How Do We Address Misogyny in a Racist Society?

You know things seem dire for women when you find yourself revisiting Andrea Dworkin. Not the Dworkin who’s often misquoted as saying, “All heterosexual sex is rape,” but the Dworkin who once said this:

Have you ever wondered why we [women] are not just in armed combat against you [men]? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.

I think of this quote during a year in which Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” for advocating women’s right to insurance that covers birth control. I think of this quote during an election year when Congressional candidates speak of “legitimate rapes” or view pregnancies resulting from such acts of sexual violence as “God’s will.” I especially think of this quote when, last week, an uploaded video on the popular urban site World Star Hip Hop featured newly signed Def Jam rapper Lil Reese brutally assaulting a young woman amid much outrage and, sadly, amusement (yes, amusement, both among the spectators in the video and on social media) at the spectacle of a young black woman battered, bruised and stomped.

With regards to the last example, I’m especially disturbed–not just because of the blatant misogyny but also because the race of this young woman will unnecessarily distort the issue of sexual violence, reducing the issue of misogyny to a “cultural” issue. As in: Black culture, or hip-hop culture or youth culture is to blame (as if violence against women can so easily be confined to culture–neatly divorced from other systems of oppression such as white supremacy, capitalism, imperialism and heteronormativity). So I’m left to ponder: How do we address misogyny in a racist society? And if I want to broaden the context even further, how do we address the problem of woman-hating violence in a global context?

As feminists, this continues to pose a problem. For instance, when Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy pointed to the problem of woman-hating in Middle East cultures, she recycled the worst Orientalist depictions of the Middle East and reduced the issue of misogyny to one of culture. I respect her rage and appreciate her willingness to break the silence about violence against women. But how can we honestly and frankly talk about misogyny in global contexts when the wider globe–especially those from non-Middle Eastern parts of the world–can simply point to the examples that Eltahawy gives and dismiss the global repercussions by focusing solely on stereotypes?

As in: “See, Arabs and Muslims are more brutal than we are. Someone from inside that culture has said so!” Sadly, such responses to Eltahawy’s reportage have become the norm. No one says, “Wow, misogyny is a global phenomenon! How do we end it?”

Usually, from a Western perspective, “ending it” means dropping bombs on those savages over there. More than a decade later, after September 11, Afghan women are still not liberated. Meanwhile, we still haven’t addressed the woman-hating perpetrators over here.

And that is why the Lil Reese assault on the young woman, later identified as Tiairah Marie, is complicated to me. I want to unequivocally condemn the assault and to do so without feeding into racist stereotypes about “brutish” and “criminally-prone” black men.  As Andreas Hale has expressed in response to Lil Reese, these images that are allowed to circulate via mainstream media (through popular music) or social media (on sites like WSHH), don’t alarm us to the problem of violence against women. They simply reinforce the worst stereotypes about black youth. As he so aptly puts it:

When you see a kid in a hoodie beat a woman senseless on camera and then see another kid with a hoodie in your neighborhood, fear and misunderstanding will cause a negative reaction. … At the end of the day, Trayvon Martin looks like Lil Reese and Lil Reese looks like Trayvon Martin to the naked eye that is attached to a tainted brain. George Zimmerman followed Martin because he fit the [racial] profile, a profile … heightened by websites such as WSHH and record labels that reward this ignorance with fame and a deal.

To reduce misogyny to “culture” or to “race” is to be in denial of the global scope of patriarchy and its intersectional function through racism, imperialism, capitalism and other “isms.” However, it is precisely because the bodies of women of color “bleed at the intersections,” to loosely quote Gloria Anzaldua, why we can never sit by in silence as the violence persists. In the past, the vow of silence has kept many women in marginalized communities from speaking out because there was never any sympathy from outside their community; or, worse, the reaction was to enact more violence on their community, be it through lynchings, wars and occupations or mass incarcerations.

Today, however, social media has now blurred the lines between the private sphere of the marginal community and the public sphere of mainstream society. Now is not the time for silence when what occurs “behind closed doors” or in segregated neighborhoods is available for upload on the Internet. For all the world to see.

And now that we have a worldwide audience, what can we say on the subject? Around the same time of Lil Reese’s assault video, another up-and-coming rapper, Angel Haze (pictured above), released a mixtape which recounts a harrowing tale of childhood sexual abuse and the resulting self-hate and rage against which she battled. Re-sampling Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” fellow native Detroit rapper Haze offers a decidedly feminist response to the woman-hate that hip-hop and the larger culture and world have unleashed. (Trigger Warning)

I am floored by the starkness and candid descriptions of her experience. It’s as if, because we have become so desensitized to the violence in the lives of women of color, Haze has to spell it out and hit us over the head with the urgency of her message. If we place Angel Haze’s version of “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” against the backdrop of Lil Reese, congressional candidates and the wider world–a world in which 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai  can be be shot in the head in Pakistan for defying the Taliban by seeking education and where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is still recovering from her own gunshot wound to the head when targeted by a rage-filled misogynist in a mass shooting in Arizona–we might appreciate the need to transcend racial and national differences and connect the dots in these different stories of violence against women.

Another 70s feminist icon, Audre Lorde, once said, “Your silence will not protect you,” and Angel Haze and many others are boldly transcending that silence since there is no protection, no defense. What now matters is how we can hear these voices of clarity amid the media noise that constantly seeks to distort their voices.

Misogyny is not simply a black problem, a hip-hop problem, a youth problem or a Middle East problem. This problem affects all of us, and it is time that we reach and relate across our differences to address it.

Photo of Angel Haze via Flickr user Murakami_Reader licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.