By Meagan Kennedy ’24, an English major and Creative Writing, and Art & Art History minor.
The following work was created for FYS 101: Feminism and the #MeToo Movement
Brief description: “The Eradication of Misogynoir Culture in Black Communities: How Stereotypes Perpetuate a Rape Culture” is an exploration of the defining stereotypes of Black women in America. How have these stereotypes further established gender roles and a culture supporting the rape of these women? This essay breaks down the formative aspects of misogynoir and how it continues to uphold a standard harmful to Black women.
According to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, 1 in 5 Black women are survivors of rape. Of every 15 Black women who are survivors of rape, only 1 case is reported. 35% of Black women have experienced some form of sexual violence in their life, yet many of these women do not report their case.[i] Black women have been seen as vehicles for men’s sexual pleasure since the height of U.S. slavery, and they are still being quieted in moments of abuse and assault. “Many cultural considerations can hinder healing for Black women survivors: the burdensome expectation of strong black womanhood; the power of the Black church; the desire to shield Black men; and the lack of self-care examples are all real dynamics Black women survivors endure.”[ii] These women face specific dangers in their lives that are directly related to their race and gender, as well as rape culture, which has continued to normalize the silencing of these women.
With this established, I researched how misogynoir has structured a system of stereotypes and expectations for Black women’s bodies and identities that perpetuate a rape culture which endangers their lives within and beyond the Black community. With the eradication of this rape culture, sexual violence cannot be used as a threat against women. Black women would be free to establish a relationship with their identity, their bodies, and their sexuality without the threat of male influence or harm. Furthermore, it explores the limitations placed upon Black women in society and how the narrative of sexual assault has continued to follow Black women beyond other advancements of their rights in the United States. Black women have not been seen as victims, but as vehicles for both Black and white men to use at will. It is important to explore the harm rape culture has on young Black women to better understand and reestablish a healthier feminine identity.
Stereotypes rooted in misogynoir culture act as a basis for the oppression of Black women within a system of pre-established gender and race roles to promote and uphold a rape culture within the Black community. This dehumanizes victims of sexual assault and creates a history where Black women are deemed unfit as victims of sexual assault. Rape culture continues to divide women in the Black community, creating a narrative that the bodies of Black women do not exude the same air of innocence as a white woman’s body. It not only establishes a barrier dependent on gender, but on race as well. Gender roles in the Black community function to scare young Black girls into submission to Black men, coinciding with the racial roles that force them into specific roles in the eyes of white people. The view of Black women formed by famous stereotypes like the ‘Jezebel’ or ‘Sapphire’ are continuously misunderstood and have a great influence on how other Black women understand their identities.
In the following pages, I will demonstrate how this is established through further defining misogynoir culture and respectability politics. Beyond that, I will explain how these later connect to the racist foreground that stereotypes created during American slavery, aligning with Black women and their identities. I will then analyze a more modern scenario, the case of David Holtzclaw, to explore how these stereotypes and prejudices towards Black women impact sexual assault cases.
II. Defining Misogynoir Culture
‘Misogynoir’ is a term created by the Black feminist Moya Bailey in 2008. It describes the intersectional hatred of Black women based on the foundations of racism and sexism. Bailey states “misogynoir is not simply the racism that Black women encounter, nor is it the misogyny Black women negotiate; it is the uniquely synergistic force of these two oppressions amalgamating into something more harmful than its parts.”[iii] Women like Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris stand as victims to misogynoir culture in the media. The way they dress, style their hair, talk, or spend their free time is under constant scrutiny in political media and journalism unrelated to policy. Attacking their respectability is not a political move, it is a move that further degrades women of color. Criticizing these disempowered women for aspects of their identity teaches the public that actions like these are acceptable to do to other women of color. Misogynoir, however, also functions outside of media and politics. Institutionalized during the height of slavery, misogynoir functions in Black communities as a trickle-down effect from the history of its standing in white communities.
A young Black girl’s relationship with anyone in her community is influenced by these standards influenced by misogynoir. She has been raised with stereotypes to avoid (the ‘Jezebel’ or the ‘Sapphire’) that specifically limit her identity and alter her relationship with herself and others. Mikki Kendall describes in her essay, “It’s Raining Patriarchy,” how her relationship with the men in her family influenced her identity as a feminist and as a Black woman. Her grandfather was critical of her “tomboy” behavior in her youth, and reinforced gender roles in her that he had seen in women during his formative years. He had traditional expectations of the binary of femininity and masculinity that he believed should be reinforced in the following generations as well. The narrative surrounding what it means to be feminine or masculine in the Black community is hyper-focused on traditional understandings of gender roles because it is a form of respectability. These hypermasculine and hyperfeminine demands work to break down originality and reestablish a safer sense of self. In America, these identities establish a sense of normalcy among minority communities to better protect them from standing out too much.
