Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
In this week’s episode of The Cut, co-host B.A. Parker opens up about the feelings of hopelessness she has experienced in the past year regarding her safety and worth as a Black woman — both out in the world and, more critically, online. She speaks to Zeba Blay, a writer who coined the hashtag #CarefreeBlackGirl, and Moya Bailey, the author who created the term misogynoir, a word that describes the negative way Black women are treated and represented in social and digital spaces. They discuss their personal experiences online and the search for safe spaces in an overwhelmingly unsafe world.
To hear more about how even the most influential Black women face scrutiny in online spaces, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Below, you can read the full transcript.
PARKER: I desperately wanted a Hot-Girl Summer. Felt entitled to it. The goal was to be a chubby Black girl in a Spike Lee crop top feeling the fantasy on the streets of Brooklyn. But then it started to freak me out. And I increasingly find myself wanting the opposite. An Inside–Girl Summer. A summer in which I cannot be looked at, talked to, messaged. In fact, I do not want to be perceived at all. This feeling actually crystallized last summer. This was a time when, within one month, Breonna Taylor’s life became a meme, the rapper Noname was getting called out by J. Cole simply because she was reading books, Megan Thee Stallion got shot and no one would believe her.
Even though he shot me, I tried to spare him. And y’all MFers is not sparing me. That’s crazy. That’s fucked up. I go through so much shit on a daily basis anyway. And then I have to get on the MFing internet when I’m just trying to make my music.
—Clip from Megan Thee Stallion’s Instagram livestream
PARKER: A video went viral of a young Black woman being grabbed by a group of young Black men and tossed in a dumpster because they thought it was funny — ironically all while several of the guys were in Black Lives Matter T-shirts.
MAN: Ugly bitch. Woof. Damn, you ugly.
PARKER: And the young activist Oluwatoyin Salau was found murdered.
OLUWATOYIN SALAU: You cannot take my fucking Blackness from me. My Blackness is not for your consumption, n – – – -. It’s not!
—Clip from Salau’s last speech
PARKER: And in the midst of all that, on the hottest day of July, I left my house for the first time in months and went to a Walgreens down the street, and when I came out, three men followed me for several blocks, shouting fat-Black-girl jokes at me over my headphones until I could finally cross the street. Now it’s a year later, and I’m meant to embrace this idea of “Hot-Girl Summer,” when walking a block without being verbally assaulted feels like a victory.
I don’t want to hide, but there’s nothing convincing me to engage.
ZEBA BLAY: I’ve never felt safe in this body.
PARKER: It’s a place that writer Zeba Blay also reached.
ZEBA: To be a dark-skinned Black woman, to be a Black woman with kinky hair, and then to be big just felt so scary because I realized that there are people who are going to perceive me and not prescribe any worth or value onto me. That is going to put me in positions of danger. It can be physical violence. It can be emotional violence, even the disregard and the dismissal that I exist. So I went through a period of just not leaving the house.
PARKER: This feeling, as if the walls were closing in and the proverbial pitchforks were just outside her door, is what led Zeba to stay inside.
ZEBA: I’m just coming out of a period right now of intense depression and intense agoraphobia. Like, the longest stretch I went was probably five months where, like, I literally did not exit my apartment.
PARKER: Was this before or during the pandemic?
ZEBA: This was before the pandemic. So when the pandemic happened, I was like, Oh, I’m so happy because now I have an excuse to avoid everyone, you know?
PARKER: I’m not sure how to properly put into words what it feels like to hear another Black woman say, “The way the world treats me gives me anxiety, and I wanted no part of it.” Because it was the first time I’ve ever heard someone else say it. I kinda thought maybe it was just me and it was all in my head. But now, a recent survey shows only 3 percent of Black professionals, mostly Black women, want to return to the office. I can’t help but see this as a moment where a lot of us are hitting a breaking point, asking, Why does the world seem to hate Black women so much? And how can we somehow feel okay?
ZEBA: Where do we go to feel safe? And why is no one talking about this aspect of being a Black woman? It’s not to be all doom and gloom, because being a Black girl is lit; I wouldn’t have it any other way. But even what happened with Naomi Osaka, like people being like, “What was there to be anxious about? Why is she like that?” People can’t see our humanity in so many instances. They can only see all the things that they want to extract from us.
PARKER: It turns out that this particular kind of mental and emotional gut punch has a name.
MOYA BAILEY: The term is misogynoir. There is something very specific to how Black women, and people read as Black women, are being treated and represented in our social and digital spaces, and even of the social spaces of the past.
PARKER: Moya Bailey created the term misogynoir, which describes the very specific racist and sexist violence that Black women encounter, because we have that fun thing called “dual forms of oppression.” Moya first used the term in an essay about hip-hop back in 2010. In the essay, she wrote about the realization that she’d been ignoring the misogyny in her favorite songs for years, mostly because rappers weren’t calling her a bitch. And, you know, the beats were nice.
