Before we reached the shores of America we were “other.” Before the enslaved Africans were forcibly transported to what would become their new home, Black women were othered. Gawked at, touched, gazed upon in horror and admiration, treated in the way one would treat a prized cow—her body inspected to see if she could do the job. Black women were brought to America as cattle. Like cattle, we had two jobs. One, produce a product (cotton, rice, indigo, etc.); two, become bodies. We were empty shells with no personhood, just beings performing biological acts, reproducing and breastfeeding—not only our children but also the children of our masters. Giving our breast and nourishment to babies who would learn the cruelty their parents inflicted upon the women who kept them alive. This violence against us, Black women, was cruel, cold, and persistent. Like anti-Black racism, misogynoir did not end once Lee surrendered to Grant. It did not end when the enslaved left the cotton fields. It did not end when the descendants of the enslaved left the South for the Northern cities, because misogynoir is ingrained in the fabric of this violent nation. For those who are reading this and are students of American University, you may be aware of the many accusations of racism against Jubilee Witte, a white student who told me, and many other Black women, that they wanted to “make mixed race children” with us. That sexualized attack on Black women's bodies is not just rooted in misogynoir—it is misogynoir—and they perpetuated that, just as many of you do every single day in ways you probably do not know.
As you just read about the acts of slave owners, or the comments made by white students, or my accusations that you—yes, you—take part in misogynoir, you may be saying with shock, “No, I do not. I would never do those things!” Just like racism or white privilege, it is so normal that you probably do it and do not realize it. You don’t have to call me a “nigger” to be a racist. All you have to do are little things, little things that are so normal in our society that you do not realize they’re racist. Racism is funny that way. It slithers into your thoughts, which then turn into actions, which—for people like me—are deadly. Now, you may be wondering what this has to do with misogynoir—it has everything to do with it. First, let's give a definition, because, for many of you, this may be the first time you’re hearing this term. Misogynoir, a term coined by Black queer feminist Moya Bailey, is a “...concept that combines ‘misogyny’ and the French word for black, ‘noir.’” Like misogyny is a hatred of women, misogynoir is a connected hatred and discrimination particular to Black women. Once again, you may be saying, “I can’t take part in misogynoir. I don’t hate Black women.” But, like a misogynist doesn’t have to call me a “bitch” to let me know they hate me and see me as less than because of my gender, and a racist does not have to refer to me as a “nigger” or point me to the back of a bus to let me know how they feel about my race—just because you don’t consciously hate Black women, doesn’t mean you don’t subconsciously see us as less than. It’s not your fault, society made it that way, but it's ingrained in everything we do, how we think, and how we act on those thoughts. It doesn’t have to take such outwardly violent acts like rape for misygynoir to take place. It can be little things—and I use “little” in a subjective sense because to us as Black women these things are not little. Little things like touching a Black woman's hair—an extreme violation of personal space that I have laughed and cringed about multiple times with Black girlfriends or family members—happen far too often. This is misogynoir because while you may not hate my hair, something about my hair, to you, was different—exotic, even—and something about it compelled you, or someone you know, to take a hand and put it in a Black woman’s hair. From the moment your brain thought her hair was different, to the action of you lifting your hand and putting it in someone else’s hair, you acted out of misogynoir. You othered that woman’s hair—you saw her as an exotic thing—something that was interesting that you wanted to touch, just like the past colonizers, new to the continent, touching and taking what they thought was “different,” stripping the Africans of their humanity down to soulless bodies who were theirs for the taking. But it goes beyond touching—it’s words, too. It is calling Black women “loud,” and taking issue with it, especially when a white woman is speaking at the same volume and no comment is made. It is calling little Black girls “sassy.” If one was to look at the dictionary definition of sassy—vigorous, lively—it doesn’t seem negative on the surface to call a little girl sassy. In fact, if you were just looking at that definition, you would want any little girl to be sassy, especially in a world that so often works to silence women and girls, but what those words technically mean and how we actually use them have such a disconnect. When sassy is used to describe a Black woman or girl, you invoke, for the woman, the controlling image