If you look out for it, judgement (normally negative) of women based on lots of stereotypical ideas, is commonplace. And there’s been a lot of it about this week in the cases of both Serena Williams and Ariana Grande. Two high-achieving women with talent and careers that most of us would die for, who happen to have behaved in ways that contravene stereotypes of how women should be.
What they are experiencing is the “double bind” of womanhood. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t – you can only lose. So, in order to succeed you need to protect yourself, be focused, ambitious, sometimes aggressive and angry. Without those traits you’re unlikely to get very far, but if you display them you become one of those nasty women who nobody likes to hang out with: the queen bee who lets everybody down. So, Ariana Grande in walking away from what she described as a toxic relationship is not only failing in her nurturing obligations, a must-have trait for women who want to escape judgement, she is also somehow responsible for another person’s death. In response to that kind of knee-jerk stereotyping judgement, Ariana Grande disabled her Instagram account and was silenced. Likewise, in demonstrating her anger Serena Williams has contravened notions of feminine conduct and been judged accordingly.
Now in the case of Williams, all the evidence points to women in general having quite a lot to be angry about. Just to pull one example out of the air, The Telegraph reported back in January that 85% of women (and a lot of men too) report having witnessed discriminatory behaviour towards women in the workplace. And yet, despite suffering decades of systematic discrimination, anger as a response in women is still a relative taboo: an uncomfortable emotion that goes against all our stereotypes of femininity. Society has a tendency to ostracise women who express anger rather than seeking to understand its causes. Add to that – as in Williams’ case - the race dimension and the stakes are even higher. Reni Eddo-Lodge, in her game-changing book on race in Britain, refers to the fear that the image of an angry black woman can evoke. She “cannot be reasoned with. She argues back. She is not docile, sweet or agreeable, like expectations of white femininity”.
Just such an image was presented to us in Serena Williams’ encounter with Carlos Ramos. Some of the reporting of the incident has been thoughtful and nuanced (eg “The furore over Serena William…” Jonathan Liew, 9th September 2018), but a lot hasn’t (witness the Mark Knight cartoon that appeared in Australia’s Herald Sun). Williams accused the umpire of sexism, but stopped there; she did not mention race. And yet, as Liew suggests the episode needs to be seen in the context of Williams’ whole life experience and her resulting relationship with rules and their makers: not in order to condemn or exonerate her, but to have a better understanding of who she is and how society has treated her. Mark Knight’s apparent inability to detect the blatant racist quality of his cartoon – it was all about his judgement of Serena’s ‘poor behaviour’ - shows just how much we still have to learn.
Williams’ outburst and the ensuing desire to silence made me recall a conference I attended recently, where it became very apparent that in an ethnically diverse audience, the people doing all the talking were white and that the many black women who were present rarely participated in the discussion, even when the subject of race at work came up. To see such diversity in the room made me feel that we have come so far since I joined the workforce in 1990. And yet, the desire or willingness to speak remained deeply skewed and as a result only one perspective on racism at work was heard and it was that of the white women in the room: that it’s not a problem, we don’t see skin colour any more. We seem to have been chasing a kind of feminist nirvana where skin colour does not come into the equation and where all women are in the same colour-blind boat. And yet in doing so are we not avoiding the truth of black and brown skinned women’s different and much more difficult experiences, silencing their voices as a result? I have found myself wondering since how those voices can be unlocked.
And this is where I believe that women regardless of skin colour are implicated. We all probably have some understanding of both Grande’s and Williams’ situation. Many of us have been ignored, patronised and overlooked at work in favour of a man for whom different rules seem to apply. We may well also have been labelled as aggressive, bitchy or a queen bee when we act in ways that are perceived as unfeminine. We have some idea of how much anger those experiences of injustice and judgement provoke.
But, there is still a lot we can learn from William’s story in particular. If our skin colour is white we have probably never encountered the massive institutional inequities, stigmatisation and otherness that black and brown women (and men) face every day. We probably don’t notice either that our expectations of how rules apply to us relate to our skin colour, and our anxiety for colour not to be an issue can make us blind and defensive, unwilling to hear another view. We know what it is like to feel undervalued, but in the hierarchy of privilege in this country, white women still occupy relatively higher levels. So, when we see instances of double-binds on women, in particular in the case of people with different skin colours, we need to engage our empathy and our curiosity rather than our judgement.
Once we start paying attention, what can we do? The truly brilliant novel “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recounts the story of a Nigerian woman making her way as a blogger in the US. In one of the fictional blogs she describes how black women can co-opt their enlightened white friends to speak for them about America’s systemic everyday racism, acknowledging the perils of black women speaking for themselves without being classed as angry (as well as black – double jeopardy in the anger stakes) and eliciting a negative, fearful response. The Serena Williams episode highlights the need to do just that: to recognise the cause of black and brown women as similar to that of all women but different in its racial element (what is called the intersection of race and gender, to notice and call out the insidious and ongoing racism as well as sexism in our society and to help create an environment where women of all colours can express their anger and exhibit other non-feminine traits to a more receptive audience.