The politics of Misogynoir: One of the many barriers which silence and erase black women in the public sphere

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The abuse and hate hurled at black and dark-skinned women who dare to take a seat at the table and speak truth to power is tragically nothing new in politics. However, in the age of social media, twitter trolls and memes, this abuse plays out brutally in our digital spaces and manifests itself in the “real world”.

This form of misogyny has become so acute, that in 2008 the term misogynoir was coined by the academic Moya Bailey to give black women the vocabulary to talk about their experiences.  As researcher Lisa Amanda Palmer highlights, the term describes the gendered and sexualised form of racism faced by black women in popular culture and the current political landscape. However, misogynoir rears its head in all aspects of black women’s lives, having devastatingly tangible and violent consequences.

One extreme example of this was an incident that took place at end of August. A right-wing French magazine published a cartoon depicting a black member of parliament and outspoken afro-feminist activist Danièle Obono, as a slave in chains. This image was accompanied by an equally racist fictional narrative where she finds herself put up for auction in the 18th century. After seeing the images, I was left dumbfounded, asking myself how a magazine, which the French president once described as “very good” could publish an image of a black member of parliament, a human being, as a slave? Worst still, Obono is frequently met with an avalanche of abuse from her fellow politicians and members of the public alike for simply doing her job.

This is by no means a problem unique to the French. Misogynoir is rampant and deep-rooted within the UK political landscape too. This summer alone, I was distressed to read that the Labour MP and former Shadow Women’s and Equalities Minister Dawn Butler was forced to close her constituency office. This was after threats against her and her staff  “drastically escalated” following her defence of  Black Lives Matter protests and after speaking about the impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities.  Not only was this an attack on Dawn Butler, but an attack on democracy itself. In an open letter to her constituency, Butler frankly stated that the windows of her office had been smashed through by bricks and that she continues to:  “receive on an almost daily basis, threats of violence and death threats”.  Though, she went on to add defiantly that: “I will never be threatened into silence and will continue to speak out and speak up for all of my constituents in Brent Central”.

The labour antisemitism report leaked in April also painted a dark and depressing image of the endemic nature of anti-black racism and misogynoir within the labour party and politics more generally. For years I saw Labour as leading the fight against racism within mainstream politics, but no longer feel that way today. Racism and misogyny are not just confined to the ultra-right or the depths of twitter troll land but are present on all sides of the political spectrum. The dossier confirmed that; unearthing the vile treatment and bullying that black women were subject to by members of their own party.  Upon her appointment to the shadow cabinet, senior staff jokingly dismissed Dawn Butler’s serious allegations of racism as “untrue”. Similarly, the leaked document revealed how a senior staff member used  “a classic racist trope” to insult Diane Abbott; the first black woman to be elected to parliament and longest-serving black MP. Despite her popularity within her constituency, retaining her seat for over 30 years, a 2017 report revealed that Abbot receives more online abuse than any other MP. 

Perhaps, what these blatant attacks on a black woman painfully shows is just how commonplace the dehumanisation of black women has become.  These attacks usually rely upon racist and sexist tropes that portray black women as angry, undesirable, animalistic and ultimately undeserving of their humanity or your empathy. Despite attempts to silence these phenomenal women, they still continue to fight and stand up for what they believe in. They refuse to be invisible and refuse to be silent. In the words of Dianne Abbott: “the abuse and the attacks have never made me falter”. Yet the heavy burden of misogynoir should not be left upon the shoulders of black women to carry alone. We must struggle, collectively to rid it from our body politic. While I don’t have all the answers, what I do know is that we have to go beyond “diversity and inclusion” or unconscious bias training to achieve this. This can be summed up by author Lucy Ko’s tweet: “The revolution will not be diversity and inclusion trainings”. The presence of black women and other marginalised communities in parliament is vital to keeping our democracy alive and we must remove the barriers that stop them from getting there.  

Farida Augustine

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons