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Misogynoir 101: Serena Williams and the US Open.

This weekend, the world was blessed with a US Open finals match between two fierce athletes – both women of colour – competing to be the best in their sport. Unfortunately, the 2018 US Open will go down in history for a very different reason.

During the course of the tennis match, Serena was penalized three times by Umpire Carlos Ramos. First, Ramos issued a penalty for illegal coaching, insisting Serena’s coach had signalled her from the stands. Serena calmly, but firmly responded: "I don't cheat to win. I'd rather lose." Ramos issued a second violation when Serena broke her racket out of frustration, this time docking her a point. Williams called him a “thief” for taking away a point, to which Ramos issued his third violation - a game penalty. After the game, Serena was fined $17,000 by the tournament referee.

Some argue this was simply an overzealous umpire being a rule stickler. Some say Serena lost her temper. Some believe things transpired the way they did because of sexist and racist attitudes.

While there are many factors to consider when analysing the events of this past Saturday and its subsequent blow back, I believe much of this does come down to race and gender. A specific kind of misogyny: “misogynoir.” 

What is Misogynoir?

The term “misogynoir” combines “misogyny” (prejudice against women) and “noir” (the French word for black). It acknowledges the specific convergence of anti-Black racism and misogyny. It’s a combo platter of sexism and racism served to Black women.

Misogyny + Anti-Black Racism = Misogynoir

Misogynoir was coined by Black feminist scholar Moya Bailey, when she unveiled the term in an essay discussing music and anti-Black misogyny. Moya used the term to describe “the particular brand of hatred directed at Black women in American visual and popular culture." 

Only Black women can experience misogynoir. It is not just a result of White supremacy, but also anti-Black projections. Other women of colour can (and do) experience forms of misogyny that intersect with racism (thus falling into the category of ‘intersectionality’ as coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw), but misogynoir speaks to misogyny and a specific type of racism – anti-Black racism. 

Anti-Black racism deals with specific stereotypes, prejudices and oppressions thrust upon Black people. It deals with the historical context of slavery and lost ancestral roots. Anti-Black racism, if you will, is a subset of the more general racism, that deals with one particular community.

Misogynoir takes that specific type of racism in one hand, misogyny in the other hand, and mixes it like playdough. The two forms of oppression become one, unable to be separated, forever tinting the colour of the dough.

You may not be familiar with the technical term of misogynoir, but you are most likely aware of the stereotypes it peddles. There’s the “sassy Black woman,” the “hypersexual Black woman” (or girls), the “angry Black woman,” and the “strong Black woman.” (For a deeper delve into these stereotypes, check out this article.)

So was the Serena incident an example of misogynoir?

Let’s look at the recent incident with Serena at the US Open to help us understand what misogynoir is, and why this incident unfolded the way it did because Serena is a Black woman.

As a Black woman, Serena was working against two harmful stereotypes. 

First, as a woman she was labelled ‘irrational.’ It wasn’t just that she was mad, but that she was emotional and irrationally mad. When men get mad, it’s a reasonable response to their circumstances or a specific incident. When a woman gets mad, it’s overly emotional, unnecessary, and driven by our raging hormones.

Serena was repeatedly referred in the news to as having a “temper tantrum” or a “meltdown” on the court. The New York Post, for example, referred to it as “the mother of all meltdowns.” These terms denote not only an over-expression of emotions, but are terms primarily used for children. Such reporting of male athletes is so rare (if existent at all), that I can’t recall a situation when a male athlete was talked about in this way. Rather, I’ve seen reports talk about men “getting heated,” “arguing with the ref,” “disagreeing with a call,” or being “passionate.”

No one seems to bat an eye when a man (especially a male athlete) gets upset. Countless clubs, rackets, and sticks have been broken on national television without so much as a wagging of the finger. In fact, how many times have we seen male athletes in baseball or hockey rush the field/ice to physically brawl with one another?

In the context of tennis alone, as many have recently pointed out, men ‘break the rules’ routinely. During a US Open match in 1991, Jimmy Connors repeatedly called an official an “abortion.” In the 2009 US Open finals, Roger Federer told an umpire: “I don’t give a shit what he [the line judge] says,” “Don’t fucking tell me the rules,” and “Don’t fucking talk to me.” Neither men were issued a penalty.

