Misogynoir and Digital Resistance: Q&A With Dr. Moya Bailey

Blog Post
Flickr Creative Commons/Johnny Silvercloud
March 9, 2021

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Dr. Moya Bailey is an assistant professor of Africana Studies and the program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University. Her work focuses on marginalized groups’ use of digital media to promote social justice as acts of self-affirmation and health promotion, and she is interested in how race, gender, and sexuality are represented in media and medicine. Her newest book — Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance — looks at how Black women are responding to anti-Black misogyny in American media and social media platforms. Last month editor-in-chief Karen Bannan interviewed Dr. Bailey for The Commons about her work, her book, and how Black women can shape public interest technology.

Q: Can we start with a quick definition? What is misogynoir?

Dr. Bailey: Film noir, as a term, was coined by Nino Frank to talk about these gritty films in the late 1940s and 1950s that had these dark themes. I was thinking about how Black women were represented in popular and digital culture, and saw some similarities in that Black women are often represented as hypersexual and just portrayed in a very negative light. And so when I was thinking about combining misogyny with Black, noir came to mind because of those film and media connotations of that genre of film noir. So misogynoir was a portmanteau of those terms to talk about the specific anti-Black misogyny that Black women experience. There’s something that I think is synergistic about the way racism and sexism come together that isn’t just additive. Misogynoir speaks to this uniquely generative force that creates these representations of Black women that are very problematic in both digital and in general popular culture. My book is really trying to get at how Black women are responding to that using digital media.

Q: Is that the central thesis of the book then?

Dr. Bailey: The central thesis of the book is that Black women are using digital media tools to challenge and transform the misogynoir that takes place in those spaces. And that that act of transformation by creating their own hashtags, creating their own web shows, doing things on Tumblr, all of that works in an effort to challenge misogynoir but also is its own form of health practice, that there’s something really generative about doing this work in a public social media realm that is also a health affirmation process, both in terms of the work that gets generated and the process by which the work gets generated.

Q: Speaking of health, misogynoir has affected the Black women during the covid-19 pandemic, right?

Dr. Bailey: Yes, and this is something I recently submitted a fellowship application about. I’ve been thinking more specifically about misogynoir in medicine, and how assumptions about who Black women are end up seeping into medical practice. This is something that is historic, but we can also see it contemporarily in the COVID epidemic. One example that comes to mind is the death of Dr. Susan Moore, who was a practicing physician who was experiencing COVID symptoms. When she went to the hospital, there was a lack of belief on the part of the doctors who were charged with her care. She really had to advocate for herself to get the health care that she needed, even as a physician. That’s just an unfortunate example of how misogynoir in medicine manifests. Even a trained physician who previously was doing the work of taking care of COVID patients goes to the hospital and isn’t believed by doctors, and ultimately, succumbs to COVID-19 and dies. She posted a video to Facebook of her treatment within the hospital, trying to add the effort she was making to advocate for herself. There’s this real connection between how Black women are perceived in society and their treatment and care within medicine, even when they are medical doctors themselves.

Q: Is this why there is such an urgent need right now to integrate Black feminism into not just medicine, but also into technology?

Dr. Bailey: one of the hallmarks of my field of study — this Black feminist health science studies — is thinking about what are some of the hidden assumptions within science and technology that end up having reverberations in the actual deployment of tech and science going forward? So I’m really interested in the curriculum that medical students receive and how that shapes their ideas about different patient populations, particularly marginalized groups, and also how that impacts the way that tech is created.

I’m thinking in the tech world specifically about what’s happened at Google to Timnit Gebru, one of the ethical AI creators in Googlers there who was fired for basically talking about some of the real energy impacts of using AI. There’s a real question about the carbon footprint of some of the AI that Google uses, and she was silenced and ultimately let go from Google. And that firing has also had some reverberations within Google because it has shown just the differential treatment that she experienced as a Black woman. There have been a bunch of people who supported her and challenged the ways that she’s been discussed, but the fact remains that she has not been able to get her job back. I don’t think she wants it back but if the issue is trying to change some of these embedded assumptions within technology and within the sciences, it does not make sense to fire the people who are raising the alarm about some potential social justice issues if they are doing that work in an important way.

Q: Do you see public interest technology affecting and intersecting with your own work?

