The New York Times, Shonda Rhimes & How to Get Away With Being Racist

I would like to believe that not being racist isn’t extraordinarily difficult. I would like to think that by simply acknowledging the humanity of other people and their right to exist in this world and being open and aware to learning about certain issues, you can avoid many uncomfortable moments. If nothing else, you can certainly avoid the racist, imbecilic, drivel published yesterday by the New York Times.

Television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote one of the most tone deaf pieces of work about black women, and race in general, that we’ve seen in some time. It was supposed to be an article about superstar showrunner Shonda Rhimes’ newest series, How To Get Away With Murder, but ended up being clueless pontification rooted in a dangerous, racist stereotype about black women.

In the very first line, Stanley writes:

When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.”

If you’re using a racist stereotype as a legitimate description of your subject in the very first line, the descent into aggressive stupidity cannot be far.

I don’t know Shonda Rhimes, (UNFORTUNATELY) but I have read and watched many of her interviews and I am quite familiar with her work. Angry is never something I have perceived her to be. This might not even matter if the title of Stanley’s piece wasn’t, “Wrought in Their Creator’s Image.” Stanley suggest that Shonda Rhimes’ characters are a reflection of her — but only the black ones. Because of course a black woman cannot write about other black women without being inehrently autobiographical. Apparently, we are not afforded the same creative ability as literally every white man in Hollywood.

Not only is this suggestion offensive, it’s also plain incorrect. Stanley, who has an interesting relationship with the truth, fails to note that the co-creator of How To Get Away With Murder is a white man, Peter Nowalk.

So while Rhimes, whom Stanley did not interview for this piece, has never referred to herself as an Angry Black Woman, Stanley decides to run with it anyway.

Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable. She has almost single-handedly trampled a taboo even Michelle Obama couldn’t break.

Just so we’re clear, Stanley is saying that Shonda Rhimes has made a racist stereotype enviable.

But let’s talk about the Angry Black Woman. The Angry Black Woman is a racist trope used to deny black women their humanity. Black women aren’t allowed to be complicated — they’re just angry. Black women aren’t allowed to be upset or vulnerable — they’re just angry. Black women are not allowed justifiable reactions to the myriad of bullshit — racist, sexist and otherwise — that they face. Oh, you know those black ladies are just so angry all the time.

To treat the Angry Black Woman as a valid way of describing any black woman is to give weight and legitimacy to the stereotype.

Writer Augusten Burroughs has a great passage in his book, This Is How, about how we think about anger and feelings.

But feelings, no matter how strong or “ugly,” are not a part of who you are. They are the radio stations your mind listens to if you don’t give it something better to do. Feelings are fluid and dynamic; they change frequently. Feelings are something you have, not something you are. Like physical beauty, a cold sore, or an opinion.

For black women, (and often black men) anger isn’t an emotion they feel or express. Any show of anger instantly characterizes them — it becomes who they are. Our society would rather reduce black women down to a single lazy stereotype than to allow them the fullness of the humanity and understanding afforded to white people.

Stanley goes on to cite basically every other black female character Rhimes has ever written and hit them with the Angry Black Woman indictiment.

Her women are authority figures with sharp minds and potent libidos who are respected, even haughty members of the ruling elite, not maids or nurses or office workers. Be it Kerry Washington on “Scandal” or Chandra Wilson on “Grey’s Anatomy,” they can and do get angry. One of the more volcanic meltdowns in soap opera history was Olivia’s “Earn me” rant on “Scandal.

Those black ladies — they can get angry. They are able to express a fundamental human emotion. They’re people too!

What Stanley and the stereotype ignore is the fact that these characters are angry in specific moments for damn good reasons. Grey’s Anatomy‘s Miranda Bailey isn’t angry. She has a stressful job and manages a team of messy, sex-crazed interns who constantly put their patients in danger. Now, I’m not positive, but that sounds like some shit I too might get angry about.

Olivia Pope is in a secret relationship with a married, alcoholic president with raging mood-swings. She gets angry at Fitz because he is worth getting angry at. He is constantly manipulating her and disappointing her and undermining her and any normal human reaction at some point would be anger. But at times she is sad, wistful, happy, curious, intent… angry is just one of her moods.

