, the woman went off on what can best be described as a racist tirade. She accused my mother of being a cheater, and said that it was just like the “Korean war” and that “we” were all “liars” even from that point. Yes. She really said that.
My mother slammed her purse down into the cart, loudly. She then turned to the woman and called her ridiculous. She pointed out the fact that she’s not Korean (my mother is Filipina), and that even if she was Korean, what the woman said was racist and wrong.
Then, the woman had the nerve to say that she didn’t know my mother was Filipina, not Korean, and that my mother didn’t have to “get so worked up about it.”
And I felt my face go red.
And I felt my stomach crawl.
And I felt my eyes water.
Because I knew that my mother had a right to be mad. Her anger was both understandable and justified. She hadn’t hurt or even done anything threatening to the other woman. I empathized and felt that, while perhaps not her calmest moment, my mother’s rage was understandable and not the problem with that situation. It made me so angry that this woman was attempting to make my mother’s anger the story, instead of the fact that she had done something racist and wrong.
And it’s that same feeling I had while watching what happened to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open.
I don’t know a ton about tennis, so certain nuances-- what’s coaching and what isn’t, for example-- are things I won’t attempt to comment on. From the sound of it, Naomi Osaka played an amazing match and deserves to be congratulated.
What I know is that in watching the match and the aftermath, I was struck seeing at the ways people and the media portrayed Williams. One comment I kept reading was that Serena Williams’s racket-breaking moment-- something that did not appear threatening nor aimed at the umpire or her opponent-- was somehow unacceptable for her as a woman and, in particular, as a mother.
I felt my face go red.
And I felt my stomach crawl.
I was frustrated at what this meant, personally, as a young woman of color (how many times had my passion or frustration been dismissed as me being a “fiery Latina”?). Still, something else sat with me about what had happened, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Then I saw this thread from Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price:
watching serena let the chair umpire know he’s a thief & a liar & demand an apology. she got penalized for that & lost the game for all the penalties. this is how Black girls get treated in the classroom. i’ve seen it--& then kicked out or suspended when they call the teacher out.
-- Awo tsɔɔlɔ (@Okaikor) September 8, 2018
The problem is, women of color-- and, in particular, Black women-- have had their anger and rage policed for generations. The “angry Black woman” stereotype still means that young, Black women in our classrooms are criminalized and even physically injured when they decide to have opinions or speak truth to power in ways that might not be “palatable” to us.
The thing is, what we see as “acceptable” forms of anger are biased by our own cultural beliefs. For some of us, we had stern, silent figures who processed their feelings internally. Others perhaps had people who were vocal with their emotions. Some were able to sit with their feelings and process them calmly.
It’s up to each person and family to decide what they think is best. Yes, it is healthy to process emotions and try for open, honest communication based in a calm discussion.
But that’s not always real life. Real life is messy. It’s hard. It’s a bit maddening. And it’s even harder, messier, and maddening when you’re a young person of color growing up in a system that was built to watch you fail. And, maybe, that means you’ve dealt with the consequences of those systems, placing you in situations that have been traumatic and upsetting to your development. It also probably means you’ve had people around you get screwed over by the injustices of life in ways that were really upsetting. If you’re a young woman, it also means you’ve been dealing with misogyny and the overt objectification of your being since you were a child.
So, yeah, you might be kind of angry.
And that’s really understandable. It makes sense that, sometimes, women deal with their anger by being angry.
I’m not trying to accept or normalize all aspects of rage. Hurting other people is never okay. Damaging other people’s property is problematic (I also think about the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece, “Nonviolence as Compliance”). Yes, we can talk with people about how to manage their emotions-- but that’s not the heart of the issue.
The heart of the issue isn’t that a girl is acting angry; the heart of the issue is that they are reacting to generations of injustice that may have led to the moment they’re experiencing with us. The heart of the issue is that they feel the need to voice what they see as injustice.
And it’s our job as educators to listen to those voices. It’s our job to not just work through their anger, but to know that their anger isn’t the problem-- the systems oppressing them are. In a world that teaches women to be small and silent, it’s our job to acknowledge their rage and create spaces for them to process and heal those wounds. That won’t always be neat and dainty. It will hurt. It will be angry. It will be hard.
But it’s what our young women deserve.
So, as I watched Serena Williams stand up for herself, women and Black women, I thought about her daughter, too. I feel for her, for the moment in the future when she may watch footage of this and see the injustice her mother endured. She may feel her face go red, her stomach crawl, and her eyes water.
I hope she also has the fire in her belly that my mother gave me. As hard as the memory is, that moment in my childhood is one I remember when I stand up for myself and voice my anger or pain, even when it is scary. I remember that moment and ones that followed, when my mother put voice to truth and showed me just how powerful she is: she is big-hearted and loving, holding my face between her hands and kissing my forehead gently, and she is the lion-hearted woman who stands up for what is right, who shares her righteous anger in an unfair world.
Serena Williams is that woman, too, as are the thousands of young women in our classrooms and caring for our students.
And it’s the kind of woman I want to be.
For my mother, on her birthday.
Serena Williams argues with chair umpire Carlos Ramos during a match against Naomi Osaka during the women’s finals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament on Sept. 8, 2018, in New York. --Greg Allen/Invision/AP
The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.