Later in the essay, Kendall expands on the relationship with her father, stating “by the time he met my mom, I was already showing the tomboy inclinations that were the subject of a lot of family arguments. Sometimes he opens his mouth, and the patriarchy comes tumbling out on any topic ranging from what input he thinks my husband should have on my choice for my body to what I do for a living. Then he pulls back…and says something about ‘modern women.’” Kendall demonstrates here the generational divide which men and women often face in Black communities because of misogynoir culture. Older generations embrace the respectability politics set by white people while younger generations work to reform it. She continues to describe her inability to feel comfortable when stating her feelings and opinions with her father.[iv] This lack of comfortability stands as a remnant of the gender roles set by white respectability politics. These gender roles lead Black men to believe that through conservative and traditional expectations for their wives, daughters, and sisters, they are protecting them from the dangers of the outside world. Kendall also describes how minority communities “are largely socially and culturally homogenous, and a great majority of the residents are hyper-concerned with the…white patriarchal messaging about respect being reserved for those who are law-abiding, religious, and at least somewhat conservative.”[v] This white respect is what set the standards in both white and communities of color. White respect fails to see Black women with the same potential as it might white women. It divides white women and women of color into a binary that deems white women as the feminine ideal and women of color as less than feminine and therefore less respectable.
The Black feminist writer Brittney Cooper describes respectability politics as “the belief that Black people can overcome many of the everyday, acute impacts of racism by dressing properly and having education and social comportment is, first and foremost, performed as a kind of sartorial prerogative.”[vi] This perception states that if Black women, and Black people in general, want to be treated with basic respect, they must meet white standards. Cooper describes the daily struggle in her youth of spending hours in front of her mother who combed, braided, and managed her hair for the following day. This sense of respectability, a shared experience for so many young Black girls, teaches them that their natural hair is not at the same standard as a young white girls’ hair. A Black girl’s body must be managed while a white girl’s body is naturally beautiful the way it is. In situations of sexual abuse, the same messages are often demonstrated. White women have been symbolized in American culture as innocent while Black women have been seen as promiscuous and wild. With this contrast, many Black girls find their abusers justifying their assault with the lack of respect built into Black women’s identities. Rape and sexual assault are used as a weapon against Black women in a different way because of the standards and stereotypes that America uses to divide races and genders.
Cooper talks about Michelle Obama’s hair throughout her time as the First Lady of the United States. Her hair, as a Black woman in power, was held to the same, if not even higher standards, than that of Black women in corporate positions. Something as trivial as a hairstyle could have determined Michelle and Barack Obama’s support ratings and respect levels as leaders of the United States. The anti-Black beauty standards for women like Michelle Obama are the same reflected in the respectability standards of every day social situations. In the United States, hair is connected to beauty. A beautiful woman in a film or television show has long, straight, shiny hair. The same hair is what is marketed in commercials and in haircare and beauty departments of stores. However, there is more than one type of beauty and the standard should show that range of beauty and femininity.
For Black women, respectability is directly connected with femininity. The more beautiful a Black woman appears to society, the less respected she becomes, because she is too feminine and too sexual. In the other direction, if a Black woman is not feminine enough, she is not beautiful, and therefore seen as too powerful and masculine. In either case, she is a threat to the standard white man as established during the Antebellum period. Modern respectability is rooted in some of the primary stereotypes that slave women faced hundreds of years ago.
IV. The Stereotypes: The ‘Jezebels’ and the ‘Sapphires’
At the height of American slavery, slave-owning white men regularly abused their power to rape and assault the Black people they enslaved. During this time, laws were created to prevent the prosecution of white rapists when their victims were enslaved. However, there was severe punishment for Black rapists who assaulted white women. George vs. State of Mississippi, a sexual assault case from 1859, dealt with the question of “if a slave rapes a Black woman, should he receive the death penalty in the same fashion he would if the women he raped was white?” The court quickly decided that he would not be put to death because, as a Black woman, she was not protected by the law. Thus, only white women could be raped by Black men. In many other cases during this time, white men were often failed to be charged for the rape of Black women simply because she was not white.[vii] This policy was due to the prejudices surrounding the sexuality and femininity of Black women.
