My Reflections on "The Abuse and Misogynoir Playbook"
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
Name: The Abuse and Misogynoir Playbook
Citation: Dr. Katlyn Turner, Prof. Danielle Wood, and Prof. Catherine D'Ignazio. (Jan. 2021). "The Abuse and Misogynoir Playbook.” The Quarterly State of AI Ethics Report. The Montreal AI Ethics Institute. p. 14-34
Authors: Dr. Katlyn Turner, Prof. Danielle Wood, and Prof. Catherine D'Ignazio
In the past decade, Black women have made major contributions to critiquing and analyzing the tech industry and its products and services in society. From Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression and Ruha Benjamin’s Race after Technology to Meredith Broussard’s Artificial Unintelligence and Simone Browne’s Dark Matters as well as academic papers from Rediet Abebe, Joy Buolamwini, and Timnit Gebru, Black women have had their finger on the pulse. However, individuals and institutions have used what authors Dr. Katlyn Turner, Prof. Danielle Wood, and Prof. Catherine D'Ignazio call the Abuse and Misogynoir Playbook for centuries to sow disbelief, attempt to dismiss, gaslight, discredit, and erase contributions from Black women and finally rely on revisionism to alter the narrative both in the present and on into the future. Focusing on the case of Dr. Timinit Gebru, former Staff Research Scientist and Co-Lead of the Ethical Artificial Intelligence (AI) team at Google who was unceremoniously fired for her research about the failings of AI being used at Google, the authors compare Gebru’s story to those of Black women throughout history (Ida B. Wells, Phyllis Wheatley, Harriet Jacobs, and Zora Neale Hurston) to illustrate the five aspects of the playbook. Before outlining these illustrations, I want to first define misogynoir. The term was coined by Dr. Moya Bailey in 2010 to describe the unique form of anti-Black sexism as well as racialized and gendered oppression that Black women systemically face.
Alongside outlining Dr. Gebru’s situation with Google, the authors lay out a historical snapshot of how Black women have been viewed and treated in the United States. Relegated to the bottom of a hierarchy that put White landowning men at the top, the early days of the United States required Black women’s labor (physically in the fields, reproductively to bear more enslaved Black children, and domestically in the homes and on the plantations of white families) and acquiescence to sexual assault at the hands of White men. While White women societally had their struggles due to the cult of true womanhood, Black women’s ultimate social taboo was being too loud -- using their voice to speak truth on behalf of themselves and their communities.
While Black women have made major and lasting contributions to justice and equity, take “Harriet Tubman’s raid on the Combahee River freeing hundreds of enslaved African Americans” or “Tarana Burke’s creation of the now viral and mainstream #MeToo movement”, the playbook has functioned to thwart and diminish these gains (p. 19). Here is how the authors describe the way in which the playbook functions: “The Abuse and Misogynoir Playbook functions in the short term to use abusive tactics such as gaslighting, dismissal, and discrediting to erase and invalidate the contributions of Black women that challenge the status quo and aim to advance justice. These tactics often end up harming the women themselves, which may serve as a convenient deterrent for potential future truth-tellers. In the long term, the impacts of this Playbook are even more devastating: the erasure of valuable contributions by Black women, supplanted by a more whitewashed narrative of events, that over time the public accepts as truth.” (p. 20).
As the authors describe that “Dr. Gebru joins a long lineage of Black women who, over the course of history, have dared to dream, create, sound the alarm, push for change; to be scientists, artists, creatives, engineers, women, and human — and have faced the wall of silence, pushback, threats, and danger,” This phenomenon is explained in the uncanny valley of humanity (p. 20). Here again, is an excerpt from a paper (in process) about the concept I coined:
In robotics and Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), the uncanny valley is the moment at which a manufactured object looks and moves like a human - but not quite - resulting in an unpleasant response (Mori, 1970). The gap between perfection in presenting as human and that moment makes the viewer uncomfortable...The uncanny valley of humanity is a concept within which a person is dehumanized and their deviation from what is considered the norm causes a negative reaction. The norm for the contemporary westernized context is the white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied men who historically and to this day have been established as the example of a healthy average human. This demographic of people is not found lacking and able to be considered 100% whole. Other identities, which are seen as deviant to the accepted norm, fall in line behind them at decreasing percentiles. When someone who deviates from this set of identities acts or speaks in a way that is out of line with their expected stereotypical behavior, it moves that person closer to the traits of a whole human, a space that is currently owned by the hegemonic norm. Assimilating moves put the deviant into the uncanny valley of humanity, thus making others uncomfortable and disturbed.