This idea actually started to percolate for her way back in 2004, when Moya was just a teenage college student at Spelman. There was this one Nelly music video that was making the rounds.
MOYA: I was home for Christmas, and I was just up late and I saw “Tip Drill,” and I was like, Wow, we’re really doing this. Okay.
It must be your ass ’cause it ain’t your face. I need a tip drill. I need a tip drill.
—Clip from Nelly’s “Tip Drill”
PARKER: The song was about women Nelly thought were ugly but had nice asses. The music video was popular in the mid-2000s because it was as close to porn as you could get at 3 a.m. on BET, with Black women — some topless, some not — grinding against each other. The most infamous scene from the music video involved Nelly sliding a credit card through a woman’s ass cheeks, incentivizing her to twerk. Which she did.
Moya shared the video with her group, the Feminist Leadership Alliance, on her college campus, and the group decided Nelly should know that this was not cool … like, at all.
MOYA: So we had already decided that Nelly was our “Misogynist of the Month.” I’ll say, too, that we were really earnest and young and kind of naïve. We were like, “We should write him a letter, and we should tell him that, you know, these images have some real impact in the world for Black women and that he should rethink how he is representing Black women in his lyrics and song.”
PARKER: Just their luck, Nelly was coming to Spelman’s campus to do a bone-marrow-registration drive for his sister, who was at that time fighting leukemia. But word reached Nelly’s camp that a protest was emerging and there were flyers all over campus with his face and the words “Misogynist of the Month” across it. So instead of talking with a group of young Black women about why swiping a credit card down a woman’s ass cheeks might not have been very respectful to Black women, Nelly actually canceled the bone-marrow-registration drive for his sister … who was battling cancer.
MOYA: Then he went to the press and said, “Spelman students wanted to keep me from coming to campus.” Honestly, Parker, it was such a small group of us and then people were pissed at us because they didn’t get to see Nelly.
PARKER: So Moya and her friends never got to confront Nelly and then people were kinda mad at her. A real dilemma. But this moment really launched Moya’s career as well as her understanding of how the world treats Black women.
MOYA: It set up my thinking around Black women’s representation throughout the diaspora. How is it that these representations of Black women continue to circulate and then shape how Black women are treated? Then their experiences are so much impacted by just images and narratives about who they are, rather than people dealing with the actual Black women in front of them.
PARKER: Moya needed a word to describe why Madea has become a cultural touchstone, why the Onion thought it would be funny to call a then-9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis “a cunt,” why a political cartoonist would draw Serena Williams as a gorilla, why so much of the 2010s were spent describing Michelle Obama’s arms, or why a Black male celebrity praises their white wife online for having an ass as big as any Black woman’s. The stamp of misogynoir is there for clarity.
Over the past decade, the term has picked up steam in Black online spaces like a magical neon sign pointing to a problem. Which has been huge. In fact, in Moya’s new book, Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance, she talks about how the internet has been a force of change for Black women. But lately, that’s just not my experience.
Your book discusses how the internet can be used as this mechanism for uplifting and making Black women feel better, but somehow the great irony is that it’s something — the internet over the past year has made me feel worse?
MOYA: Isn’t that it?
PARKER: And I’m trying to figure out how to reconcile that.
MOYA: Yes. So Parker, I also think that I was writing this book about a particular time on the internet that doesn’t exist anymore. So this was an era where people were using Tumblr. Tumblr, to me, is essentially defunct. RIP, Tumblr. One of the people that I interviewed for a podcast that I’m doing about the book, Maya Williams, said that we were pen pals before. We were reading each other’s blogs, commenting; someone would come and read our blog and comment. That back-and-forth exchange created a different network of relations that I think is pretty hard to replicate with the amount of material that’s on Twitter now.
PARKER: Tumblr was so nice.
MOYA: Wasn’t it?
PARKER: The community of it and the first place that I heard the term misogynoir [was] while I was on Tumblr and seeing it be used by Bad-Dominicana. I liked learning that language from that space because it was so edifying, and it was like, “Come here, baby birds. Let me feed you. Let me give you some knowledge.” It was a space for nuance.
MOYA: Yes! And to your point, they’re like, “Come here, baby birds” — that is a totally different energy than influencer energy, followers. There was a sense that we were learning something together, that there was something nutritional in the space, and I wouldn’t use that language to talk about it now.
PARKER: Are you slightly concerned that the word itself, misogynoir, is going to take on a shape like the term intersectionality or even right now with critical race theory? Words, created predominantly by Black women, are somehow dulled down for consumption.
MOYA: Yes. People have already tried. I just saw something where people talked about misogynoir as the “racism that women of color experience.” No, this is specifically about Black women and people read as Black women. It’s a very specific nexus.
