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Misogynoir and Me

On Thanksgiving night five years ago, my uncle, a guest in my parents’ home, insisted that we watch a two-hour Beyoncé special airing that night. I wanted to slap the shit out of him. “I don’t wanna see that black bitch.” I’m not proud of it, but that was my first thought. An offense punishable by death in the eyes of the BeyHive to be sure, but just a few years ago, I saw nothing wrong with thinking of the superstar and philanthropist in these terms. The notion of a free, successful and adored black woman was anathema to me for so long. The same way an insecure white guy might squirm at the mere sight of a Kanye West interview, that was how I felt about Rihanna, Beyoncé, Nicki, or even women like Gabrielle Turnquest, Ursula Burns, or Dr. Mae Jemison. If I’m honest, it was how I felt towards most black women.

All were threats to my perception of a black masculinity not so much fragile as under constant attack, often under my own delusions of self-importance. There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when I would’ve looked you dead in the eye and told you that Lupita N’yongo wasn’t a goddess walking among us, the apogee of brains, beauty, and blackness. I could not fathom anyone as exceedingly and simultaneously black, successful, and graceful as she to be worthy of my respect or praise. My thinking was upside down.

Queer black feminist Moya Bailey’s term, misogynoir, has given a name to the anti-black sexism faced by black women here and abroad. It is a term I only recently learned within the past year, but I have had no doubt that I’ve been guilty of it. I didn’t realize it then, but those years ago, my problem with Beyoncé had deep roots, a foundation that had nothing to do with her. As I’ve grown spiritually, I’ve found that if I’m perturbed or upset, I’m in the wrong, and for a large part of my life, my misogynoir has been no exception.

The reactions to Serena Williams’ triumph (again!) at this year’s Wimbledon, from bitter Brits booing her to another awful and out of touch New York Times op-ed that chose to focus on how “masculine” her physique is, were remarkably transparent. For me, Serena was once in the same camp as Beyoncé. Yet now, it’s clearer to me that, with the legacy of fellow Wimbledon champion Althea Gibson at her back, Serena’s dealing with the same challenges in a very white sport that Gibson did decades ago shows how far we are from a post-racial world, and that misogynoir thrives in this current environment, as it has for some time.

Queer black feminist Moya Bailey’s term, misogynoir, has given a name to the anti-black sexism faced by black women here and abroad.

In a social justice climate where silence is violence, the erasure and continued dehumanization of black women—an American tradition as old as any—poses a significant threat to our push for a new world, a world where black lives indeed matter. Saying that I love and support black women because my mother and sisters happen to be black is just as half-assed and useless as the man who says he supports rape victims only because he has a loved one who was raped. It’s not enough for all the black women who aren’t my momma, or my sister, or my cousin, especially in a society where the ones coming to bat most regularly for them are typically other black women.

It has been difficult to digest the crisis of police violence against black folk, but it has been even harder to reflect on how consistently the narrative of black women, girls and black trans women suffering sexual, emotional and physical violence at the hands of police is swept under the rug.

“Unarmed black men” kind of rolls off the tongue and onto the newspaper page or online post when a black person invariably “goes for their gun,” “hangs themselves in jail,” or “resists arrest.” The emphasis on men maimed and killed, though their loss is tragic, adds a new dimension to the pain felt by a community that has never been given time to heal. Media outlets reporting only on “unarmed black men” are actively purging the rolls. Unarmed black women, girls, and trans individuals are being snapped up in the jaws of both this new-school lynching and an out-of-control carceral system all the same.

The patriarchy permeates all, however, and as a writer who’s written about these police killings, I often have to backspace into “unarmed black men,” to include women as well, because as the senseless ordeals of Sandra Bland and others have shown, black men’s stories are not the only stories, and black women are not exempt from at least what black men are dealt by this country. The track record has shown that it’s often been much worse. With the Say Her Name actions nationwide in May, videos of cops manhandling black teenage girls at pool parties and the in-custody deaths of Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman, Joyce Curnell, Ralkina Jones, and Raynette Turner, to say that black men and women aren’t victims of white supremacy’s protracted campaign against black bodies is asinine and dangerous. Often, it is deliberate.

