On the one hand there’s Cardi B, the rapper and former reality TV star known for her candid demeanor, allegedly approaching Nicki Minaj at a New York Fashion Week gala Friday night. The event, during which both women were in fancy gowns, reportedly resulted in fists flying, dresses getting torn and Cardi tossing a shoe at her cross-town rapping rival. The obligatory social media videos, showing Cardi vulgarly screaming at Nicki not to mention her newborn baby’s name again, have gone viral.
On the other hand, there’s Serena Williams. Sports royalty. In Saturday’s U.S. Open Final – a moment that was supposed to be the coronation of her status as greatest athlete ever (though she’s comfortably secured that spot in my mind) in which she was poised to win her first major title since coming back from a life-threatening pregnancy – Serena Williams was on national TV yelling at an umpire while trying to convince him that she didn’t cheat.
But the controversies are not nearly as unrelated as they may seem: Both moments involved Black women reacting in ways that their male counterparts have been celebrated for at best, and slapped on the wrist for at worst.
Sure, you could argue that Serena and Cardi acted out of character relative to the arenas they were in — a nationally televised final of a major tennis tournament and a black-tie Fashion Week affair — but they acted no different from men in similar situations. The difference is that this time around much of the resulting chatter was spent telling these two women how to behave. Therein lies the double standard.
Cardi B’s arena, Hip-Hop, is one that has a history of male rappers being exalted for beefing with each other as a rite of passage to solidify tough-guy personas. What Cardi did — confronting a rival who allegedly insulted her newborn baby — was simply follow in the footsteps left by a long history of rappers who have stepped to someone face-to-face.
When rappers like Kanye West and Drake spend weeks trading passive-aggressive barbs on social media, fans reacted by calling them soft for not just duking it out. Ja Rule and 50 Cent’s whole feud that dominated the early aughts was built around tough guys fighting it out in public. Hell, even Jay-Z, the messiah of respectability and business shrewdness, pleaded guilty to stabbing a guy in a fit of rage. He made a song about the whole thing.
The Source Awards, for instance, has a history of violent altercations involving male rappers. And there’s a larger discussion here we can have about whose spaces we feel its acceptable for Black people to fight in. Would it be okay if Cardi conducted herself like she were “ghetto” at a so-called Black event, away from the white gaze? That idea is drenched in respectability politics, which is a bastion of self-hatred that Black women have unfortunately had to bear the brunt of for far too long.
In Serena’s case, she didn’t act any different from how some male tennis players have acted in the past. Even John McEnroe, the most famous insulter of tennis officiating, has made a good portion of his fame and endorsements off of his infamous on-the-court meltdowns. For the umpire to penalize Serena Williams a whole game — a move practically unheard of in a U.S. Open Final — for expressing herself is a sign of his own apparent insecurities and fears about what Black women represent when they speak up for themselves.
Overall, this all may seem like inconsequential complaining about two women who weren’t really affected in the grand scheme of things. Cardi B was chided a bit on social media but she won’t lose any endorsements or face any charges, and Serena will live to play and win another major tennis tournament.
But there’s a bigger issue: The way we treat Black women and try to dictate how they should behave is literally a matter of life and death.
Look at Sandra Bland, for instance. She was pulled over by police for allegedly failing to signal a lane change in 2015 and, as dash cams recorded, she started to question the officer about the traffic stop. Bland was stating her case and calmly demanding answers. However, the officer found her tone of voice threatening and arrested her.
She was found dead in her jail cell three days later.
The arresting officer wasn’t any different from the umpire at the U.S. Open and the people criticizing Cardi B for the way she acted. The both ascribed their own beliefs about how Black women should behave, and if they step outside of those boundaries placed on them, then the women are perceived as threatening or dangerous.
This is why the tropes of “angry” or “bitter” Black women are more than jokes. They’re deadly. This is what happens when we feel like Black women need to fall in line; when we ask for them to go high when everyone else goes low; when we want them to subdue their brilliance so as to not seem intimidating; when we ask them to win without appearing too confident and lose without looking too disappointed; to defend their children without being too angry; and to cover their bodies so as to not appear too desired. The boxes constructed for Black woman are too tiny for any human to live in without suffocation.
For Cardi B and Serena Williams, the demand for how Black women “should” behave merely ruined their weekends. But for Sandra Bland and far too many other Black women, demands on their behavior were deadly.