Another set of Black women’s experiences with the playbook were brought up by authors. Joy Buolamwini and Deborah Raji’s research on the Rekognition product used by law enforcement in 2019 was attacked by Amazon who attempted to discredit, dismiss, devalue, and silence their work. In the documentary Coded Bias, this attack was outlined as well. I highly recommend the film to anyone interested in Buolamwini’s research trajectory as well as adjacent scholars in algorithmic bias.
The four Black women who the authors put in conversation with Dr. Gebru’s situation each represent a section of the playbook. First is Ida B. Wells and the aspect of contribution. A journalist of the late 1800s, Wells gave a speech in 1893 in Boston to raise awareness and support for antilynching policies. She was the part-owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and reported on lynchings using data tables. Her work resulted in death threats. Generations later, she is seen as an early icon for data science and investigative journalism. Both Dr. Gebru and Wells made contributions that exposed injustice and were met with threats (in Dr. Gebru’s case to her livelihood).
Second is the story of poet Phillis Wheatley and the playbook’s aspect of disbelief. An enslaved woman in the 1700s, Wheatley was taught to read and write by her owners at an early age. She soon began writing poetry. When she was 18 she and her owner attempted to get a book of her poetry published and even went so far as to have prominent White men of Boston sign a letter declaring the poetry had been written by her (including a signature from John Hancock) but to no avail. The book was eventually published by a London publisher. Wheatley struggled to get other books published and died in poor health and poverty.
Third, the authors share the story of author Harried Jacobs to outline how the playbook seeks to discredit and gaslight. Living initially as an enslaved person in the mid-1800s, Jacobs escaped to the North where her previous owners had gaslit her to think that escaped slaves lived in “deplorable conditions” (p. 26). She and other enslaved people were not the only ones being gaslit by White Southern slave owners. Jacobs found in the North that people thought slavery was “not that bad” (p. 26). Her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, tells of the atrocities of life as an enslaved person to combat the prevailing misunderstanding of how enslaved people truly lived.
Lastly, to illustrate dismissal, erasure, and revisionism, the authors turn to anthropologist, playwright, folklorist, novelist, and poet Zora Neale Hurston. Similar to Wheatley, Hurston had difficulty getting her work published. For the book Barracoon, one publisher insisted that she change the “dialect” of her interviewee, an enslaved person, to “language”. Hurston refused. “Rediscovered” by Alice Walker, Hurston only found acclaim and recognition for her contributions posthumously.
One of the authors, Dr. Catherine D’Ignazio, along with Lauren Klein, wrote in the book Data Feminism the many ways that the tech industry utilizes the playbook more frequently, and “with more impunity than in other industries” (p. 29). With such pervasiveness in society and people’s everyday lives, and in light of the techlash that has ramped up in the past few years, people, especially Black women, are demanding more of the tech industry that as of late has presented an interest in ethics more as a buzzword and PR stunt than a true commitment. Ultimately, AI and Tech need to stop abusing Black women, recognize and cease using the patterns in the playbook if they truly care about ethics. Between Dr. Gebru, Joy Buolamwini, and Deborah Raji’s experiences, amongst others, the authors raise an excellent question: “When brilliant Black women expose misogynoir and speak truth to power, why does it take a great assembly of multi-racial professionals to defend their claims?” (p. 30). Thanks to the credit, care, and effort of the authors, this article within the report sheds light on a set of responses to Black women’s contributions that can now be called out and disrupted. I am grateful for their analysis and thoroughly recommend this piece to justice seekers for tech.
Mori, M. (1970). “The Uncanny Valley,” Energy, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 33–35, (in Japanese)