of a sapphire: a loud Black woman whose hand is always on her hip and constantly has something smart to say. For the little girl, when calling her sassy, you combine the controlling images of both a jezebel and sapphire. The jezebel comes into play because that controlling image plays off the stereotypical idea that Black woman have hyper feminized bodies and are hyper sexual, so it is okay to rape them because they want it, and need to be “put in their place.” Black girls are reminded that they’re women, and women—especially Black ones—do not need to be heard, only seen and used. When one calls a little Black girl sassy, they invoke an image of a child putting her hands on her hips, a part of her body that the world has designated to be sexual in nature: therefore she is both sexual and aggressive in nature, and like her foremothers before her, must be reminded of her position in this world. That word assumes that all Black women and girls are loud and talkative, and always have something smart to say. So often, as a child and an adult, I have been called “sassy.” I was quite quiet as a girl—very far from being lively or vigorous—but I remember being called sassy, often by my white teachers or by the parents of my white peers. Many other little Black girls are just like the way I was: quiet, shy, her face in a book, the antithesis to “sassy,” but she’s Black, and so the white world labels every word she utters as being inherently said in a sassy manner. This is a manner naturally disrespectful to the white ruling class. Like the word “sassy” tone-polices, so does the phrase “angry Black woman.” That latter statement is so often used to silence and gaslight Black women, and is one of the most persistent forms of misogynoir that many of you invoke everyday, and don’t even have to directly say it to do so. Imagine, you have some interaction with a Black woman, and she is neutral in emotion—she’s not cruel or rude, but she’s not overly nice—and that’s a normal human interaction. It’s a normal white human interaction. For Black women, on the other hand, she is always supposed to be happy—marked from her arrival, she is here to serve, and a part of serving is doing it with a smile. Smile as she is called outside her name, smile as her hair and body are exoticized, smile as her children are shot in the street by the state, and even as someone on the news or Facebook tries to humanize the cop who killed her baby while villainizing her child. While all of this is happening, people continue to tell her that it isn’t, and that she is, “crazy.” Of course, when someone denies reality, and that happens repeatedly, you would likely also be angry, but we’re not allowed to. As Black women, if we complain about anything, particularly our suffering, we are “angry.” Not only is our emotion taken with disregard, but so also is our livelihood. Now, of course, our livelihood has always been a threat to the state, and therefore must be dealt with, but as the title of this article notes, it is not just the state that’s the issue. In fact, in many Black liberation movements, misogynoir has come from a kind face who is acting under the guise of helping them.
Breonna Taylor, a young Black EMT, was killed in her home on March 13, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky by police officers. Depending on your politics, you may want the cops arrested, you may want them fired, or you may just want the whole police system to be defunded. None of that has happened yet, and this piece does not advocate for one particular form of discipline or penalty—even though police do enact a significant amount of physical, mental, and sexual violence against Black women. I bring up Breonna not because of the police violence, but in the way she has been treated in her death. As I’ve mentioned multiple times, Black women in America are not given a kind life, but—even in death—we know no peace. Breonna Taylor is not a martyr. She didn’t willingly give up her life: it was stolen by a white supremacist state. She is also not a punchline. So many of you have just gotten into the Black Lives Matter movement. This may be the first time you all have seen this kind of violence, and jokes are the way you work through trauma, but it is important to know which jokes you are allowed to make. It is a particular kind of cruelty to make jokes out of a Black woman’s death. Now, you may be confused, because who would claim to be an ally yet make such jokes? Many of you, in fact. Taking pictures on a sunny day and saying “It’s 89 degrees and a beautiful day and I look really cute in this dress. You know what else would be cute, capturing Breonna Taylors murders”—tell me this, what does your dress and the weather have to do with her murder? Or, with celebrities posting photos they know will garner attention and captioning it, “now that I have your attention, Breonna Taylor’s murders have not been captured”—what does this shameless self promotion have to do with this woman’s death? The worst is when memes are made, with terrible and tasteless ones mimicking the “Are you still watching?” screen from Netflix. Memes are made to make us