A Big Black woman on the train…
I had been on my train back home from University a year or so ago for about one hour when a Black woman entered the train carriage I was sitting in. She was of a fairly large built and was struggling to make her way through the carriage to get to a seat. She was casually dressed but looked somewhat umkept. As I noticed her, I started to observe the behaviours and faces on the train. I picked up a sense of discomfort and I imagined that passengers may have been anxious about the possibility of her sitting next to them. As she walked past, most people looked firmly down.
She took a seat within a section of the carriage which was unoccupied a few meters away from my seat and sat directly opposite me. To my left was a group of six middle aged women. They appeared to be friends or possibly work colleagues. They were quite formally dressed. They were all White. A few of their faint whispers attracted my attention. Upon observation, I noted smiles, sneers and ever so discreet short looks toward the other Black woman. This went on intermittently for about 10 minutes. She and I were the only Black people in the carriage. I felt angered and disrespected. The Black woman’s face was looking increasingly aggravated as she was being denigrated-ever so subtly and politely.
Unexpectedly, the Black woman got up and walked up to the group. She asked them to stop what they were doing and said that she could see them. I could hear from the trembling in her voice that she was close to tears. The women looked surprised, denied any wrongdoing and took turn looking at each other and at other passengers feigning cluelessness. This infuriated the Black woman further who burst into screams, naturally, attracting looks of disapproval from most passengers. She eventually walked back to her seat alone and in complete silence stared at by almost everyone as the women who were taunting her escaped scrutiny. As the train was approaching my stop, I got up to exit and purposefully walked toward her. I said to her that I had seen what the women had been doing and put my hand on her shoulder at which point tears rolled down her face. She thank me.
In popular culture and discourses, Black women are often characterized as angry, hostile, difficult and/or rude. The stereotype of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ is a persisting one in many western countries that not only portrays Black women as one-dimensional beings but also prevent their voices and often painful experiences from being acknowledged and validated. I believe this stereotype has impacted on many of my social interactions, that of countless Black women and that of the Black woman on the train. When she screamed, there is no doubt in my mind that she became the ‘Angry Black Woman’. Nothing in that woman’s behaviour justified the treatment she received from the group of friends/colleagues. Nothing at all. Except her being overweight and Black.
Being both of those things meant she had ceased to be a person the moment she was spotted by the group of women. Not being a person meant derisory behaviour toward her stopped being reprehensible and, her experience could simply be denied. Becoming angry when denigrated and disrespected seems perfectly understandable to me. In most circumstances, no one would bat an eyelid if someone who had just been abused screamed in indignation and in pain or in an attempt to seek the support of onlookers. It seems to me that, often, Black women are not afforded such liberties. I accept that women’s anger is disapproved of socially in part because it threatens gender norms and role expectations. Nevertheless, the privilege of getting angry without fear of being stereotyped is also race dependent. Oppression does not act independently of the various social categories and axes of identity capable of their own of contributing to injustice and inequality.
Instead, it interrelates and create systems that reflect the combination of multiple forms of discrimination each in turn amplifying the other. It is notable that I was not targeted for ridicule. Perhaps being lighter-skinned, slimmer and thus (in the eyes of many) a more ‘attractive’ Black woman, mean I am afforded more ‘privileges’, one of which may be to escape abusive treatment because of my appearance. Hence, whilst White women’s anger may similarly be disapproved of, it is not mocked or ‘Othered’ in the same way that Black women’s anger is. Thus, it appears the lower your ‘rank’ the less tolerable your anger is and the more problematic your resistance to subjugation will be deemed. The reality of the interaction was defined by the group of respectable looking White women and seemed to have been tacitly accepted by the rest of the carriage. What chance did that Black woman have to get her version of reality across when she became nothing but a stereotype?
As she screamed perhaps in an attempt to get some form of validation of her distress; she disturbed the peace and became the problem within the train carriage. In this moment, whilst her presence became ever so visible, her pain and experience fell into oblivion, essentially annihilated by the stereotype. Symbolically, to me, the collective silence in the face of her dehumanization and the looks of disapproval she received when she raised her voice sent a very clear message to that woman: we see you but we do NOT want to see you, stop forcing us to notice you.
Some may find reassurance in the possibility that perhaps, the passengers onboard had not noticed that she had been taunted and was distraught, sadly, this does not fill me with much comfort. Some people’s suffering simply does not appear to get noticed. In the hours preceding David Bennett*’s death, he was distraught because he had been racially abused but nursing staff did not notice the high level of his distress or the cumulative impact of the racism he had been subjected to on the ward. When his life was slipping away as he laid on the floor, face down, thrashing about trying to break free, the nurses involved in restraining him did not notice this either. He had also become a stereotype. That of ‘The Big Dangerous Black Man’ also known as ‘big, bad and mad’. It thus appeared perfectly befitting that he was restrained by four to five men.
The common failure to recognise ‘depression’ amongst Black groups is a serious public health concern. Many Black people do present to primary care services but, it appears that often, their distress is not seen so that many end up not receiving the support and care they require in a timely fashion, if at all. My sense is that Black people are simply not seen as vulnerable, are all too often left to cope alone and problematised by any manifestation of anger which can then attracts further dehumanisation. Who would dare ask someone being kicked on the floor to turn the volume down? Some forms of violence are extremely subtle and seemingly innocuous but their cumulative effects can be more toxic and equally traumatic. Next time you see a Black woman angry, please consider what you may not have noticed. This may help ensure our life’s journeys stop mirroring the train journey of that big Black Woman.
* David ‘Rocky’ Bennett was a Black mental health service user who died in 1998 at a medium secure mental health unit. An independent inquiry found that he died as a direct result of prolonged face down physical restraint and the amount of force used by members of staff during the incident. The inquiry made specific recommendations about the use of physical restraint, especially with regards to face down or prone position restraint and in relation to the need for culture competence training for Mental Health Staff. Critically, the enquiry accepted the presence of institutional racism within Mental Health services.
To access the Independent Enquiry Report into the death of David Bennett (click here).
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