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3 Questions: Moya Bailey on the intersection of racism and sexism

MLK Visiting Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies and scholar of critical race, feminist, and disability studies discusses misogynoir, social media, and her work at MIT this year.
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Moya Bailey coined the term misogynoir “to describe the unique ways in which Black women are pathologized in popular culture.” The term is a portmanteau of “misogyny” and “noir.”

Moya Bailey, a scholar of critical race, feminist, and disability studies, is the 2020-21 MLK Visiting Professor in the MIT Women’s and Gender Studies Program. She is an assistant professor of Africana studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Northeastern University. Her co-authored book, “#HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice” was published by the MIT Press in 2020, and her forthcoming book “Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance” will be published in May by NYU Press.

Bailey coined the term misogynoir “to describe the unique ways in which Black women are pathologized in popular culture.” The term is a portmanteau of “misogyny” and “noir,” the French word for “black,” and as such, speaks to the way gender and race cannot be disentangled from one another, particularly when used to malign Black women through the formation of a sickly synergistic force that is more corrosive than either racism or sexism alone.

Bailey will teach special subject WGS.S10 (Black Feminist Health Science Studies) this spring, and will host a Black Feminist Health Science Studies Symposium on Thursday, March 18, that will be open to the entire MIT community. Here, she discusses her work and her time at MIT this year.

Q: You have said that when you first coined the term misogynoir, you had no idea it would go viral. It’s impossible to envision it not being a part of our lexicon now. We are currently at the intersection of two public health crises — racism and Covid-19. How has this moment highlighted misogynoir in the media and digital landscape?

A: It’s stunning to see the way misogynoir has exacerbated the dire outcomes for Black people in relation to Covid-19. Not only are Black people, Black women, more likely to die of Covid than their white counterparts, they make up the lion's share of essential (i.e., expendable) workers who are on the front lines of infection because their occupations prevent them from working from home, or with little interaction with other people. I think a lot of people don’t even know that a Black woman was a key member of the Covid vaccine team, and I think knowledge of her labor could help with some of the healthy and perhaps overblown skepticism about the vaccine purported in Black communities. My book, “Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance,” spends a good amount of time addressing how Black women’s health has been compromised because of the way misogynoir reaches into medicine. Even Black women physicians are at risk, as the recent Covid-related death of Dr. Susan Moore attests.

Q: What are some crucial ways Black women use social media to confront misogynoir?

A: In my book, I spend a lot of time talking about the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs, as it is really the hashtag that set all of this research in motion. I found it such a catchy hashtag, one that does and doesn’t reveal who it is for. If you don’t know who is included in “like us” you don’t know who the hashtag is hailing, so it exists in this wonderful space between being transparent and being opaque. I think that Janet Mock’s initial use of the hashtag and the community that grew around it and continues to use it is such a great example of the transformative power of what I call digital alchemy, or how marginalized groups marshal existing digital tools and repurpose them for social justice.

Q: You have mentioned that your course, WGS.S10 (Black Feminist Health Science Studies), is designed to make critical connections between feminism, science, technology, and society. Why is it important for MIT students to connect these topics?

A: MIT prides itself on producing the top STEM leaders in their fields, and I see this course building on that education through incorporating humanities-type questions into students’ understanding of what they already study. The humanities offer such a wonderful way to peel back the layers of supposed “objectivity” in science and help students see that science is made by scientists who have their own situated knowledges and biases that inform the science that they produce. Students will get to see the realities of this phenomenon in the Black Feminist Health Science Studies Symposium I am hosting on March 18, 2021. I’ve invited the scholars who are part of the BFHSS Collective and the scholars who inspired our work to talk a bit about their own origin stories and why Black feminism is such an important intervention in health and science. I am so excited about the class and the students I will get to know in the process. Definitely something I am looking forward to in the new year!

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