[Ads-l] Is "Jezebel" a racist name?

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Feb 10 21:24:08 EST 2021


I think there’s another dimension besides the general effect of pejoration (AHD glosses “Jezebel" as merely ‘a woman who is evil and scheming’, which falls somewhat short of the mark, since it’s generally a sexually-based insult, whatever else it is—we’re not talking a synonym of “shrew” here), and leaving aside the question of racism—it’s clear (to me at least) that the term is more obviously misogynistic than racist. That additional dimension is brought out by the definition of “Jezebel” at, yes, the urban dictionary site, where the first entry (earning 385 thumbs up and only 43 thumbs down from the "experts”) is

A female who is seeking attention from and possibly plotting to use someone who is wealthy or otherwise desirable in order to gain status in society.

—although I would submit that ‘seeking attention from’ is too coy by half.  

The 10-year relationship Peter between Kamala Harris and long-separated California assembly leader Willie Brown (who was elected S.F. mayor in 1996 after their relationship ended) is frequently brought up by right-wing zealots on Quora, and I would guess other social media platforms, as evidence not simply that Harris “slept around” but that she “slept her way to the top”, for which there is no evidence. I am familiar with similar insults hurled at women of other races, and much less frequently at men, whence the absence of a lexical item for (straight) men along the same lines, i.e.
 
A male who is seeking [um]attention from and possibly plotting to use someone who is wealthy or otherwise desirable in order to gain status in society.

While the aforementioned zealots might well be motivated by racial animus in attacking Kamala Harris as a Jezebel, I don’t see the term itself as racist, anymore than “Satan” or “Antichrist” is, just because racists are fond of depicting Obama as one or the other or both.  

