Barack Obama, Serena Williams, and the White People Unable to Handle Black Rage

Barack and Michelle Obama were always aware of how too many white people would portray any sign of negative feelings from them. For both, it was specifically gendered and specifically racialized. Michelle Obama talked about how she was called an "angry black woman" when she appeared on the national stage, as if a black woman who fights for anything must be diminished by making her into a caricature. Senator and then candidate and then President Obama constantly, and consciously, fought against the image of the angry black man, the allusion to someone who riots or can't be controlled, as well as to the black men who were lynched. Both images are rooted not just in stereotypes, but in a historical dehumanization of African Americans by whites. It didn't matter, though, whether they ever betrayed any hints of anger. These two kind, loving, and smart people were constantly portrayed as violent, terroristic, and savage.

This weekend, Barack Obama made his first public statements in a long time that directly criticized the presidency of Donald Trump. It was pointed, but pretty mild in comparison to what Trump and most Republicans say. But it was very much Obama-esque, with its constant pleas to common sense against the idiocies of others. "How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?" he asked the crowd in Illinois, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. And Obama is always ready to contextualize the problems of today within recent history. He said that Trump is "just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years, a fear and anger that’s rooted in our past but it’s also born out of the enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetimes."

From the reaction of the conservative media and from Trump's minions, you'd've thought that Obama called for the White House to burn. Columnist Michael Graham said Obama was speaking with "condescension, arrogance." Another was outraged that Obama called Republicans' ludicrous overreaction to the Benghazi attack a "conspiracy theory" in "an outrageous partisan speech." The Conservative Review (which I guess is a thing) declared, "Obama the demagogue is back." Republican politicians went after Obama, with Mike Pence giving that pinched face look and saying he found Obama's words "disappointing" because it breaks with some kind of unspoken precedent of ex-presidents staying away from criticizing current Oval Office occupants.

Does it even need saying that Donald Trump can take a sledgehammer to every precedent and every bit of decorum and the very people attacking Obama will praise Trump for his refusal to play by any rules?

Does it even need saying that Trump goes after Obama every single chance he gets and when Obama dares to say something in his own defense, it's just dismissed as sour grapes?

Does it even need saying that Trump gets away with his rule-breaking because he's white and Obama must stay within the lines at all time, that any deviation from a proscribed respectability makes him an object of derision and degradation by a large racist faction that still can't get over his election?

Which brings us to Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest athlete ever, and her outrage about her treatment at the U.S. Open women's final on Saturday. Many better writers than me have dealt with the sexism and the toxic combination of racism and sexism that allowed umpire Carlos Ramos to pile on penalties because Williams was angry at him for accusing her of cheating.

Whether or not you think Williams was justified in her confrontations with Ramos, if you know anything about tennis, you know that white male players routinely aggressively, angrily, and violently attack the umpires, their rackets, and anyone within range of their spit. Williams was being more respectful than any one of them, and I'm not even talking about regularly explosive icons like John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors. I'm talking about Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic, all of whom have blown up without penalty. (And let's not even get into the fact that just about every coach makes hand gestures in the stands.)

The response on the right ranged from mocking Williams for arguing with the refs "only when she's losing" (which, again, is pretty much true for any athlete in any sport who ever argued with officials) to the blatantly racist work from Australian editorial cartoonist Mark Knight in the Herald Sun, which you will not be shocked to hear is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. That image, with its exaggerated features on Williams, including large lips and fuzzy hair that look straight out of a KKK flyer, with the drawing of a wispy, blonde Osaka in contrast, shows you how black rage is perceived by racists, as animalistic, childish, devolved.

What you see time and again is a white fear of black rage, a rage that is more often than not self-repressed and self-censored. And it doesn't matter how mild the rage - as in Obama's criticism of Trump - or how pronounced  - as with Williams or Black Lives Matters or football players taking a knee or Maxine Waters - it will be interpreted as a threat to a sanctimonious white hegemony. Those invested in that power structure will react as if being attacked personally.

That reaction, the immediate need to diminish, to derogate, to distort the words and actions of black people who show even a hint of rage demands an answer.  Barack Obama and Serena Williams answer it by keeping on, by historicizing their rage and by negating their detractors, time and again by the radical act of simply being present and black and unbowed.

At her press conference after the match, Williams said, "The fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions, and that want to express themselves, and want to be a strong woman. They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person." I can't imagine white people being in a position to have to say that, one day, the culture around them will allow them to fully express their feelings.