Eliza Anyangwe | Monday 5 October 2015 19.00 BST
Activists argue that the prejudice against black women is ignored by mainstream feminism. But what are the corrosive stereotypes feeding it?
Last week, London nightclub Dstrkt was accused of turning away two young black women for being “too fat” and “too dark”, prompting a swift, strident response on social media. The club was quick to deny the allegations and the council equally quick to express its concern. News outlets went into overdrive, to find “voices” to give the incident context. In the Guardian, one writer explained that young black people often resort to unlikely methods to get into certain clubs – the kind, like Dstrkt in Soho, that aren’t really about the music anyway – while in the Independent, DJ Edward Adoo discussed the pervasive racism of London’s nightclubs as a matter of fact.
But what is alleged to have happened at Dstrkt isn’t just about race; the accused promoter is black. It’s about gender too. Discrimination, prejudice and unchecked fear aimed specifically at black women now has a name: misogynoir.
The term was coined in 2010 by gay black feminist American academic Moya Bailey, who defined it “to describe the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual and popular culture”.
Since then black women – and some men – predominantly on social media, have taken ownership of the term, using it to describe prejudice experienced in a range of contexts.
“Misogynoir provides a racialised nuance that mainstream feminism wasn’t catching,” says black feminist commentator, Feminista Jones. “We are talking about misogyny, yes, but there is a specific misogyny that is aimed at black women and is uniquely detrimental to black women.”
She says it is both about racial and gender hatred and can be perpetuated by non-black people and by black men – it is the latter, Jones says, she experienced the most often. “In my campaigning on street harassment, I have been targeted because I am a black woman who is vocal. They don’t go to anybody from Hollaback or Stop Street Harassment [campaigns run by white women] … they will say I’m a traitor and call me a tool for white supremacy … just because I’m calling out their very targeted misogynoir.”
It’s not ideal, as the comedian The Kid Mero pointed out last week, “We gotta make up better terms for oppressive shit cuz ‘misogynoir’ sounds like a scandalous Cirque du Soleil Vegas show”. Still, the term has spread to Britain, where most recently, writer Maya Goodfellow discussed misogynoir on the online platform Media Diversified, in reference to the abuse Diane Abbott has received since her appointment as shadow international development secretary. Goodfellow concluded that “a black woman who challenges the status quo and won’t apologise for doing so will always be judged unfairly. Because too many, subconsciously, feel it’s not up to people ‘like her’ to be the voice of opposition.”
Of course, detractors will inevitably counter that bouncers abuse their power all the time and people of all races and gender have at some point been refused entry. And that as a politician, Abbott is fair game for ridicule and scorn. Both of those points are acceptable, but neither explain or invalidate the experiences of hostility that sit at the intersection between sexism and racism.
At the heart of this concept are two corrosive stereotypes. The first characterises black people as animalistic, uncontrolled or uncontrollable, and is in part responsible for the concepts of the “angry or strong black woman”. These are used to deny pain and legitimise offence: “Oh, that unfair treatment you’ve received at work? You’ll get over it, you’re a strong black woman.” The second is that black women’s bodies are hypersexualised: the “sexy black woman” is all tits and twerking.
Few people in the public eye seem to have experienced this problem quite as much as Serena Williams. To the United States Tennis Association president, Katrina Adams – and countless others – Williams is the “greatest athlete of all time”. John McEnroe recently described her as “I think, the greatest player that ever lived”. But to the Twitter trolls she’s “a gorilla”, “more manly than any man”. As Marc Bain wrote in Quartz: “Only sexism and racism can explain why Serena Williams doesn’t earn more in endorsements.”
Misogynoir may also explain how American actor Nancy Lee Grahn can praise Patricia Arquette for using her Oscar speech to speak out about gender inequalities, but ridicule Viola Davis for doing the same thing, saying to the former: “Use your win to champion women. Make your moment matter. I like that.” But to the latter: “None of us get the respect we deserve. Emmys not venue for racial opportunity.”
It is because mainstream feminism has so often failed to recognise and include the experience of black and transgender women that terms such as misogynoir have been able to flourish in the shadow of feminism’s third wave. Grahn has since apologised on Twitter.
But the intention was never to use jargon to exclude the majority, in order to create safe space for the minority. Instead, argues Jones, the word is supposed to start a broader conversation. “If people want to dismiss it as jargon, it’s because they don’t want to be part of the conversation. [The term] is for everybody. We [black women] can talk until we are blue in the face but if nobody else is listening and nobody else is willing to work to make change, it really doesn’t do much for us.”
But misogynoir simply connects a new generation to the gap in the discourse on rights that abolitionist Sojourner Truth spoke of in her 1851 speech, Ain’t I a Woman. Then she told a gathering of feminists about her own needs that went unmet “betwixt the negro in the south and the white woman in the north, all talking about rights”. It has only taken 164 years to give Truth’s predicament a name. Here’s to hoping we don’t spend the next 164 discussing the term, while continuing to make excuses for the discrimination it describes.