Perspective | As the WNBA rises, so do tired old tropes about Black women (2024)

A quarter of the way into the 2023 WNBA season, it was all-star center Brittney Griner who needed security to intervene between her and a troublemaker in public. She had just resumed her basketball career with the Phoenix Mercury after, U.S. officials said, being wrongfully detained in Russia for 10 months, including a stretch in a penal colony, when a man in a Dallas airport confronted her to suggest she hated America. Why? Because at the apex of the George Floyd protests, Griner mustered the mettle to suggest it was no longer appropriate for the WNBA to play the national anthem.

Last Wednesday, it was Chicago guard Chennedy Carter, runner-up for the rookie of the year award in 2020. As Carter and her teammates disembarked outside a Washington hotel, a man aimed his phone’s camera at Carter and asked whether she would apologize to rookie star Caitlin Clark for bum-rushing her in a previous game, an act that caused all manner of consternation.

So much so that a lickspittle Trump Republican congressman, Jim Banks from Indiana — where Clark plays for the Fever — took time out of his busy schedule denying the 2020 election results to pen a missive to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert demanding she devise a plan to protect Clark. By June 14! Or else, I guess?


Banks is White. Clark is White. The WNBA is disproportionately Black, as represented by Griner and Carter.

But somehow, some way, it is Clark who needs extraordinary safeguarding in the workplace of professional basketball, a contact sport policed by on-court referees in real time and further arbitrated by off-court officials after the fact. It isn’t, instead, Black women such as Griner and Carter, who are villainized to the extent that they are accosted just trying to get to their basketball-playing jobs.

#WhiteLivesMatter more, still. Or, in this case, White WNBA lives.

Such responses to the events that have disturbed the WNBA’s newly expanded audience don’t come as a surprise to me. They all live down to truths about the dissimilar experiences of Black and White women in workplaces everywhere, and to stereotypes about Black women.


Or, as Nadia E. Brown — who chairs the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Georgetown University — expanded to me Tuesday: “[Clark] seems to be holding her own. She’s not asking for anyone to come to her defense. But it seems to be juxtaposed against these Black women, women of color, that are being the aggressors towards her, without thinking about how these women also came in … [to] their first [WNBA] job, too. But there’s an expectation, because of how Black women are stereotyped, that they can withstand, they have superhuman strength, they can withstand abuse and harassment, that they don’t have the feelings or emotions or the intellect to process. Therefore, the attention isn’t on [Black rookie] Angel Reese the same way it would be on Caitlin Clark.”

Clark, a tender 22 years old, is being fouled 4.4 times per game while averaging 32.6 minutes. But Aaliyah Edwards, the Washington Mystics’ 21-year-old rookie forward, who is Black, has been fouled 3.8 times per game while averaging almost 10 fewer minutes, and no one has leaped to her defense with a letter to the league commissioner.

When Black players on the Las Vegas Aces led a wildcat strike in 2018 over health and safety concerns after delayed commercial flights left them little time for rest and only a few hours of prep time before a game, the league responded by ruling the canceled game a forfeit. Upon Clark’s arrival in the league this year, the WNBA for the first time approved charter flights for its dozen teams. Coincidence?


It reminded me of filmmaker Spike Lee’s observation about the Brooklyn neighborhood he grew up in, which was once predominantly Black but has been heavily gentrified by young White families. “I grew up here in New York. It’s changed,” Lee said at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in 2014. “And why does it take an influx of White New Yorkers in the South Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed-Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better?”

For further evidence of the disparate critique paid Clark and her Black peers, the once reputable Chicago Tribune editorialized in the wake of Carter’s flagrant foul of Clark that its hometown star’s act would be considered assault had it occurred on, say, its Magnificent Mile, rather than in the city’s Wintrust Arena. But the Trib’s reactionary editorial board wrote nothing after Reese, its Black rookie star who has been Clark’s foil since they dueled during the past two NCAA tournaments, was pulled down by her neck to the floor by Connecticut star Alyssa Thomas. Thomas was ejected.

There have been more than enough studies that show Black women such as Griner and Carter experience more aggravation in the office or at the factory than their peers such as Clark. It’s historical. It’s systemic. It’s perpetuated. As the Women’s Leadership and Resource Center at the University of Illinois Chicago observes, Black women “receive less mentorship, are less likely to be promoted and experience microaggressions at higher rates … than any other group.”


They experience it even before they get to the professional level, and it can go unchecked. Indeed, during last season’s NCAA tournament, Black women on the Utah women’s team were pelted with racial slurs by a White man driving a truck adorned with the confederate flag outside their hotel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The incident did not result in any charges after the city’s attorney said there was insufficient evidence and the man’s purported use of a racial epithet “could not meet the legal requirements for any of the narrow categories of unprotected speech.”

Black women such as Reese and Carter also get cloaked under the trope of the Angry Black Woman, which studies show characterizes them “as aggressive, ill-tempered, illogical, overbearing, hostile and ignorant without provocation.”

“The stereotype of the angry Black woman or the Sapphire trope is … these women are just perpetually angry for no reason, and they are rude, emasculating, they belittle others and they’re just like this ball of anger, without contextualizing when sometimes anger is appropriate, why people might be angry or how anger manifests itself differently in different groups of people,” Brown told me. “It is this large meta narrative that is a flat one-sided stereotype.”

So it doesn’t matter — and almost has been overlooked — that Clark has embraced the opposition she has encountered as competition.

Instead, the narrative says the opponents are bad. She’s good. And much of the media has so adjudicated what we’ve witnessed that it has shaped, or rather misshaped, our judgment.

Perspective | As the WNBA rises, so do tired old tropes about Black women (2024)


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