“Misogynoir is a very real problem and feminism can no longer ignore it”

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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. This week, journalist Lola Okolosie tackles the often overlooked topic of ‘misogynoir’, and explains how we can recognise it and what needs to be done to make feminism more inclusive. 

Feminist Lola Okolosie says:

You’ve no doubt spotted the term misogynoir somewhere online and wondered what the hell it meant. 

Though you might feel like a royal berk if you were to say out loud, here’s an attempt at explaining why it is absolutely necessary to black women that all feminists call it out when they see it happening.

The term was coined by black feminist Moya Bailey and expanded upon by Trudy, of the blog, Gradient Liar. It explains the ways in which black women specifically are made to feel less than worthless in a society that values whiteness and masculinity.

Let me take you back to 2011 and the work of evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics, who provided a text book example of misogynoir.

Published in Psychology Today, Kanazawa's ‘research’ posed the question ‘Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive than Other Women?’

Anyone else think this sounds like utter quackery?  Kanazawa concluded his homage to Nazi eugenics propaganda by stating this ‘unattractiveness’ is the result of black women’s higher testosterone levels. In other words: we’re not quite women. 

It’s all there in Kanazawa’s article: the reduction of women to nothing more than aesthetics that is typical of misogyny, the racism that tries to explain itself as rational and objective, all co-mingling to place black women at the very bottom of the female pile. 

Journalist Maya Goodfellow is right to say we saw an example of misogynoir in action when so many saw fit to applaud Jess Phillips for telling Diane Abbot to ‘fuck off’ during the first meeting of Labour MPs following this year’s general election. Abbot was summarily pitched as the aggressor though she was the one who had been verbally abused at her place of work. 

Misogynoir tells us that Dianne Abbot is too gobby for her own good and needs to shut up, because, damn it, there are just too many prominent, powerful, articulate, black women in this world for us to handle.

Misogynoir is also revealed when Maria Sharapova is often called Serena Williams' ‘great rival’ though she has only won two of the 20 matches the pair have played.

Or, indeed, that Sharapova comes in at 12th in a list of the world’s most marketable athletes and Williams 20th, though it is Williams who is considered the greatest female tennis player of all time. 

Misogynoir tells us Williams doesn’t deserve the plaudits because her muscular tone (which others would commend as the result of an eye-of-the-tiger athletic determination) puts her at an unfair advantage. Muscular acts as code for ‘she’s got black genes that make her a sort of man so it’s not really fair that she’s winning all the time'.

When a black woman is allegedly denied access to a club because she is ‘too dark’ and ‘overweight’ and not of a ‘certain calibre’, we should call the actions of that nightclub misogynoir. The woman was deemed undesirable because she was too black or, in other words, too far from white - our normalised vision of woman.

It’s in the same way that models like Leomie Anderson still have to struggle against a fashion industry that only permits “lighter skinned girls [to] get more work than darker skinned girls”.

This is one of the important points about misogynoir: it exists in direct relation to how society views white women. Where white women are held up as demure, good, beautiful; black women are seen as undignified, disrespectable, ugly.

Think of it as a seesaw in which one party is permanently held aloft whilst the other is weighted down.

With adjectives like ugly and coarse trailing us around, it becomes easier to treat us as valueless and indeed to view ourselves as such. It’s how so much of popular hip-hop can reduce us to bitches - there for easy sex and violence.

Black men and women are ourselves capable of misogynoir. As products of a society built on racism (the country’s current great wealth can be traced back to slavery and colonialism) we sometimes internalize its toxic messages ourselves. We do it when we tell brown girls that they are too dark to be thought of as beautiful.

The concept of misogynoir helps us understand that, whether it’s our representation as overly-sexualized twerking bums (Lily, Miley, hip-hop, I'm looking at you), or as too masculine, mythical ‘strong black women’ (The Help), we’re not given the chance to be seen as fully human. 

It’s not good enough. Feminists must accept this fact and be willing to speak out when they see misogynoir rear its ugly head – it is one way of making feminism become truly inclusive. 

Misogynoir is pervasive, so you had better get practicing on your pronunciation.

Send your feminist dilemmas to stories@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.

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