Dr. Bailey: Yes. I am really interested in what it is that is available to the public that becomes part of our ability to challenge and to create the technology that we need. There’s a real desire to see a more democratized experience of the internet and technology, most broadly. I think that happens when we start to center the people who are most marginalized, the people who are least likely to be in a position of privilege in relationship to the tech created. When you start there, then you ultimately create technology that is in more service to a greater number of people.

That’s one of the principles that really grounds what I think about with Black feminist health science studies, which comes from the Combahee River Collective statement. In that statement, they have this famous line, ‘If Black women were free, it would necessitate the freedom of all people because it would require the destruction of all systems of oppression because Black women experience all of them.’ And so with that in mind, at the heart of what it is that we’re doing within a public interest is the most marginalized people are the center of that then it definitely has ramifications for everyone else.

Q: When I started covering public interest technology it became very clear that it is done by women — and overwhelmingly done by white women, which needs to change. What can and will Black women add to the practice?

Dr. Bailey: Absolutely. I think when you are multiply marginalized — not just marginalized along one access of difference — when it is both race and gender coming together to inform how you see the world, you are uniquely able to address and potentially address some of the problems that people experience. In women’s studies, we have this concept of situated knowledge. That the knowledge that you have, or the knowledge you have access to is situated by your own experiences. People mistake this sometimes for intersectionality, but situated knowledge is really the fact that you grew up where you grew up. You have the class privilege that you have or don’t have, you have the skin color you have or don’t have. All of those things inform the way you view the world, and inform how you create and make decisions. By acknowledging that and privileging those people who have a perspective that is perhaps the most different from yours, or perhaps have the perspective that is most divergent from the mainstream, then you can actually get to some issues that otherwise wouldn’t be surfaced.

That might be more difficult for people within a privileged position to see, but we’ve seen that in terms of elections several times. People express surprise that white women voted in such high numbers for Trump. But if we look at how race and gender intersect, there’s a way that it does make sense that white women would feel aligned with someone who seems to be a vote in their interest along their own racial privilege. I think it’s an important conversation to have about gender not being the only salient way that we understand what it means to be in a position of oppression. Also that our relationship to privilege and oppression is dynamic, and one that is constantly shifting based on who we are seeing and imagining ourselves in relationship to. It’s not the case that people are only ever in a position of marginalization are only ever in a position of privilege, that those things are categories are shifting categories, depending on our relationships.

Q: How can students and early career Black women make the most change right now, especially in the public interest technology space?

Dr. Bailey: One of the challenges for people who are most marginalized is that we often get tasked with also doing our own diversity and inclusion work to make room for ourselves in those spaces. I would actually hesitate from giving those folks more to do other than to maybe rest and make sure they are taking care of themselves. I would want allies and accomplices to sort of start moving up and seeing the ways that conversations are moving forward, and who is being left out who’s not at the table, and begin to assert some interest in making sure that other voices are being raised. And also being a voice to say, you know, we haven’t really considered these particular intersections before, and we really should, there’s definitely a way that people can hear you, when they imagine you as an in group member, and, and see you as part of the community that they’re already wanting to speak to, that gives a unique, and I don’t know, an amplified voice, that it can be difficult for people who are understood or incorrectly assumed to be outside of that mainstream group. I would really love to see more advocacy on the part of accomplices that is directed by the people who are most marginalized in and in need of some support. That looks like asking colleagues or talking within your group about where the points are where we’re perhaps not paying attention or being as proactive around issues of race, gender, sexuality within an organization.

Q: As a team of mostly women we’ve noticed a trend in public interest tech and tech in general that men and women are called to different work, and that there needs to be a cultural change. When men solve tech problems they’re engineers and heroes, rushing in to save the day. Then you have females who are designers. They’re listening, and they’re taking the time to sit with the problem and looking for ways to make long term systemic cultural change. There’s definitely more value placed on firefighting, in part, because it is a male concept. Have you observed that, too?

Dr. Bailey: I have observed that. And from my academic perspective, I come from a digital humanities background. The way we talk about the same issue is a divide that was called hack versus yak. So the idea was that the men were doing the hacking, and that was like the real digital humanities, coding, building platforms, etc. and that the women were doing the yakking and not just the woman, but the other marginalized folks including people of color and also queer people. There was a sense that the yakking — just talking critically about what is happening in digital humanities — wasn’t the real work. The real work was in building creating, coding, hacking. The way that I think about it is that it’s a false divide. You obviously need both and the hacking, when guided by the design, guided by the yakking, ends up being more effective. And it needs to be done in concert with the people that the work is supposed to be for.