My anti-black sexism has been programmed by past and present society, but it was programming I chose to accept. I remember sitting outside as a kid, digging up worms, listening to a jambox, and hearing someone on the radio talk about being picked on by black girls growing up. I identified: More than a few little chocolate girls in barrettes and jellies called me a nerd or otherwise dissed me. But truthfully, I used this “they hurt me” bullshit to justify and rationalize my own internalized anti-blackness, which was honed through years spent in predominately white private schools. It was inevitable that my own rejection of my blackness would be projected toward black girls and women given enough time. Recently, I’ve become attenuated to this sort of projection from other black men.

My anti-black sexism has been programmed by past and present society, but it was programming I chose to accept.

It has taken me thirty years to begin to learn that what other people think about me is none of my business, but I can’t help but notice that when it comes to social media — and thus out in the world — the type of brothers who looked down on me for not being a “real one” because I “talked” or “acted white” seem to be the same ones abusing black women online and in real life the most, especially as a response to spurned advances or to instances of black girls and women thriving. Seeing someone respond to #BlackGirlsAreMagic with a comment likening dark-skinned women to roaches should be seen as unacceptable, especially for black men. But I’ve seen plenty of threads that were nothing more than “boys will be boys” anti-black women dogpiles. Men in general need to get their shit together online and off-, but it should go without saying that black women are particularly vulnerable to the ugliness of man.

Back in the bad old days, I might have used the #WhiteGirlsDoItBetter hashtag that recently caused a stir, if non-ironically. Today, I’m heartened by the fact that Black Twitter took control of the hashtag and used it to offer both poignant and hilarious commentary. The point emerged that we really didn’t need a hashtag, seeing as how this society’s fallacious messaging has always been that white girls and women are the ones to which all other women should aspire to. As someone who’s mostly dated interracially, I’ve had to look at how much I’ve contributed to that messaging, whether I meant to or not.

My last partner was white, and I did not date her because she was my Alabaster Queen, but because she was the one I fell in love with years ago. Then and now, she has actively confronted and combatted white privilege and white supremacy consistently and fervently, which is more than I can say for most of the white people in my life. In the past, I have been hung up on this aspect of my life. But I know today that my views on black women, extending beyond their bodies and into the realm of their souls, their minds, their joy and their pain pulls me away from the shallow hatefulness of my youth.

I still have plenty to learn and plenty of action to take. I am in rehabilitation when it comes to embracing my blackness after a couple of decades of buying into white supremacy’s false promises of inclusion and meritocracy. And I have just as much to learn about how misogynoir has affected black women and girls that we invariably expect to be strong — we see this as an unequivocal compliment — but not cutting them any slack for being themselves, for being human in a world that either tells them they’re less-than or superhuman, but never in-between.

Do I as a black man, or do we as a society, ever stop to think that this much-discussed “strength” of black women is often the result of not being given much of a choice? That black women are expected to be unconditionally strong seems more detrimental, a dehumanization that’s been a historical go-to that often gets ignored by many groups. As important is the opportunistic relationship I can have with black women engaged in actual moments of strength.

Do I as a black man, or do we as a society, ever stop to think that this much-discussed “strength” of black women is often the result of not being given much of a choice?

Many of us black men, sharing a need for equality but not bearing an equal share of the injustice, are glad to have Bree Newsome scale a flagpole, to have Tia Oso interrupt a white progressive circle jerk at Netroots Nation with a message of “Black Lives Matter” or to have black women protesters get tear-gassed and hand-cuffed in our name. But the instant they begin to call out our sexism, or our defending of the Rachel Dolezals and Kylie Jenners of the world, all of a sudden, they’ve gone too far and their blackness is unforgivable. I have been guilty of resting on my laurels in this way. “Better her than me” goes the thinking. But I can’t help but feel that the only thing worse than occasional inaction is to actively argue that black women have not always been on the frontlines, from Sojourner to Fannie Lou to Assata. Some may find it easy—or convenient — to forget that the Black Lives Matter movement was begun by three black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

