Internet trolls — always at the ready to spread discord — eagerly sprung into action and recently had a field day at the expense of two highly educated, powerful Black professional women.
Respected veterans in their fields, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), and American Urban Radio Networks White House correspondent April Ryan were the target of Fox TV host Bill O’Reilly and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, respectively, on March 28, 2017.
Online comments degrading Black women are all too common and certainly not new. As the author of Rants & Retorts: How Bigots Got a Monopoly on Commenting About News Online, the initial words from O’Reilly and Spicer, and the subsequent offensive comments, are, unfortunately, familiar to me.
The verbal attacks on the women, who were overtly disrespected while performing their duties in high-profile jobs, quickly became fuel for the purveyors of hate speech against African Americans on mainstream online websites and social media.
Waters found herself the brunt of a racist joke during a segment with Fox News’ “O’Reilly Report” in which host Bill O’Reilly, while watching a news clip of her questioning the patriotism of president Trump’s supporters on the White House floor, said he wasn’t paying attention because he was distracted by her “James Brown wig”. He apologized the next day, but the damage was already done.
Will Black Women Be Free From Racist Attacks?
No matter how educated and credentialed they are, Black women can never be free of racist stereotypes that continue to undermine our legacy. When these women speak out and fight back against injustices, the blame will almost always be shifted back onto them in racist online comments.
This is exactly what happened to Waters, in responses to the story, “Bill O’Reilly apologizes for comparing congresswoman’s hair to a ‘James Brown wig’” on Syracuse.com:
“Democrats keep putting her on camera what a loon, she sounds heavily medicated and defiantly a racist, great face of the party.” – Posted by Fenders555, March 28, 2017
“Not a big fan of O’Reilly, but Maxine Waters is easily one of the dumbest Members of Congress- wig or no wig.”- Posted by Crookedhil, March 28, 2017
Not only did O’Reilly’s words detract from the importance of Waters’ message in the video clip, but he demeaned her physical image and put the spotlight on Black women’s hair, a well-known sensitive topic, which has no place in politics. Black women, like women of other races, sometimes wear wigs. It seems too, that O’Reilly may have actually been suggesting that Waters looked like a man as James Brown was, or that James Brown looked like a woman because of the hairstyle.
In my view, the objective in online commenting against African Americans is always to demean, diminish and dehumanize as much as possible. Although women of all races can choose to wear wigs, can make mistakes when choosing mates, decide whether or not to have children, a double-standard exists when it comes to Black women.
As someone who has been accused of being an “angry Black woman,” online comments about Black women have grabbed my attention for years. In fact, I have a whole chapter of my book devoted to the phenomenon called, “Black Women: Bad Choices?” Sadly, in immersing myself in online comments that included xenophobia, misogyny, sexism and racial stereotypes among other examples of negative hate speech over a period of nearly a decade, I witnessed a specific and continual effort by some internet users to portray African American women as the stupidest, ugliest, most unethical of all women on this planet. Comments tend to upbraid Black women and to inject stereotypes — old and new — into the debate.
Waters is probably familiar with these types of comments and online remarks that referred to then-First Lady Michelle Obama as “un-American,” an “angry Black woman” and a “racist.”
Enough of Angry Black Woman Trope
The same day that Waters was insulted, American Urban Radio Networks White House correspondent April Ryan had to endure being “chastised” by White House press secretary Sean Spicer. During a press conference he repeatedly told her to “stop shaking her head” as if he were disciplining a disobedient toddler, because she asked him how the White House was attempting to restore its appearance during the investigations that were taking place into whether Russia had been involved in the 2016 presidential election.
That exchange bolstered the “angry Black woman” stereotype; as if she was never supposed to disagree with what she was being told. It is one thing to criticize a reporter, but to embarrass the hell out of her in a room full of her peers to diminish her existence and reputation is altogether different. Some online comments were sympathetic to Ryan’s experience, but many more of them talked about her weight, her hair, level of intelligence and her experience as a reporter. After the incident with Spicer, Ryan described herself as being “roadkill.” Reader comments to the story, “April Ryan: ‘Unfortunately I was Roadkill Today’ for Sean Spicer,” on breitbart.com used the term to segue into their negative retorts that accused her of being racist and of alleged ineptitude:
“Roadkill? No, April dear, you were just publicly outed as the biased fraud that you are–not a real journalist with even an ounce of integrity or professionalism I would really like to know where all these aggressive, outspoken, disrespectful White House correspondents were when Obama was in office.” – Posted by Advent 2016 One Voice, March 28, 2017
“She looks to cause controversy. She is an Obama loyalist and a white hater. If anyone else had called her roadkill she would go freaking crazy on them.”- Posted by Honesty, March 28, 2017
It helps that since I finished “Rants & Retorts,” many more efforts are being made to combat the pervasive bigotry that still appears online regularly. There have been many attempts to curb internet trolling through comment moderation and others such as Trollbusters.com, a website by Michelle Ferrier that details a step-by-step process for women journalists who become victims of trolls to fight back; the Coral Project, which features software tools to combat incessant trolling on news sites; the recent “Perspective,” a Google software that helps to eliminate trolls as well as the new development from Disqus, the largest online hosting company, that will allow readers to directly report online comments to them that may violate the company’s “terms of service.”
I still don’t believe that those attempts are going to be enough to stop internet trolls and scores of “regular” people who enjoy the opportunity to display their often deep-seated hatred of African Americans, especially when those that write the hatred don’t believe that there is any thing wrong with what they believe.
As for Waters and Ryan, their resilience and perseverance in performing the good works that they do both inspires and gives me hope that-African American women will continue to know that they are worthy of all things good.
Anita M. Samuels is an author and journalist living in Brooklyn, NY. Rants & Retorts How Bigots Got a Monopoly on Commenting About News Online, which targets hate speech against African Americans on mainstream online media websites, is her first book. The book is available at anitamsamuels.com.