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America's complicated relationship with outspoken black women




This photo taken on Thursday, March 23, 2017, shows Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., as she speaks during her interview with the Associated Press at her congressional office on Capitol Hill in Washington. Waters has served in Congress for a quarter-century. Now she’s turned into the passionate voice of resistance against the Trump administration. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
This photo taken on Thursday, March 23, 2017, shows Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., as she speaks during her interview with the Associated Press at her congressional office on Capitol Hill in Washington. Waters has served in Congress for a quarter-century. Now she’s turned into the passionate voice of resistance against the Trump administration. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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California Congresswoman Maxine Waters found herself at the center of a unique controversy last week — not necessarily because of something she said, but because of a disparaging remark made about her.

It all started Tuesday. Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly — himself no stranger to controversy — earned the internet's ire when he likened Waters' hair to a James Brown wig.

O'Reilly later apologized for the criticism.

Rep. Waters responded swiftly on Twitter and in an interview on MSNBC, in which she proclaimed:

"I'm a strong black woman, and I cannot be intimidated. I cannot be undermined. I cannot be thought to be afraid of Bill O'Reilly or anybody."

While there are many who might disagree with Waters' political stances, few would deny that when she does take a stand, she does so loudly and publicly.

Brenda Stevenson, a professor of history and African American studies at UCLA, says personal attacks like those leveled by Fox host O'Reilly are hardly new. She says that when black women speak out, they're often criticized, portrayed as masculine, and written off as "angry."

Stevenson spoke with Take Two's Austin Cross.

What makes a strong black woman?

I think that the notion of the strong black woman comes out of slavery. Black women were workers along with men and did the same kind of work that men did. And so, African American women have been thought of as being physically strong, but also emotionally strong because they've had to endure certain kinds of oppressions that perhaps all other women in the United States have not had to.

Sometimes it's a matter of perspective, though, right? A strong black woman to one person just might get stereotyped as an angry black woman.

That's certainly true. African American women in the public imagination often do come off as being angry or aggressive and that is the other side of the "strength" image.

If you are not a submissive person as women are — or used to be at any rate — then you are considered to be angry. Being in command of yourself, being in control of your job, being in command of your home if you are the breadwinner in the family or if you are the only adult within the household — that is something that people have often thought of as being angry.

And that really brings us to Bill O'Reilly's remarks about Maxine Waters last week. It got a lot of attention. You argue that you've seen this kind of thing before. It's shown up in history a lot. How so?

Often, when people deal with women who are in possession of themselves, who speak out for themselves, the thing to do is undercut the woman by making some remark about the way that they look. The way that they speak. The kind of hair that they have. It's a very typical sexist remark that undercuts the power of that particular woman at that moment.

Press the blue play button above to hear Brenda Stevenson's reflections on last week's exchange between White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and veteran reporter April Ryan.

(Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.)