Respectability and its opposition, the stereotypical Black woman, serve to misconstrue and submit young Black girls to rape culture and gender norms. These Black girls adapt to this behavior, internalizing it, and passing it through generations. In her book of essays, Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry looks at the stereotypes of Black women in literature and how they reflect meaning in real life. She also took the words of women in today’s world, like Margaret from Chicago, who revealed in a focus group that “just because we are African, we’re supposed to be wild…we are supposed to be from the jungle and like to have wild sex. Like that is all we think about, Folks think we’re hot to trot. Or they think we’re Aunt Jemima. It’s never in between.”[viii] The polarity of these stereotypes is built on the backs of the white understanding of Black people during slavery. From the beginning, this polarity decided a Black person’s role in the United States, how they would live, and how they would be used and abused by white people in power. Now, they are still used to further marginalize and oppress poor Black communities.
The ‘Jezebel’ described a Black woman who was highly sexual and alluring, especially in the eyes of their white slaveowners. She was often viewed as beautiful, dangerous, and sexually manipulative. According to Johanna Collier, Black women during the Antebellum period were believed to have a higher libido than their white counterparts, assuming that they were better sexual partners and better at caring for children. [ix] This stereotype was how slaveowners justified rape. ‘Jezebel’ was a term created by white people to justify and normalize the rape of these women. It constitutes a sexual double standard for Black women, making them to be sexual enough to convince others that they always want sex and therefore cannot be raped. On the other hand, they are seen as not as beautiful or respectable as white women in the media. Black women are seen as objects to be misbehaved with and abused at will by men. The ‘Jezebel’ is directly connected to racial and gendered prejudice applied to modern social attitudes and actions as well. There is a double standard that still applies for how Black women dress in comparison to white women. There is an apparent inherit sexuality and promiscuity to a Black woman’s body while white women inherently possess innocence and purity. Even women like Serena Williams face the same sexual prejudices in their daily lives. Because Williams is a Black woman, wearing the same tennis skirts as her white opponents is seen as inherently more sexual and American media often takes advantage of this prejudice when reporting on her.
The ‘Sapphire’ is a more infamous stereotype which Black women find following them throughout their lives. Also known as the ‘Angry Black Woman,’ the ‘Sapphire’ is the emasculating anger and power that Black women are believed to naturally possess. It is irrationality that defines this stereotype and diminishes a Black woman’s respectability.[x] In Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry defines this stereotype as one most often believed and abused by Black men. It acts more specifically as a gendered stereotype because Black men directly uphold and abuse this prejudice within their lives. Stereotypes like the ‘Sapphire’ prevent Black women from standing up for themselves, holding their ground, and being passionate without facing prejudice and losing respect from their counterparts. Charisse Jones, Kumea Shorter-Gooden, and Harris-Perry discussed the shared experience of black women “shifting” their personalities to protect others’ masculinity. “Our research reveals that many Black women feel pressured to calibrate their directness and assertiveness, and minimize their accomplishments and success, to make the men in their lives comfortable with and confident in their manhood.”[xi] This further demonstrates how Black women are limited by the gender and race roles which they face. Even in relationships with their fathers, boyfriends, brothers, and uncles, they are expected to perform a certain part of femininity approved specifically to comfort the insecurity of Black men.
V. The Case of David Holtzclaw
In 2015, Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer, was found guilty of 18 counts of sexual assault against 13 different women. He was originally accused of 36 accounts of sexual assault. From late 2013 through 2014, Holtzclaw worked night shifts. He specifically targeted and assaulted poor Black women with a criminal background. He believed that with those backgrounds, they would never be believed if they tried to tell their stories. The prosecutor, District Attorney Lori McConnell, said, “He didn’t choose C.E.O.s or soccer moms; he chose women he could count on not telling what he was doing. He counted on the fact no one would believe them and no one would care.”[xii] With almost 40 witnesses against him, Holtzclaw was eventually convicted.