Black women on Twitter, in particular, have cast a light on so much of my own bullshit, and that of my fellow men, as well as on my role as an unwitting agent of a white supremacist patriarchy. Writers Safy-Hallan Farah, Doreen St. Felix, Mikki Kendall, and Jamilah Lemieux, as well as activist Johnetta Elzie, are among a number of women online who’ve shown me so much of what I tried to reject in that past life. There are certainly some men who profess to be pro-black but who don’t seem to embrace minds such as these as readily as one might expect. I feel the gender critiques of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book and primacy among race commentators are valid ones. Buzzfeed’s Shani O. Hilton’s wonderful review of Between The World And Me points to just how ready we are as a society to classify the black male experience as The Black Experience. Coates himself has met this criticism with grace and understanding, unlike many on social media who seem out to confirm that black women’s lives don’t yet matter. Some brothers lose their shit at the thought of a woman leading, especially a black woman. But I’ll be damned if I haven’t learned so much in a short time about what’s at stake and what we’re capable of from these women and others.

If only the more problematic among us men were as willing to circle the wagons around black women the way they have around Bill Cosby, still, maybe things would be on the level. A meninist by any other name (e.g. “real nigga,” “pimp,” etc.) is still a woman-hating waste of bone marrow. Online ecosystems such as writer and activist Feminista Jones’ #YouOKSis Twitter feed, which allows women to share, heal from, and prepare for common experiences of abuse and harassment, is something all men — particularly black men in denial — should pay attention to.

The release of N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton has renewed the conversation on the tradition of misogyny in hip-hop. Misogynistic rhetoric and behaviors have been mainsprings of the genre since at least its gangsterification in the late-‘80s, and it seems that even so-called “conscious” rap slips now and then into The Machismo Zone, often at the expense of the dignity and peace-of-mind of black women. Compton, an otherwise strong and ambitious film tackling occupational police violence and the double standard of free speech expression, was like a strong woman-vacuum, with female characters reduced to either appliances or obstacles. Perhaps the most important woman in the film is a buck naked fan of the group’s who serves to answer the question no one asked: Where did “Bye, Felicia” truly originate?” That the film could be so brutally honest about issues of race and poverty and yet so willing to erase things such as Dr. Dre’s history of violence against women speaks volumes about hip-hop’s need to protect its heroes at the expense of both minds and bodies of black girls and women, both artists and fans.

Collectively, we don’t like to discuss the ways in which black girls are reduced to their body parts, even at young ages. It is this pattern that leads us to shame young girls for “developing early” when they are victimized by older men. Similarly, black women’s worth is derived from their physical being more than anything else. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that yes, black girls and women who are hypersexualized most of their lives also suffer the trauma of being catcalled, grabbed, threatened, and followed home by men.

A meninist by any other name (e.g. “real nigga,” “pimp,” etc.) is still a woman-hating waste of bone marrow.

Scrolling through a search for #YouOKSis is also a great educational opportunity for white feminists who seem to think street harassment only happens to white women, as well as men who think that their bullshit “flirtations” and “compliments” don’t amount to trauma and assault on black girls’ and women’s bodies. White feminism’s maternalistic and exclusionary relationship with black women is born of the fact that white women have been used as weapons in the psychic war that is racism for centuries. In this one, Dylann Roof claimed he was defending the honor of white women” in taking the lives of the Charleston Nine. How many, or rather, how few white women were saying “not in my name” after that shooting, rather than simply offering condolences?

On her song “Guilty,” Gladys Knight laments: “It’s two strikes against me when I come out to bat; one strike for being female and one strike for being black.” Given these past few months, let alone the entire history of the black woman in this country, “guilty” is an appropriate name for a song about bearing American crosses. In restoring myself to a state of reasonableness, acceptance, and self-love, it’s been easy to get wrapped up in the real-world assets and liabilities of my blackness without considering my own maleness. Recently seeing a “Black Men Matter” shirt worn by an older black man, his clearly fed-up-in-general wife lagging steps behind him, was a needed reminder that black women continue to be overlooked in this new push for civil rights.

Today, I can listen to Beyoncé without catching a child-like resentment, which is a nice perk, but I strive to do all that I can to abolish the “guilt” black girls and women are born into, be they friends, family, strangers.

By Kasai Rex

Kasai Rex is a writer living in his hometown of Baltimore. Analyzing race, gender, and class in America and abroad, his essays and reviews have appeared on Noisey, Gawker, Salon, Vice, and Baltimore City Paper.