Diane Abbott and ‘misogynoir’: colourism, anti-blackness and sexism in the UK

EPA-EFE/Will Oliver

Diane Abbott and ‘misogynoir’: colourism, anti-blackness and sexism in the UK

The BBC has recently found itself at the centre of a row over claims that Diane Abbott was unfairly treated on one of its flagship political affairs programmes, Question Time.

These claims have currency. During the show Abbott was regularly interrupted and spoken over more frequently than the other guests – often by the chair herself, Fiona Bruce. To me, watching the show, the different treatment Abbott received made it feel as if her contributions were not particularly welcomed or respected. At one point she was even subjected to an unprompted, random personal attack by an audience member who expressed his anxiety about her capabilities as an MP.

This form of ridicule is nothing new for Abbott, who has spoken out about receiving racist and sexist abuse online on a daily basis. Research conducted by Amnesty International found that in the run-up to the 2017 election, the abuse she received accounted for 45% of all abusive tweets against women MPs. This figure is astonishing and the hostility gives an indication of her position in relation to her female peers as a prominent black woman in the public eye.

However, this will not come as a surprise to Abbott and the thousands of other black women in Britain that experience misogynoir in their everyday lives. Derived from the term misogyny, misogynoir as a concept goes a step further in naming how both sexism and racism manifest in black women’s lives to create intersecting forms of oppression. It helps us to understand why Abbott, one of a very small minority of black women MPs, was disproportionately targeted before the 2017 election.

Where race and gender meet

Sexism and racism evidently exacerbate each other to create particular challenges for black women. In the case of Abbott, you can see how these processes take shape because the abuse she has historically received has often taken both her gender and her race as a reference point to subjugate her.

This includes the time when a white male Conservative official shared an image of her as an ape with lipstick. The ape invokes classical racist tropes that construct the black body as animalistic – and, coupled with the lipstick, calls into question the sexual attractiveness and desirability of the black female body.

Away from the BBC and politics, there is widespread evidence across British institutions that a double penalty exists in black women’s lives. In higher education – the sector in which I work – 2018 figures show that out of 14,770 UK professors in academic institutions only 85 (0.6%) are black. That’s a significant under-representation. Even more stark, black women make up just 25 of this number – less than one-third of all UK black professors.

To understand these present-day patterns of institutional racism and sexism that routinely affect black women, it’s important to shine a light on Britain’s racial histories and how ideas about race and gender took shape.

Shades of prejudice

I unearthed these histories in preparation for my research on mixed white and black Caribbean identities in the UK. In doing so I was able to trace how and why ideas about the inferiority of black people – and women in particular – were developed, and identify how these ideologies have continued to function in our contemporary societies through expressions of misogynoir.

My research on mixed-race identity revealed that misogynoir has important nuances. The project identified how, despite having a negative impact on black women across the board, when misogynoir intersects with colourism (discrimination based on skin tone) it can produce more acute negative effects for darker-skinned black women compared with their lighter-skinned counterparts.

Happy families: Meghan Markle (centre) with her mother Doria Ragland and husband Prince Harry in September 2018. Ben Stansall/PA Wire/PA Images

This, in part, can explain why people appear to feel deeply uncomfortable seeing Abbott, a darker-skinned black women, in such an important role. Meanwhile the nation has seemed quite able to accept the biracial American ex-actress Meghan Markle as part of the monarchy. The question remains as to whether she would be the Duchess of Sussex had she been a darker-skinned black woman.

Inherited racist histories

The beginnings of these differences in the treatment and attitudes towards diverse populations of black women can be found in the context of British colonialism.

Take for example the racist and sexist structures of Caribbean plantation societies governed by white men. Black slave women were often routinely raped by these men – and in societies such as Jamaica, where slaves often outnumbered their masters, the mixed-race descendants of these exploitative sexual unions were regarded as allies and were sometimes strategically used to help maintain control as overseers over the black majority. As a result, mixed-race populations could often become inheritors of plantation wealth.

The function of gender in these processes of inheritance was highly significant. Whereas mixed-race men were regarded as a threat to the superiority of the white man, mixed-race women were a more welcomed intermediary between black and white. Research indicates that in the latter years of slavery in Jamaica, the chances of manumission (release from slavery) for mixed-race women tended to be greater than for men and after abolition they would come to form a key part of the newly formed brown managerial class.

The legacy of these historical societal structures, that ascribed economic, social and cultural value to lighter skinned women of colour is evident from the ongoing phenomenon of misogynoir which systematically devalues darker-skinned black women.

From reports of black British youths glorifying light-skinned women with “curly hair” to stories about black American rappers specifically requesting “multiracial” women on casting calls there are regular reminders of anti-black sexism that show how our colonial legacies have been inherited. The recent debacle with Abbott forms just a small part of this broader picture.

To understand the complexities of misogynoir – and the ways in which it operates – we need to ensure that the nuances of skin shade constitute a central part of the discussion. Misogynoir, like all other variations of racism, is never simply just a black and white issue – it should not be treated as such.