Here We Go Again …

Dr Claudine Gay’s resignation, misogynoir and anti-Blackness

Hello friends,

It’s a little demoralising that the same issues keep coming up again in different guises. We know that anti-Blackness and misogynoir are rife in white-dominated spaces, and so it’s sadly predictable rather than in any way surprising when they result in harm to another Black woman.

Yes, I’m talking about Dr Claudine Gay who recently resigned as president of Harvard, after a smear campaign relating to plagiarism (completely false) orchestrated by by Christopher Rufo, whose stated aim is to “restore truth rather than racialist ideology as the guiding principle of America." He wanted to get rid of someone he clearly saw as a “diversity hire” despite her exemplary record, (and clearly, he also wants to stop people talking about the legacy of enslavement and systematic and systemic discrimination and oppression).

Tressie McMillan Cottom adds some more context:

“Rufo says he smuggled a narrative into “the left-wing media.” That narrative rests on a critical discursive link — D.E.I. is synonymous with “lacking merit.” It is a neat trick. Harvard’s endowment has been valued at nearly $50 billion. Yet the Rufo messaging strategy successfully painted the institution’s president as an undeserving beneficiary, even if she is not.”

The plagiarism allegation was unfounded - Dr Gay’s thesis advisor, from whom she was alleged to have plagiarised, stated unequivocally that it didn’t happen, and if anyone would know, they would. But the fact that the accusation was false and quickly refuted didn’t matter. Mud sticks, especially to Black women, and especially when white supremacy is at work (and, to be fair, when isn’t it at work?) And the accusation was just the start of a further campaign aimed at suggesting that Dr Gay did not deserve to hold her position (of course, she is more qualified than many).

Sharon’s Anti-Racism Newsletter is a reader-supported publication, if you’ve found the content useful, please consider supporting my work by upgrading to a paid subscription.

Not Unexpected

Now, if you talk to Black people, and Black women in particular, they’ll say that this was almost bound to happen. We know that Black women in positions of power - the few that get there - face unparalleled levels of scrutiny - a scrutiny that doesn’t happen to their white peers. In fact, as Paul Ladipo pointed out on LinkedIn, one of her accusers was happy to forgive his own wife of plagiarism - make that make sense.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen misogynoir and anti-Blackness on display, nor will it be the last. Black women have to be better than the rest to stand any chance of success, and even the perception of wrongdoing is met with hostility and a lack of compassion. A number of people have written excellent articles on this. I’d like to share just a few here.

Perspectives On The Resignation

Janelle Benjamin talks about the scrutiny:

“For Black women at work, the scrutiny invariably intensifies. Our mistakes are magnified. We are often set up for failure and lack clear expectations and true support when the going gets tough and our competence is questioned. Sometimes we are purposely maligned.

And then the going gets brutal as pressure mounts to oust us.

We struggle to keep our jobs. But, invariably we are overpowered and forced to move on.”

Dr Janice Gassam Asare talks about the inevitability of it all:

“if the stories of Claudine Gay, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Nikole Hannah-Jones can teach us anything, it’s that it doesn’t matter how much you know, how much you’ve achieved, or how far you’ve come. Being excellent for Black folks, and especially Black women, will not shield you from harm.”

Shaun Harper talks about the lack of protection for Black women:

“That she survived only six months strongly conveys that Harvard didn’t really care about its first Black woman president. She wasn’t worth the investment of its financial, reputational, and political influence. This is how lots of Black people within and outside the University have been making sense of it on social media and elsewhere since the announcement of Gay’s resignation. Harvard failed Gay, not the other way around, is what many Black Americans are insisting.”

Dr. Ivory A. Toldson puts Harvard in the hot seat for its lack of support:

“Harvard failed to support her and shield her from the lies and threats, which resulted in abandonment and betrayal. She was forced to resign, not because she did anything wrong, but because she is a Black woman who dared to lead Harvard.”

And finally Dr Gay herself warns about the bigger picture:

“As I depart, I must offer a few words of warning. The campaign against me was about more than one university and one leader. This was merely a single skirmish in a broader war to unravel public faith in pillars of American society. Campaigns of this kind often start with attacks on education and expertise, because these are the tools that best equip communities to see through propaganda. But such campaigns don’t end there. Trusted institutions of all types — from public health agencies to news organizations — will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility.”

What Happens Next?

So where does this leave us as anti-racists? Somewhat bruised, I’m sure, but also with work to do.

We must protect and support the Black women in our spheres so they aren’t subjected to exaggerated scrutiny and punishment.

Dr Gay’s parting words are also a reminder to stay woke (I’m restoring that term to its proper meaning), to pay attention to the wider context, to see who is undermining our shared humanity, and how they’re doing it. And to do our part to push back against inequality wherever we have influence.

Thanks for reading,


What did you think of today's article?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

If you enjoyed it, feel free to click the share button to help others discover it. Thank you!

UpCurrentA quarterly newsletter for those wanting to reach higher ground in the discussion on race, written by Harvard social psychologist Robert Livingston.

I am an anti-racism educator and activist, Co-Founder of Mission Equality, the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast.

© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2024. All Rights Reserved.

Join the conversation

or to participate.