Misogynoir and Black Women’s Unpaid Emotional Labor
Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but my mind is still on love and relationships. Since this is also Black History Month, I want to talk about how society and individuals relate to misogynoir and the emotional labor expected of women in general and Black women in particular.
What Is Misogynoir?
Moya Bailey coined the term misogynoir in 2010 to describe the specific ways that Black women experience misogyny.
What happens to Black women in public space isn’t about them being any woman of color. It is particular and has to do with the ways that anti-Blackness and misogyny combine to malign Black women in our world. […]
I was looking for precise language to describe why Renisha McBride would be shot in the face, or why The Onion would think it’s okay to talk about Quvenzhané the way they did, or the hypervisibilty of Black women on reality TV, the arrest of Shanesha Taylor, the incarceration of CeCe, Laverne and Lupita being left off the TIME list, the continued legal actions against Marissa Alexander, the twitter dragging of black women with hateful hashtags and supposedly funny Instagram images as well as how Black women are talked about in music. All these things bring to mind misogynoir and not general misogyny directed at women of color more broadly.
Black Women and Emotional Labor
Women in our culture are expected to be caretakers because, y’know, chromosomes and hormones and stuff. However, the truth is: regardless of to what degree nature impacts an individual woman’s capacity as a caretaker, society imposes the caretaker role on all women.
Jess Zimmerman explains it like this:
Emotional labor has followed the same path. We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.”
This is part of the reason why Lauren Chief Elk came up with #GiveYourMoneyToWomen. It’s a way of giving dignity and value to the things women are generally expected to do for free.
The Mammy exists to provide free emotional labor.
For Black women, that expectation to provide free emotional labor is most glaringly depicted in the Mammy caricature. Her most defining characteristic is that she has no personal needs or desires. She dispenses care and nurturing in the service of the white family she “belongs” to. She places their demands above her own well-being and even that of her own family and community.
But what happens when a Black woman fails to live up to the expectation of free emotional labor?
Emotional Labor and Misogynoir
I’ve been called angry and hostile not because I actively say mean and hurtful things, but because it’s my preference to speak directly and with conviction. I don’t try to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I don’t go out of my way to avoid it, either. I simply don’t routinely do those things that women are expected to do in order to make men feel comfortable with the fact that we have minds and voices of our own:
- Reassuring individual men I know when calling out the bad behavior of other men.
- Using a question mark instead of a period.
- Allowing men to keep talking regardless of how much they don’t know about the subject.
- Adding “I don’t know” or “that’s just me” to a statement when I actually do know and it’s not just me.
There is a pattern to how Black women’s speech is interpreted.
I don’t do this to make some sort of feminist or womanist statement. It’s simply how I prefer to communicate. As a result, I’ve been told flat-out that I have chip on my shoulder, that my tone was hostile, that I was a bully, that I made a face that offended them, and so on. The words “racist motherfucker” or “sexist pig” or “fuck off” never came out my mouth or keyboard. Racism or sexism didn’t even have to be the topic of conversation. It’s as though I make a statement such as, “That perpetuates a harmful dynamic,” and someone hears the words, “Kiss my Black ass” tacked on the end. And let me be blunt: the things men say to and about each other while still being friends is way harsher than anything any man in my acquaintance has ever allowed me to say unchallenged.
I’ve had this come from white men, white women and Black men. Only people I have not routinely experienced this with? Other Black women. Either that means every Black woman on the planet is perpetually pissed off about nothing, or there is a pattern to how Black women’s communications are interpreted.
The Effects of Misogynoir
It’s particularly insidious in our case because, when we fail to be the ever-nurturing Mammy, we’re automatically thrust into the role of foul-tempered Sapphire (aka the Sassy Black Woman or Angry Black Woman) just as every time we’re sexual or sensual, we’re automatically slotted into the Jezebel label. The effect, at least for me, is that it smothers the ability to recognize that which is authentic, multi-dimensional and human about Black women. Sometimes we even internalize this and call it strength at great detriment to our psychological and spiritual well-being. In Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Melissa Harris-Perry describes it as trying to stand upright in a crooked room.
When they confront race and gender stereotypes, Black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some Black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion. […] To understand why Black women’s public actions and political strategies sometimes seem tilted, it is important to appreciate the structural constraints that influence their behavior. It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room.
On a societal level, misogynoir manifests as Black women being the only people consistently in Black women’s corners. So you get things like white women getting pissed off if someone calls Hillary Clinton a bitch but going, “It’s just a joke” when The Onion calls Quvenzhané Wallis (who was nine years old at the time) a cunt. Then you get the American public rightfully angry about unarmed Black men being gunned down by police while Black women targeted by police brutality get ignored. And that’s before we get to the Bill Cosbys and Clarence Thomases who harass and sexually assault Black women then become the ones who seem to need protection and care.
Where to Go from Here
If I had the antidote to misogynoir, I would give it to everyone for free. Too many of us are going to jail and dying early. I’m just one person, I don’t have the answers to all of that. What I do know is that changing yourself begins with questioning yourself. So when you find yourself about to tell a Black woman she’s being aggressive or rude or uncivil, stop. Then ask yourself:
- Is this person actually saying something nasty, or am I projecting hostility? Things to look for: “Fuck you,” “Kiss my ass,” slurs, and threats of violence.
- Have I consistently challenged similar statements when they came from men or white people?
- What specific behavior do I want from this person? Have I consistently asked for similar behavior from men and white people?
- Do I want this person to make their point differently, or do I want them not to make their point at all?
These questions are just a start. They’re far from a comprehensive or exclusive. Whether someone is treating a Black woman with justice and respect or asking for unpaid emotional labor is too nuanced to nail down with a simple list of do’s and don’ts. Not to mention, it would be demanding a lot to ask random Black women to provide such a list.
But here it is, just a start. Now it’s up to you to finish.