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Femininity Left Across the Atlantic

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March 30, 2023

There is a special kind of irony that lies among the intentional misgendering, masculinization, clocking, and ultimately TERF-like thinking out of the mouths and minds of cisgendered Black women towards their trans Black sisters. So after finding out that Alice Walker, the Alice Walker author of the very Black and very Queer “the Color Purple” and foundational thinker and writer on Black feminisms and Black literary works was a TERF, having publicly defended author JK Rowling for her transphobic comments and beliefs, it left a lingering bitterness in my mouth, due to the irony that lies within the history of Black gender formation and misogynoir.

Femininity Left Across the Atlantic

The complicated relationship between Black folks and understandings of gender lie within the origins of slavery and white supremacy. When exploring and explaining the unique life experiences and oppressions of Black Women, we must see them through the dual lens of both Blackness and Womanhood, as both generate a particular kind of relationship with the world, and the two broader identity groups which they occupy. The histories of the Transatlantic Slave Trade puts Black peoples in the context of other, due to our status as property under slavery. This means our existence has been completely removed from the recognition as human beings, due to acts and processes of dehumanization. And as we are thinking about formations of Blackness and specifically Black Womanhood gender is especially important to our understanding. Blackness as it develops meaning in the United States, is relegated to being seen and treated as a monolith: Within the context of slavery this meant traditional notions of the patriarchy did not apply to enslaved Black Women with the brutalization of labor, and punishment often being implemented to the same degree.

However the gendered experiences of being an enslaved Black woman created a dichotomy that granted them the authority on women’s tasks, duty, and responsibilities but denied them the quote validity unquote of Womanhood within a euro-american standard of the gender binary and gender roles. This plays out on the plantation system with Black Women being homemakers of enslavers: Cooking, cleaning, sewing, tending to children, reproducing their children (incases of assault and rape), as well as being viewed as birthing machines for the economic benefit of the plantation system. However, despite the skill and Authority Black women held in running and maintaining not only the homes of their enslavers but their own among enslaved kin Black women were not only seen as inferior but were often scapegoated as being the antithesis of beauty, femininity, and sexuality as they are products of whitness. This perceived inferiority created a dynamic of Black women oftentimes yearning for the same treatment and decency, safety, respect, and recognition, which played out like a luxury among the lived realities of Black women’s lives, which in some cases manifested as a desire for whiteness, or a desire to gain proximity to it.

By the very nature of their blackness, black women are correlated in by extension depicted as masculine and undesirable asexual fat caretakers like the Mammy or the animalistic deviant hypersexual Jezebel or Sapphire due to overt sexual fetishization of their bodies that still act as a process of dehumanization. Within a contemporary context we see misogynoir  play out on the “undesirable” end of the spectrum with women like, Caster Semenyna  and Serena Williams being intentionally misgendered with their womanhood and femininity being challenged through chromosomal testing in Semenyna’s case or outright disrespectful comments and depictions calling and referring to Williams as a man. These depictions attempt to negate the prowess of both of these women uphold in their sport, by putting emphasis on their bodies and highlighting outside “norms” of the gender binary, implying that they are not “fully” or “naturally” women. On the opposite end of the spectrum, in 2020 when news broke that rapper Megan thee Stallion had been shot, memes flooded both Twitter and Instagram that depicted a neglect of her pain and wounds and instead showed sexualization of her body being groped.

Depictions of Black feminine bodies coupled with a myth about black people being impervious to pain, have also contributed to the emotional strong Black women archetype, and rejections of this within recent years has led to online discourses like “embracing your divine feminine” and “soft life” which isn’t wrong along the basis that all human beings are deserving of safety protection and care, but directly correlating these rights to women of the femininity reinforce notions of white supremacist structures of the gender binary.

Black women despite their cis-ness have a history of, and are still subjected to gender exclusionary politics that they utilize against, trans women. Enslaved Black women were expected to uphold “whiteness” in the home of their enslavers as well as establish the home of their own on plantations. When we think about the currently, it is easy to see how they were denied the luxuries of forming their own lives and understanding of their womanhood beyond whiteness. Similar to the experiences of Trans women, Black women took on this almost extended gender role – here they are expected to be “strong Black women” but having to “prove” a soft, sensual side associated with white women/femininity, in comparison Trans women, and Trans folks more broadly are expected to overperform and overcompensate to conform into standards of this gender binary.

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