PARKER: The internet can feel like this frustrating game of Whac-a-Mole.
PARKER: And there’s no corner of the world or the internet that is free of the agony and absurdity of misogynoir. No matter how fast we peel the onion, there’s still hundreds of layers … and they all look rotten.
MOYA: So, looking to add the unfortunate truth that a lot of the minerals that power our digital devices are mined by young Black girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They’re mining coltan, which is one of the minerals that power our cell phones, power our otherwise smart devices.
PARKER: So even the skeleton of the internet is built by misogynoir?
PARKER: [Sighs.] Moya.
MOYA: [Laughs.] Yeah. Yeah.
PARKER: The impulse to live off the grid on a farm with just my books and an icebox is so strong within me. But I’ve never been camping, and life is still there. So how do I get by when there’s no running away?
After the break, writer Zeba Blay breaks out of her seclusion by carving out a space of her own online.
PARKER: While making this episode, I’ve been compiling a list of Black women who were being vastly ridiculed on social media and by talking heads just for existing. We’ve got Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria Rice; Simone Biles; Sha’Carri Richardson; Gwen Berry; Megan Thee Stallion again; City Girls; Meghan Markle; Nikole Hannah-Jones; Kimberlé Crenshaw; Brittany Byrd; Serena Williams; Naomi Osaka; Chloe Bailey; Lori Harvey; Janet Hubert; Maria Taylor; Normani; Jada Pinkett Smith; Chika; Black women in bonnets; Black women in cross tops; Black women in pajamas; Black women in colorful wigs; Black female swimmers with Afros, and Vanessa Williams.
That list is mighty, and sometimes it swirls around in my head when I’m taking the subway or grabbing drinks with friends. That feeling like everyone just below the surface wants a good reason to cause me harm. And not in a paranoid kinda way, but … in a national-statistics kinda way.
This is why sometime last year, in my own desperate attempt to find some comfort, I did what many folks who lack will power do: I went on to Instagram. And obviously, I expected to feel lousy. But I started noticing these vibrant mood boards on my feed.
The picture of a Black woman getting her hair gently washed in the tub by her lover stitched with a picture of Maya Angelou tending to a garden stitched with a video of Eartha Kitt purring at the meal she was preparing. Zeba was making mood boards of Black excellence to counter her anxiety.
ZEBA: Honestly, working on those mood boards, which were actually a part of my process, is the thing that saved me. It makes me so happy when people tell me that these make them happy, because there have been times when I have really, really, really not wanted to be here. As corny as it sounds, I see, like, a meme of Oprah in the tub with the wineglass. It’ll just make me so happy, and being able to share that reminded me something about myself. It reminded me that how people perceive me has nothing to do with me. Just being able to curate these photos and just meditate on all of the contributions that Black people have made to the culture? I don’t know, it just makes it easier.
PARKER: For me, looking at Zeba’s mood boards became a kind of buoy of warmth and positivity, solidarity — a collage of kind faces and moments telling me that I deserve to be okay.
Because it can feel like you’re constantly trying to reaffirm your humanity to other people, and that can be extremely frustrating. Because I don’t know how to explain to you to care about another human being.
ZEBA: Exactly. It’s like my humanity is affirmed simply because I exist. There should be no other explanation needed. I am a living, breathing being in front of you. I have value and worth. Period. It’s exhausting because it’s so nonsensical. It doesn’t make sense.
PARKER: Yeah. Because then someone will go, “But” …
ZEBA: [Laughs.] Ain’t no “but”!
PARKER: I’m a human being in the world that deserves to be acknowledged and respected. [People will be like], “But you’re in my way” or “But I want to appropriate or disregard you. Why won’t you let me?”
ZEBA: [Makes whiny noises and laughs.]
PARKER: How are you able to navigate social media with a fragile heart?
ZEBA: At this point in my life, if someone wants to troll me or leave a racist comment or I get emails from white men trying to debate me — I feel like there was a time in my life where I felt like I had to respond, I had to engage. I had to sort of be like, No, that’s not right. And now I realize I don’t have to engage with this at all.
It feels so empowering, reclaiming my time. Like, it’s like, Oh, like, I get to make this thing be exactly what I need [it] to be. I get to curate this experience for myself. And I think you’re saying all these spaces that Black women create online make it easier to not have to engage so much with the things that are harmful or violent.
PARKER: Back in 2018, Zeba created the hashtag #CarefreeBlackGirl.
ZEBA: What inspired me in that moment was feeling anything but carefree, quite honestly. I was at a really, really low point in my mental-health journey. And I was feeling like not really being here. And a few months prior, Collier Meyerson, a fantastic writer, had a blog called Carefree White Girl that was just pictures of Taylor Swift in flower crowns. It’s a parody account, basically making fun of that sort of obliviousness. So I was having this dark moment, and in this particular moment, I was feeling really ugly, too. I decided to just post a picture of myself. And I believe the hashtag [on] the caption was “I go to school to give looks, then I leave #CarefreeBlackGirl.”