Second, as a Black person Serena was dubbed ‘aggressive.’

While it’s more difficult to explain to fellow white folks how race was a part of the equation here, as I can’t draw upon overt examples of white women getting heated on the court, race was indeed an ingredient in the incident. Just as Black girls are seven times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls for fear of getting “aggressive,” Serena’s display of anger has been blown out of proportion. If a white girl had thrown a racquet, it would have been unsportsmanlike, of course, but it wouldn’t have been met with the same adjectives that have clogged up the headlines about Serena.

Black women live in a reality of being labelled angry and/or aggressive whenever they disagree with a norm. As Jada Jefferson wrote in a personal essay, “I learned quickly that my understanding of calm and assertive would easily be mistaken for bullying and aggression. My occasional concentrated silence would soon be described as “an attacking energy”.”

Serena, being both Black and female, faced the heightened backlash as a result of these discriminations working together. Reports about the match have repeatedly perpetuated the ‘Angry Black Woman’ stereotype by framing Serena’s response as unjustified and hyper aggressive. 

As Sherronda J Brown wrote, “Serena’s anger at the U.S. Open final was justified the moment she expressed it. Millions of other Black women felt that. We felt it in a way that no one else could. But Black women aren’t allowed to be angry because it threatens the pillars of white supremacy and misogyny.”

What happened to Serena is a perfect example of misogynoir.

As for Ramos, because his behaviour deserves to be examined just as much as Serena’s, Ramos didn’t do his job this weekend. His lack of flexibility in a moment that would define the match illustrates that he didn't do his job: adjudicate the match equitably. Rather,  he became part of the outcome. Ramos took off his level-headed-umpire-hat and donned his white-man-power-hat to punish a Black woman for expressing emotions. As Billie Jean King wrote for the Washington Post, “The effect was an abuse of power: Ramos crossed the line. He made himself part of the match.” It was the intersections of Serena’s gender and race – whether Ramos was conscious of this or not – that led him to react so harshly to her displays of anger.

The aftermath is misogynoir 101.

If there was any debate about whether Umpire Ramos’ response was fuelled by misogynoir (consciously or not), there should be no debate that the ensuing backlash has been flooded with such anti-Black sexism.

First, there’s the thousands of tweets that denigrate Serena, no shortage of which boast blatantly sexist and/or racist comments about the tennis star. There are too many upon which to comment, so feel free to peruse yourself.

Second, there is the infamous cartoon drawn by an Australian cartoonist named Mark Knight. Many argue that this too is neither racist nor sexist, but I promise you, it is. Whether or not Knight intended for it to be laced with misogynoir is irrelevant – a phrase or action can be discriminatory even if its host has the best of intentions. What Knight drew is laden with harmful stereotypes: he has Serena in an apelike stance with oversize pink lips (hint: racism). He also included a soother in her mouth to signal her childishness (hint: sexism). Further, he drew Naomi as a fair-skinned woman with straight blonde hair, painting Serena as the wild animal and Naomi as the innocent gentile (hint: racism again).

Third, there is the recent declaration from certain tennis umpires that they are planning to boycott Serena’s future matches. The irony here can’t be overlooked. Serena has been widely criticized because she lost her temper and “overreacted” to a call, but the retaliatory measure of boycotting Serena’s matches because they don’t approve of her behaviour in one game takes the cake for overreacting. We can debate all day long about whether Ramos has penalized other players in the same fashion, but it is safe to say that no group of umpires have ever banded together to boycott another athlete before.

At the end of the day.

This isn’t a discussion about whether or not Serena got heated – she did. This isn’t a discussion about whether or not it’s okay to break a racquet – it isn’t. This isn’t a discussion about whether or not Serena stole the spotlight from Naomi – she did.  

This is about a Black female athlete who has been treated unfairly, time and time again, by sports professionals and spectators alike, because of her gender and race. This is about Serena Williams, in the aftermath of exhibiting unsportsmanlike behaviour, not being afforded the same humanity as her contemporaries. This is about another white man in a position of power punishing a Black woman for expressing her emotions. This is about a sea of people gas lighting the event. About responding to an ordinary display of anger with an extraordinary punishment.

This is about misogynoir 101.

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