Men like this exemplifies and abuses the misogynistic, racist, and classist systems in place across the United States. Men across the country take advantage of the misogynoir culture which declares Black women unable to be raped. The women assaulted by Holtzclaw are several of the millions of Black women and girls who fall victim to the misunderstanding of femininity as a Black woman. The focus group in Sister Citizen by Harris-Perry discusses that Black women are constantly identified as too sexual or not sexual enough. In their youth, their mothers remind them constantly to uphold the system of respectability. But men like Daniel Holtzclaw prove that no matter how respectable a Black woman is, the system will still fail her.
Returning to the case of George vs State of Mississippi, there are startling similarities between how Black women are represented as feminine and valuable beings in the court system. Beyond social normality, it is the law that still fails to see Black women as vulnerable and possible victims of assault in the same way it sees white women. In his report of the history of rape in the United States legal system, Jeffrey J. Pokorak describes how the legal system failed to see Black women as victims:
Raping a Black woman was not a crime for the majority of this Nation’s history. First, the rape of a Black woman was simply not criminalized. Even when there was an argument that a statue was race neutral as to victimization, prosecutorial inaction and Court holdings made clear the lack of recourse for women who were raped. In fact, a White defendant could argue that his indictment ought to be dismissed for failing to state the victim was White.
Pokorak demonstrates the oppression Black women were held under during slavery, “slave women were expected to be both efficient laborers and efficient breeders.”[xiii] This image of Black women allows men to blame their victims more easily, and even gaslight them into believing that their bodies are why they are treated the way they are. There needs to be a greater shift in policy to reflect the validity of Black women’s bodies in cases like these. Their bodies, identities, and lives are made to be more than a means to an end for abusive men. Seeing the court system continue to dismiss and downplay cases like Holtzclaw’s only further demonstrates how deeply rooted misogynoir relates to Black rape culture.
In defining the position of rape culture in the Black community, there are also several oppositions to this argument that fail to understand the foregrounds misogynoir has in the performance of modern-day gender roles. The 1965 Moynihan report stands as an anti-feminist doctrine, creating a narrative that the cause for Black poverty and inequality is the instable families headed by Black women. It rooted the racial inequality of the 1960s in that of the downfalls of matriarchal Black families, not of the oppressive political institution and social norms that made up and still makes up American culture. In Moynihan’s eyes, the key to racial equality in America was the leadership of Black men in their communities. In this ideology, the success and influence of Black women in their own communities was detrimental to the good of the community and held back the opportunities, both socially and economically for Black men.
The Moynihan report misunderstands the already established limits Black women face because of their race and gender. Moynihan states that “it has been estimated that only a minority of Negro children reach the age of 18 having lived all their lives with both of their parents. Once again, this measure of family disorganization is decreasing among white families and increasing among Negro families.”[xiv] Moynihan assumes that the ideal American family, or a family in which children should be raised, is a two-parent, white household. Feminist Merrillee A. Dolan’s 1971 paper analyzes Moynihan’s mistake, primarily that Black women are not to blame. Rather, the economic exploitation of workers (especially Black workers) is to blame. “His entire report is a strong statement on the desirability of patriarchy. It is a plea for the government’s poverty policies to strengthen the patriarchal system and leave women to the mercy of a man’s economic support.”[xv] Moynihan directly demonstrates how misogynoir has always been a scapegoat in American economics and politics.[xvi] It is institutionalized to blame Black women for the issues they are facing, in the same way they are blamed in cases of sexual violence. Patriarchal gender roles set the standard for American life and is seen as an ideal. However, it is important to understand how that impacts how we look at Black women in places of power. They do not fail to provide because they are Black women, they fail to provide because of the economic and social systems in place which constantly fail them.
More space must be cleared for the specific concerns of Black feminism in mainstream feminist ideals. Through this research, the gap between feminist solidarity is most visible because of the roots of historical misogynoir embedded in American culture. From analyzing the treatment of Black women and their femininity in the height of slavery to now, there has been little improvement in the prejudicial views. In rape cases, these ideals of femininity as well as race and gender define whether a woman was raped. These standards are what put women like Daniel Holtzclaw’s victims in danger every day.
For the future, it should be the responsibility of white and Black feminists alike to redefine and reestablish a new understanding of the femininity void of racial prejudices and stereotypes that have defined Black femininity for too long. Feminism is not and should not act as an exclusive ideology. These stereotypes and respectability politics are one of the many concepts that place barriers around Black identity and limits it from becoming more progressive in its femininity. Furthermore, it is important to explore how damaging misogynoir and rape culture has on Black youth. Reestablishing a healthier and stronger feminine identity begins with redefining what femininity means to young Black girls to create a better future when they grow into roles in their communities. Misogynoir continues to plague American culture because it is embedded in our history, but it does not have to be a part of our tomorrow.