It’s a form of hubris to assume that you can create something that people need without actually speaking to that community. And one example of this was in 2015 when I was new in Boston there was a call from a group of folks at MIT to do a hackathon on behalf of sex workers. They were looking to create something that would be an effective option in the space of a Backpage or other social media platforms in which people were finding clients. It was done not in coordination with sex workers, but on their behalf. That created a lot of problems because it perpetuated that idea of the savior coming in, and didn’t actually speak to the issues that the community was facing. It put them more in harm’s way because it exposed them to a greater deal of publicity, and made it more possible for them to get arrested.

I’m really interested in projects that are designed with the community that they’re supposed to be advocating for. And the degree to which people are able to do that, I think is a testament to the longevity and sustainability of the kinds of tech that we really want to have thrive and go forward in our world.

Q: As a digital alchemist for the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network, can you tell us about the relevance of her work to the current moment in history?

Dr. Bailey: One of the texts of Octavia Butler’s that has resurfaced in this moment is The Parable of the Sower. And there’s a great meme also going around where people have been debating which futurist tech really speaks to this moment best, and people are debating, you know, 1984, or Brave New World. And then there’s Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower as Jim Halperin from the office sort of looking in and, and laughing, because obviously, Parable of the Sower is the text that speaks to this particular moment the best.

She had such incredible foresight in terms of what she wrote there and it speaks to not so distant future, I think the events of her texts actually start happening in 2024. In this world, we’re seeing lots of fires. In California, we’re seeing people’s inability to access food, that all of the utilities are not guaranteed, people are having to pay money to have police, etc, to have access to these things that we assume are part of the public good part of what we should have, and that there is this deep political unrest, and rivalry.

And so it’s this — again, not so distant future — where we see the infrastructure of the country crumbling and people are trying to figure out how to survive in this new world. One of the things Octavia offers is that what we need are dynamic and emergent solutions to address the needs of our day to day, and that we are going to have to do this work with each other and that it’s going to be at the level of our local community that we are doing the things that we need to survive. As I was watching the horrors that were unfolding in Texas, I was reminded of Octavia’s work, and just what it means for communities to be the ones who save themselves when government is not in a position to do what it is that we pay them to do, and show up for communities the way that they should.

Q: We would love to hear your take on hashtag activism. Is expanding the use of public interest tech something that can be achieved through hashtag activism?

Dr. Bailey: Hashtag activism is the way that people take hashtags and use them to leverage things that they want in the world. I see hashtag activism as one tool in the arsenal of activists and organizers to create and build attention around an issue and also have some material gains. Hashtag activism gets denigrated a lot because people think of it as slacktivism, as armchair activism. But what we found in the book Hashtag Activism that I coauthored with Sarah J. Jackson and Brooke Foucault Welles is that people who are engaged in hashtag activism are using it to leverage work that they are already doing on the ground. The hashtag activism that they’re involved in has some real material consequences. One of my favorite examples from the book comes from Genie Lauren, who wrote the foreword for the book who, after seeing that one of the jurors from George Zimmerman trial was going to get a book deal, was able to launch a successful hashtag activism campaign and got the book deal rescinded in less than 24 hours. And Genie herself did not consider herself an activist, but just felt like this wasn’t okay for someone to profit off the death of Trayvon Martin. And so I see hashtag activism having this really wonderful overlap between what is happening both in online spaces, and what is happening in the actual material world. And that those two things are not as disparate as people might assume.

One other point related to thinking about disability activism, which has been particularly invigorated by hashtag activism. It’s especially useful for people who are not in a position to be out in the streets or organizing because the world itself is not that accessible. It becomes a really important point and a really important tool for engaging in activism -- for this group -- being able to do that online and through hashtags.

Q: What should public interest tech practitioners be thinking about in relation to raising the profile and the experience of Black women in public interest tech?

Dr. Bailey: It’s really important for us to see technology and the internet and all of these questions as things that are integral to our world going forward. They shouldn’t be treated as something extra. There really should be some investment in them as utilities and as utilities that people are guaranteed. I am also interested in a conversation within public interest tech that is moving us towards seeing all of our worlds as integrated and interconnected. The internet is a really important, valuable resource so we need to keep it as free as possible and as accessible as possible. It’s worthwhile because it creates an avenue and an opening for so many people who are normally marginalized to get their voices out and and be heard in ways that ultimately, I think, makes the world more accessible and better for everyone.