Serena Williams, Cardi B, and the Policing of Black Women’s Behavior


By Toni Walker

Last weekend, two separate incidents produced telling responses about respectability politics and the policing of Black women’s behavior. At a New York Fashion Week party, Cardi B attempted to fight Nicki Minaj. The next day, at the 2018 Women’s U.S. Open, Serena Williams was penalized and fined for speaking up for herself. In many ways, Serena Williams’ unjust experience at the 2018 Women’s U.S. Open is very different from Cardi B’s encounter with Nicki Minaj at New York Fashion Week. But the similarities in the responses to these incidents paint a larger picture about the perceptions of Black women when we express our emotions.

Unlike Cardi B, Williams has repeatedly been subject to hyper regulation within a sport that she has dominated her entire career. She has been attacked on numerous accounts – whether it’s for her physical appearance, the uniform she chooses to compete in (for health reasons), or even her skill (which she has more than proven at this point). Last weekend was yet another sequence in a series of attempts to undermine Williams’ domination of this sport.  This time it was her character that was under attack as chair umpire Carlos Ramos accused Williams of cheating. When Williams spoke up and defended herself, she was shut down, a game was taken away from her, and she was fined a total of $17,000. For a more indepth read of all the misogynoir present in that incident, feel free to check out Ellana Barrett’s article, “Here’s Why Serena Williams Is Fed Up”.

The altercation between Cardi B and Nicki Minaj’s security guards was different in a number of ways. This incident was a culmination of an interpersonal conflict between two celebrities– not one person against an entire sport. Though Cardi B was clearly frustrated, her frustration was aimed at a problematic individual, not a system. But when you examine the responses to these two distinct incidents, the similarities reveal a pervasive discourse at work.

Those who disapproved of Cardi’s actions were quick to call her behavior “ghetto” emphasizing that New York Fashion Week was an inappropriate space for her actions. Similarly, those who disapproved of Williams claimed that her actions were unwarranted, suggesting that she should’ve remained silent when her integrity was called into question. Words like aggressive, overreacting, and unprofessional were used to describe both Cardi and Williams. Yet these characterizations aren’t used to describe their male counterparts who exhibit similar behavior. Ellana lists numerous encounters between male tennis players and umpires that don’t result in fines or games taken away. Physical altercations between feuding male rappers aren’t unheard of either as evidenced by Jay Z’s stabbing of Lance Rivera at a club in New York, Drake and Chris Brown’s brawl at a Soho nightclub, among various other incidents. But words like ghetto, ratchet, or overreacting aren’t typically used to describe male rappers involved in physical fights.

Additionally, responses to Williams and Cardi seemed to heavily adhere to respectability politics. Both women were expressing themselves in white dominated spaces – the US Open and New York Fashion Week – where respectability politics thrive. Unlike Cardi who disregarded respectability politics completely, Williams still managed to show restraint even in her justified anger. Rather than cuss the umpire out for his absurd accusations (which most of us were doing as we watched), Williams simply and assertively spoke up for herself and refused to be silenced. But the similarities in response to both women’s behavior communicates a larger message. It doesn’t seem to matter whether frustration is expressed verbally or physically, as soon as Black women don’t “act accordingly,” the dehumanizing language jumps out.

Such dehumanizing language has material effects on the daily lives of many Black women. The repulsive cartoon of Serena Williams produced in response to the US Open follows a long tradition of racist caricatures depicting Black women as angry and aggressive. In effort to refute this lingering stereotype, we find ourselves jumping through hoops only to find that the stereotype and false perceptions still exist. Last weekend, though in very different ways both Serena Williams and Cardi B made bold decisions to prioritize their voices as they refused to be paralyzed or compromised by the inescapable stereotype of the Angry Black Woman.


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