Bailey, Moya. “Misogynoir and Kamala Harris,” October 16, 2020. https://www.moyabailey.com/2020/10/16/misogynoir-and-kamala-harris/.
“Black Women and Sexual Assault.” Ujima. The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, October 2018. https://ujimacommunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Ujima-Womens-Violence-Stats-v7.4-1.pdf.
Collier, Johanna M., Matthew J. Taylor, and Zoe D. Peterson. “Reexamining the ‘Jezebel’ Stereotype: The Role of Implicit and Psychosexual Attitudes.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 41, no. 3/4 (Fall/Winter 2017): 92-104. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=131534554&site=eds-live.
Cooper, Brittney C. “Chapter 7: Orchestrated Fury.” Essay. In Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, 147–169. New York, N, NY: Picador, 2019.
Dolan, Merrillee A. “Moynihan, Poverty Programs, and Women: A Female Viewpoint.” Papers of Merrillee An. Dolan 1970-1976.”
Geary, Daniel. “Moynihan’s Anti-Feminism.” Jacobin Magazine. January 7, 2015. https://jacobinmag.com/2015/07/moynihans-report-fiftieth-anniversary-black-family.
Harris-Perry, Melissa V. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. http://search.ebscohost.com.washcoll.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=389343&site=eds-live.
Hunt, Jazelle. “Field Lessons from Reporting on Black Women Survivors of Sexual Violence.” Accessed December 7, 2020. https://centerforhealthjournalism.org/resources/lessons/lessons-field-reporting-black-women-survivors-sexual-violence.
Kendall, Mikki. HOOD FEMINISM: Notes from the Women White Feminists Forgot. NY, New York, Viking, 2020.
Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” U.S Department of Labor Seal. March, 1965. https://dol.gov/general/aboutdol/history/webid-moynihan.
Phillips, Dave. “Former Oklahoma City Police Officer Found Guilty of Rapes.” New York Times. PublishedDecember 10, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/11/us/former-oklahoma-city-police-officer-found-guilty-of-rapes.html
Pokorak, Jeffrey J. “Rape as A Badge of Slavery: The Legal History of, and Remedies for, Prosecutorial Race-Of-Victim Charging Disparities.” Nevada Law Journal 7, no. 1 (October 1, 2006). http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edslex&AN=edslex61B80555&site=eds-live.
[i] Black Women and Sexual Assault,” National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, October 2018, 1-2.
[ii] Jazelle Hunt, “Field lessons from reporting on black women survivors of sexual violence,” Center for Health Journalism, USC.
[iii] Moya Bailey, “Misogynoir and Kamala Harris,” October 16, 2020.
[iv] Mikki Kendall, “It’s Raining Patriarchy,” Hood Feminism:Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot, Viking, 2020, 67-8.
[v] Kendall, “It’s Raining Patriarchy,” 69-70.
[vi] Brittney Cooper, “Chapter 7: Orchestrated Fury,” Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Picador, 2019, 147-150.
[vii] Pokorak, “Rape as a Badge of Slavery,” 6-9.
[viii] Melissa V. Harris-Perry, “Crooked Room,” Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011, 28-49.
[ix] Johanna M. Collier, Matthew J. Taylor, and Zoe D. Peterson. “Reexamining the ‘Jezebel’ Stereotype: The Role of Implicit and Psychosexual Attitudes.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 41, no. 3/4, 92-94.
[x] Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen, 29-30.
[xi] Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen, 90-91.
[xii] Dave Phillips, “Former Oklahoma City Police Officer Found Guilty of Rapes,” New York Times (New York City, NY), December 10, 2015.
[xiii] Pokorak, “Rape as a Badge of Slavery,” 7-9.
[xiv] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” U.S Department of Labor, March, 1965.
[xv] Merrillee A. Dolan, “Moynihan, Poverty Programs, and Women: A Female Viewpoint,” Papers of Merrillee An. Dolan 1970-1976.”
[xvi] Daniel Geary, “Moynihan’s Anti-Feminism,” Jacobin Magazine, January 7, 2015.
Meagan Kennedy is a freshman English major with minors in Creative Writing and Art & Art History. In her free time she enjoys reading, painting, writing, and hiking. She plans to pursue a career in teaching after her time at Washington College.