Arts and Entertainment

Racial Capitalism and the Hypersexualization of Black Women

Since Sexxy Red started to crossover into mainstream celebrity, I have noticed a re-occurring conversation about the 26-year-old rapper that appears on social media. Most recently, TikTok and Twitter users have declared that Sexxy Red’s popularity among white people, particularly men, is because she embodies controlling images of Black women as hypersexual Jezebels. In other words, since she conforms to racist and sexist stereotypes through her aesthetics and lyrical repertoire, white people are enthusiastic to support this St. Louis-born performer.

I am of the opinion this digital discourse to some extent echoes concerns among Black feminist scholars about the relationship between racial capitalism and the hypersexualization of Black women and girls. From this perspective, a specific historical context, rooted in the economic exploitation of Black women in the U.S., first as enslaved people and now as low wage workers, contributes to the stereotypes that shape the labor of Black women.

In his 1983 book Black Marxism, Cedric J. Robinson, a political scientist, introduced the concept of racial capitalism to describe capitalism and racism as interconnected systems. Robinson traces racial capitalism back to the transition from European feudalism. Specifically, the rise of the bourgeoisie brought about a transformation in established social structures, dating back to ancient European practices of marginalizing and excluding people of other civilizations due to their perceived “barbarian” status. Those who European empires considered barbarian were not only exploited as laborers, but also enslaved.

Some sociologists, such as Julian Go, Whitney N.L. Pirtle, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, have built upon Robinson’s theory to suggest that society’s racial hierarchies serve capitalist interests, resulting in far-reaching political and global ramifications. For example, Go asserts that the process of “racialization” categorized certain groups of people based on race in order to exploit them economically:

It is not that capitalism was built on prior racial differences; rather, capitalism served to racialize the preexisting ethnic division of labor, thereby turning religious, cultural, or linguistic differences into “racial” ones to legitimate its new exploitative structure. In this view, racialization —the process of turning groups into biological entities called “races”—was a part of modern capitalism, not its precursor (cf. Omi and Winant 1986).
– Go (2021:41)

European colonialism played a critical role in the development of the racialization of capitalism, particularly through the transatlantic slave trade. Racial ideologies of the era that portrayed Africans as inferior compared to Europeans were used to justify their exploitation, dehumanization, and enslavement. For example, enslaved Black women in the U.S. were characterized as hypersexual Jezebels and servile Mammies, which shaped their labor roles on plantations and in the broader economy. In addition, these controlling images rationalized the widespread sexual abuse and oppression of enslaved Black women, as their captors sought to profit from their reproductive labor. Hence, racial capitalism is also shaped by gender.

The case of Sarah Baartman illustrates the connection between racial capitalism and the objectification of Black women. In the early 19th century, Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus,” captivated audiences across Europe as a carnival spectacle whose unique physical attributes, particularly her buttocks, were sensationalized. This public exhibition not only turned her body into a commodity, but also perpetuated racial hierarchies and stereotypes that portrayed Black women as sexually deviant and grotesque in contrast to the perceived superiority of European bodies and aesthetics.

In a disturbing turn of events, French scientist Georges Cuvier dissected and preserved parts of her body after her death, using her anatomy to promote pseudoscientific ideas about racial differences. By dismembering her and putting her remains on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, Europeans further dehumanized her to reinforce the belief that African bodies were inherently inferior to European bodies.

Baartman’s life story demonstrates that racial capitalism functions in part by transforming the bodies of Black women into objects of trade and scientific scrutiny to reinforce white supremacy and profit from their exploitation, thereby illustrating how in Western societies, race, gender, and economic exploitation are inextricably linked.

This phenomenon, as described by bell hooks as “imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy,” leads to systemic inequalities. In her thought-provoking essay “The Belly of the World,” Saidiya Hartman examines the exploitation of Black women’s labor. According to Hartman, economic motives drove the objectification and mistreatment of enslaved Black women, valuing their reproductive capabilities and essential labor in fields and domestic positions. After the abolition of slavery, many of them were forced into low-paid domestic work in white households, enduring violence and sexual abuse. Their hard work supported the functioning and upkeep of white households, often at the expense of their own families, underscoring how the sexualization of Black women due to their race and gender contributes to their economic subjugation.

In today’s world, the connection between racial capitalism and the hypersexualization of Black women is evident in media, particularly hip hop and rap music. To be sure, Black women rappers such as Sexxy Red, Megan thee Stallion , and Cardi B use rap music to self-define their sexualities in their own words. Still, most prominent rappers are under contracts with record labels that are owned and run by non-Black people who make enormous profits, often in the hundreds of millions, while the artists themselves receive a much smaller share from the music they create.

The power imbalance between artistry and ownership in the music industry undermines the careers of Black women whose music doesn’t align with the sexualized portrayals that drive profit motives. Furthermore, problematic representations of Black women’s sexuality in the entertainment industry, are demonstrably rooted in nineteenth century blackface minstrel shows, in particularly the offensive “bedwench” character. Therefore, critiques that question who profits and consumes such hypersexualized media representations bring attention to the interconnectedness of race, gender, and capitalism.

Ultimately, addressing the issue of sexual exploitation of Black women for economic gain demands not only confronting stereotypes, but also advocating for systemic change to dismantle the interconnected systems of oppression that perpetuate this oppression to empower Black women to directly benefit from their labor.

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