LH

> On Feb 10, 2021, at 8:47 PM, Peter Reitan <pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM> wrote:
> 
> It's a known fact that she dated Willy Brown while he was still married.  I would assume they were referring to that.
> 
> Apparently Brown had been at the time long estranged from his wife, and dated openly, so it may be unfair and insulting to call her a "Jezebel" under those circumstances, but it is not clear that it was "overtly racist" to call her by that name.
> ________________________________
> From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of Tomas Alvarez <tomasalvarez95 at GMAIL.COM>
> Sent: Wednesday, February 10, 2021 5:28:56 PM
> To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Subject: Re: Is "Jezebel" a racist name?
> 
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Tomas Alvarez <tomasalvarez95 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Is "Jezebel" a racist name?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> 
> The way the two Baptist pastors from Texas meant it was *overtly racist*.
> They might as well have added: "By the way, we're calling her 'Jezebel'
> because she is both black and Indian, something we cannot even begin to
> understand." I'm noticing a concerning trend in this mailing list of
> consistently relativizing racism and misogyny. Are we the ADS list or the
> hate list?
> 
> Tomas
> 
> On Wed, Feb 10, 2021 at 5:04 PM Dan Goncharoff <thegonch at gmail.com> wrote:
> 
>> Would have made the Bette Davis movie very contraversial...
>> 
>> On Wed, Feb 10, 2021, 7:01 AM Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at gmail.com>
>> wrote:
>> 
>>>> Further, since the age of American slavery, Jezebel came to be
>> understood
>>> as an overly sexual Black woman, a stereotype depicted in film and
>> fiction.
>>> 
>>> Exx. of the word used in this sense - other than by recent academics?
>>> 
>>> 
>>> JL
>>> 
>>> JL
>>> 
>>> On Wed, Feb 10, 2021 at 3:34 AM Stephen Goranson <goranson at duke.edu>
>>> wrote:
>>> 
>>>> Jezebel.com describes itself as "A Supposedly Feminist Website."
>>>> SG
>>>> ________________________________
>>>> From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of
>>>> Baker, John <JBAKER at STRADLEY.COM>
>>>> Sent: Tuesday, February 9, 2021 3:07 PM
>>>> To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>>> Subject: Re: Is "Jezebel" a racist name?
>>>> 
>>>> The article does make a case for =E2=80=9CJezebel=E2=80=9D being raci=
> st as well as
>>> sexist:
>>>> 
>>>> =E2=80=9CBiblically, Jezebel was a princess and a prophet. She tried =
> to save
>> her
>>>> own life and tempted a member of the royal guard. In popular culture,
>> her
>>>> name is used to refer to a =E2=80=9Cloose woman.=E2=80=9D Further, si=
> nce the age of
>>>> American slavery, Jezebel came to be understood as an overly sexual
>> Black
>>>> woman, a stereotype depicted in film and fiction. Most recently, the
>>> image
>>>> of the =E2=80=9CBlack Jezebel=E2=80=9D was popularized in 1970s Blaxp=
> loitation films.=E2=80=9D
>>>> 
>>>> I would characterize =E2=80=9CJezebel=E2=80=9D as an insult more pejo=
> rative than =E2=80=9Cslut=E2=80=9D
>>>> but perhaps not as strong as =E2=80=9Cwhore.=E2=80=9D  Do sexualized =
> epithets become
>>> worse
>>>> when they are directed to black rather than white women?  I don=E2=80=
> =99t know;
>>>> they=E2=80=99re pretty bad already.
>>>> 
>>>> Note that news article headlines are usually not written by the autho=
> r
>> of
>>>> the article.  I question whether it was appropriate for the headline =
> to
>>>> focus on the term=E2=80=99s racist implications while ignoring the mo=
> re
>> prominent
>>>> sexist implications.
>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> John Baker
>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> On Behalf Of
>>>> dave at WILTON.NET
>>>> Sent: Tuesday, February 9, 2021 2:49 PM
>>>> To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU
>>>> Subject: Re: Is "Jezebel" a racist name?
>>>> 
>>>> External Email - Think Before You Click
>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> My understanding is that referring to a Black woman as a "Jezebel"
>> brings
>>>> to bear a cultural stereotype of Black women being hypersexual that i=
> s
>>> not
>>>> present when referring to a white woman by that name. The denotation =
> is
>>>> still "loose woman," only that it is problematic in additional ways
>> when
>>>> used to refer to Black women.
>>>> 
>>>> See Dagbovie-Mullins, Sika A. "Pigtails, Ponytails, and Getting Tail:
>> The
>>>> Infantilization and Hyper-Sexualization of African American Females i=
> n
>>>> Popular Culture." Journal of Popular Culture, 46.4, 2013, 745-71. Or:
>>> "The
>>>> Jezebel Stereotype,"
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel/__;!!O=
> ToaGQ!_jN9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zwNkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LTZauBRs$
>>>> <
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel__;!!OT=
> oaGQ!_jN9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zwNkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LT4IeqzP$
>>>>> . Also Googling Jezebel and Sapphire turns up a lot. (Sapphire is a
>> term
>>>> for the stereotype of an emasculating Black woman.)
>>>> 
>>>> There's also a podcast titled "Black Jezebel," which from the
>> description
>>>> on the Apple Podcasts site takes a sex-positive view of Black female
>>>> sexuality. The title would seem to be an attempt to reclaim the word.
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-bla=
> ck-jezebel-podcast/id1476628866__;!!OToaGQ!_jN9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zw=
> NkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LdGfMMra$
>>>> <
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-bla=
> ck-jezebel-podcast/id1476628866__;!!OToaGQ!_jN9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zw=
> NkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LdGfMMra$
>>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> -----Original Message-----
>>>> From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU<mailto:
>>>> ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>> On Behalf Of Jonathan Lighter
>>>> Sent: Tuesday, February 9, 2021 11:16 AM
>>>> To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU<mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>>> Subject: [ADS-L] Is "Jezebel" a racist name?
>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__https://www.yahoo.com/news/texas-pastors-unde=
> r-fire-referring-123515004.html__;!!OToaGQ!_jN9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zw=
> NkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LeMgG9Aw$
>>>> <
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__https://www.yahoo.com/news/texas-pastors-unde=
> r-fire-referring-123515004.html__;!!OToaGQ!_jN9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zw=
> NkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LeMgG9Aw$
>>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> JL
>>>> <
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__https://www.yahoo.com/news/texas-pastors-unde=
> r-fire-referring-123515004.html__;!!OToaGQ!_jN9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zw=
> NkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LeMgG9Aw$
>>>> <
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__https://www.yahoo.com/news/texas-pastors-unde=
> r-fire-referring-123515004.html__;!!OToaGQ!_jN9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zw=
> NkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LeMgG9Aw$
>>>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> --
>>>> "If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the
>>> truth."
>>>> 
>>>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>>>> The American Dialect Society -
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__http://www.americandialect.org__;!!OToaGQ!_jN=
> 9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zwNkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LR_vj1-f$
>>>> <
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__http://www.americandialect.org__;!!OToaGQ!_jN=
> 9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zwNkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LR_vj1-f$
>>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>>>> The American Dialect Society -
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__http://www.americandialect.org__;!!OToaGQ!_jN=
> 9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zwNkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LR_vj1-f$
>>>> <
>>>> 
>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__http://www.americandialect.org__;!!OToaGQ!_jN=
> 9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zwNkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LR_vj1-f$
>>>>> 
>>>> 
>>>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>>>> The American Dialect Society -
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>>> 
>> https://urldefense.com/v3/__http://www.americandialect.org__;!!OToaGQ!_jN=
> 9Hv1bByM7bqNIdEen4L2zXq_3b-zwNkkGUYoWnYLXo9YciMJczjH9LR_vj1-f$
>>>> 
>>>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>>>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
>>>> 
>>> 
>>> 
>>> --
>>> "If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the
>> truth."
>>> 
>>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
>>> 
>> 
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
>> 
> 
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> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
> 
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