laugh and entertain us—that was not Breonna’s job. Breonna was senselessly murdered. So many Black women are senselessly murdered, and yet jokes keep being made. That is what I mean when I say you all take part in misogynoir: I understand that you may think you’re bringing awareness, or that the jokes may be a nice intermission from the violence, but we as Black women are not here to entertain you, just as we are not here to save you. If you think we are, then you are participating in misogynoir. Imagine this: I took a picture of myself at the beach, and uploaded it to Instagram, with a caption of “It's beautiful outside, just like it would be beautiful for the small children who were victims of Sandy Hook to still be with us. Call your local legislator to get gun laws passed!” What does my beach photo have anything to do with small children who were the innocent victims of a horrendous crime? Nothing: you would judge me for making light of a terrible situation. Let’s take the case of Toyin Salau, a young Black Floridian woman whose body was violated and whose life was stolen. In the aftermath of her murder, the “Tallahassee Democrat” newspaper listed all of the violence that was inflicted upon this young woman’s body with absolutely no trigger warnings. I know, for many, the idea of a trigger warning is used as a joke against the “snowflake libs,” but as someone who was pushed into therapy because I had to hear about violence inflicted upon my fellow Black women, I can affirmatively say that trigger warnings are necessary. Not only did that newspaper not give a trigger warning, but many on Twitter also asked why Salau would take a ride from a stranger. On top of all of that, she, in real time, documented her abuse, which was reported to the police, who did not act with the swiftness needed to prevent this tragedy. It is often joked that when a white girl goes missing, the entire country stops, but like every joke, there is some truth to it. It must be noted that not only was Toyin Black, but she was also dark-skinned, and additionally had natural hair and a non-Anglo name. She was a Southern, dark-skinned, outspoken Black woman, and society tragically let her know that those identities are not acceptable. Her death is a form of misogynoir. If she were lighter-skinned, and had a looser curl pattern, one can only wonder if her assault would have been treated with more urgency, or if her death would’ve been treated with more care. One can only wonder about the thousands of Black girls who go missing or are murdered or are sexually assaulted. If their names didn’t encompass so many syllables, and contained fewer apostrophes, would their cases have been handled with more care? If their skin was of a lighter complexion, would more urgency have been placed on finding them? If they were white would someone have cared? I say yes.
I know that you probably did not open this article expecting to be shamed, but if you came out of it feeling shamed, change that. Your shame or guilt leads me to believe that you’ve taken part in the dehumanization of Black women and girls, and that equals our harm or death. It equals the death of Black women who are more at risk than me. I understand my position in the white world as a Black woman is difficult. I also understand that my existence is not threatened as much as other Black women. As a Black woman who is lighter brown in complexion, and cishet, and economically stable, and traditionally educated, and with a body and face traditionally femine in size and shape according to white Eurocentric beauty standards, I’m speaking from a place of relative privilege. Misogynoir harms my dark-skinned sisters, and my trans sisters, and my houseless sisters, and my fat sisters much more than it harms me—it doesn’t only harm them, it kills them. This article was not made to hold your hand gently and recommend reading White Fragility so you can recognize misogynoir, but still feel as if it’s a distant action that you do not take part in. You do participate in misogynoir: now that you have the language to conceptualize it, and can recognize the actions that encompass it, actually do something about it. Like many acts of racism, you probably personally take part in this act without even realizing it. Before you go to touch a Black woman’s hair, stop and think if you would like some random stranger stroking you like someone’s pet. If you or someone you know is constantly referring to Black women or girls as “sassy” or “angry,” stop that. There are thousands of adjectives in the English language you can use. To stick to those words shows a lackadaisical use of the language. Finally, to make memes and jokes about Black death—especially the death of a Black woman—shows disregard for the most vulnerable in our society. All of these actions are not only weird, an invasion of privacy, or callous, and don’t just show one’s limited use of language, they are also inherently violent. They are actions rooted in violence, and cause further violence as violence only begets more violence. The only way to stop this cycle of violence is for you, the reader, to fully stop participating in it.