Rhimes allowing her back female characters to express a range of emotions the exact same way she does for her white characters should not be treated like some sort of television unicorn. That’s simply in the job description of creative writers.

Because she hasn’t denigrated enough black women on television, Stanely goes on to prove, again, that she simply does not know what the hell she is talking about.

They certainly are not as benign and reassuring as Clair Huxtable, the serene, elegant wife, mother and dedicated lawyer on “The Cosby Show.” In 2008, commentators as different as the comedian Bill Cosby and the Republican strategist Karl Rove agreed that it was the shining, if fictional, example of the Huxtables that prepared America for a black president and first lady.

Describing Clair Huxtable as “benign” makes me wonder if Stanley has ever even seen an episode of The Cosby Show.

Clair Huxtable is an incredible character because she gets angry. She gets angry and frustrated at times that are angering and frustrating. She is a successful lawyer and a caring mother and devoted wife. She is sweet and measured but is also quick to put you in your place if you say or do something stupid. (And she could even do it in Spanish.) Clair Huxtable accepts foolishness from absolutely nobody, but she also picks her battles.

The reason people connect with and admire Clair Huxtable is because she is a complete, fleshed-out, interesting character. Funny, it’s almost as if a black woman cannot be fully understood through trite characterizations.

Not content with sticking only to the angry Angry Black Woman trope, Stanley throws in just a couple more racist stereotypes about black women to round things out. Describing Viola Davis, the star of How To Get Away With Murder, Stanley says:

As Annalise, Ms. Davis, 49, is sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way, but the actress doesn’t look at all like the typical star of a network drama. Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, Ms. Rhimes chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. Washington, or for that matter Halle Berry, who played an astronaut on the summer mini-series “Extant.”

You could write an entire dissertation on that one sentence. Describing a black woman as “sexual” in this way is nothing more than a reframing of the Jezebel stereotype. The Jezebel is characterized as having an unquenchable sexual appetite that she is unable to control. The idea of the Jezebel was, and still is, used to justify the rape of black women because any woman who aggressively enjoys and pursues sex cannot possibly be raped—she brought it upon herself with her lustful nature and she probably enjoyed it.

And then there is that word, “menacing.” Describing a black woman as menacing and dark-skinned in the same sentence is problematic on so many levels. By painting Davis as scary, Stanley calls to mind the stereotype of the Sapphire. The Sapphire is aggressive and overbearing—masculine and emasculating. She doesn’t deserve compassion or help because she is angry and unlovable. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that this trope is often used in descriptions of single black mothers—she probably drove her man away and deserves to be alone.

It’s just boggling that a New York Times television critic is unable to write about black women without calling upon three of the oldest racist stereotypes about black women. What is spectacularly ironic is that Stanley, after using descriptions that necessarily relate to race, later suggests that Rhimes’ and her characters are not even concerned with race.

Ms. Rhimes is a romance writer who understands the need for more spice than sugar; her heroines are mysterious, complicated and extravagantly flawed, often deeply and interestingly. They struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned.

Except race is mentioned. It’s mentioned when it’s relevant. And I know this may be a surprise, but most people of color don’t live their lives constantly thinking about how they’re not white.

Stanley also completely undermines Rhimes’ work by describing her as a romance writer. Rhimes herself had the best response to that slight.

When contacted by BuzzFeed for a comment on the article, Stanley said this: “The whole point of the piece — once you read past the first 140 characters — is to praise Shonda Rhimes for pushing back so successfully on a tiresome but insidious stereotype.”

The problem is that we did read past the first 140 characters and it got even worse. Does Stanley truly believe that the best way to fight against an insidious stereotype is to constantly use it to refer to the subjects of her article? Why does that seem like logic?

Perhaps what’s most disappointing is that this article could have actually been used to contradict the very stereotypes that Stanley utilizes. Viola Davis’ character in How To Get Away With Murder seems dynamic and flawed and smart. She is a black woman, yes, but an interesting character first and foremost.

Messing with Shonda Rhimes is rarely a good idea so I’ll leave the final word to her:

Images via ABC and Getty

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