David Davis, Diane Abbott and Misogynoir
After the Brexit vote in Parliament last week, David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, sexually harassed Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, in a House of Commons bar. That wasn’t the way Kevin Schofield of Politics Home broke the story on Twitter, however: ‘In Strangers bar tonight, David Davis tried to give Diane Abbott a kiss,’ he wrote. ‘She recoiled and told him to fuck off. He walked off laughing.’ Newspaper headlines blasted (and censored) the language with which she had rebuffed him, making the story about her profanity rather than his inappropriate behaviour.
Moya Bailey coined the term ‘misogynoir’ to ‘describe the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual and popular culture’. Misogynoir is also a factor in wage inequality and experiences of violence in the United States. There’s less data for the UK, but no shortage of anecdotal evidence, whether it’s stories of dark-skinned women being denied entry to London nightclubs or beaten by police. When enough anecdotes are collated, as with the Everyday Sexism Project, they have an unignorable force.
Misogynoir doubles down on stereotypes of women and black people. When a black woman speaks out, she is often said to be ‘angry’, with the implication that that diminishes whatever is said. Her sex appeal, or lack of it, is often up for discussion too. For eight years, Michelle Obama was subjected to a litany of sexist and racist abuse. Serena Williams is described in terms that would never be applied to Roger Federer. And Diane Abbott faces disproportionate vitriol for doing her job.
She is gleefully derided by other Labour MPs; there are at least two Twitter accounts devoted to parodying her; her personal history with Jeremy Corbyn is a subject of ridicule, implying it is something he should feel ashamed of. After the story about Davis trying to kiss her came out, he sent a text message to a friend denying it, saying that he was ‘not blind’ and that the incident would have made ‘a good Optical Express advert’. A spokesman has since apologised for ‘any offence caused to Miss Abbott’. The deputy chairman of the South Ribble Conservative Association was suspended last week for retweeting a picture of a gorilla wearing lipstick captioned ‘the Diane Abbott look’.
None of this is to say that Abbott should be immune from criticism but there’s a difference between criticism and racist or sexist abuse. Davis’s behaviour was an unethical show of male dominance aimed at demeaning Abbott. Failing to recognise that fact legitimises a strain of sexism targeted at silencing and shaming black women.