PARKER: I know, that’s right.
ZEBA: You know? It was a moment of simply doing that act. I was grasping for this thing that felt very far away. It was really amazing to then see how that phrase has now become — even looking at that hashtag itself is such a balm because you’re just going to see so many different types of Black women experiencing joy.
PARKER: It’s the perfect example of what Moya Bailey calls “digital alchemy.”
MOYA: Digital alchemy is people taking these digital platforms and using them in ways that the companies or corporations who created them never intended. So you can take a hashtag on Twitter and use it to build this network of girls like us, of trans woman, who Twitter as a site in their corporate business model could never have imagined.
PARKER: Hashtags like #GirlsLikeUs, which created a space for trans Black women online. Or when #RuinABlackGirlsMonday was countered with #RuinAnInsecureBlackMansTuesday. Recently, on TikTok, Black creators established a cultural revolt by not creating a dance for Megan Thee Stallion’s song “Thot Shit” so that white TikTok creators couldn’t steal it and profit off of it. It’s all a way to take back power.
Zeba’s digital alchemy is what inspired her upcoming book, a series of essays called Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women in Pop Culture, where she writes about the beauty and brilliance of Black women as a way of contextualizing the hate. Making it not understandable but at least legible.
ZEBA: I write about Whitney Houston — that video of Whitney singing the national anthem.
O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light?
—Clip from Whitney Houston singing the national anthem
ZEBA: There will never be a rendition of that song as perfect as the way she sang it. It could make me cry, honestly, to think about the layers in that moment. This is a Black woman in America, in a country where during her childhood, there were riots happening outside her bedroom window. This is the legacy. And for me, it goes back to this uncomfortable comfortability. It’s like, Okay, well, like, you may be the greatest singer of all time, but we’re going to make crack jokes about you because that’s okay. It’s okay to make fun of someone who is dealing with addiction and pain and trauma.
I think the disrespect comes from the fact that people are really uncomfortable with how dynamic and brilliant Black women are. I think it makes people really, really uncomfortable, because I think to acknowledge how brilliant and exceptional Black women are is to also acknowledge that the world is set up in a really messed up way right now, and something needs to be done and people are lazy and they don’t want to do anything.
PARKER: In your eyes, what is “a carefree Black girl”?
ZEBA: In my eyes, a carefree Black girl is whatever she wants to be. There’s no one way to be a carefree Black girl. I think that you can be depressed and be a carefree Black girl. You know, like you can be 60 years old and be a carefree Black girl. I think it’s someone who is fully themselves, and that’s not always easy, but I think when you get there, when you get to that place, I think that is truly what it means to be carefree.
PARKER: Do you feel like you’re a carefree Black girl?
ZEBA: Sometimes. Sometimes I’m a carefree Black girl. Sometimes I’m a sad Black girl. Sometimes I’m an anxious Black girl. Sometimes I’m a salty Black girl. I think what I’ve been grappling with is that there’s no one hashtag; there’s no one phrase that can ever really encompass everything that you are.
SIMONE BILES: Yeah, I say put mental health first. Because if you don’t, then you’re not gonna enjoy your sport, and you’re not gonna succeed as much as you want to.
—Clip from Simone Biles’s Olympics press conference
PARKER: Last week, gymnast Simone Biles decided to withdraw from the U.S. Olympic team finals in Tokyo, telling the public that her mental health was more important than competition. One of the people who inspired her to make that decision was tennis champ Naomi Osaka, who also took a step back and said her mental health took precedence. They’ve both gotten some flak from commentators. But from other Black women, there’s been this resounding Please, take care of yourself.
Do you think there’s a way to uplift Black women without requiring so much emotional labor from Black women?
MOYA: Parker! Oh my gosh. Um.
PARKER: Moya Bailey again.
Because what I’m looking at down the road is just like a lifetime of emotional labor and continuous trauma. I’m just trying to find to be, like, Maybe there’s an upside. Maybe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
MOYA: There is a light at the end of the tunnel. This is where we have to get into generational trauma and healing. The fact that we’re of a generation where we can talk about therapy — we can talk about mental health in ways that our parents could not and in ways that our grandparents not even couldn’t talk about but couldn’t even imagine. We are seeing things shift. There is the possibility and potential for a generational shift and that our generation is doing the important work of saying that we need to not just survive this place, we need to thrive in this place. And I think that’s a shift away from our parents’ reality, who definitely were only thinking about survival. We at least have the glimmer that we can do more than survive. I think, for me, that’s a very healing and hopeful space to be in.
PARKER: So right now, I’m gonna try to thrive … in spite of this place.