Not long ago I attended a conference at New York City’s Hunter College commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings where Professor Hill, in damning detail, publicly testified to her experience at the hands of now-Justice Thomas which included sustained sexual harassment. Her courage caused open discussion of sexual harassment to burst violently onto the national scene, unapologetically breaking the silence felt by millions of women who had been shamed, threatened, and cajoled into pretending what had happened to them was business as usual. The conference sought to honour Professor Hill and featured a variety of speakers, activists old and new, commentators, reporters, academics and friends who all offered their perspective on the matter. It was elucidating and, to turn that blessed cliché, empowering.
The volunteers at the university all wore T-shirts that read “I Believe Anita Hill.” It was a powerful and dangerous message,as much now as it was then: to suggest that one accepts a woman’s reality as real.
It is a cosmic irony that just a little over two weeks after this conference, one which at first felt like it was summoning up something confined to the misty history of the early 1990s, I should discover that Politico posted a special report about how Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain had sexual harassment allegations levelled at him by at least two women some fifteen years ago.
It is as if I attended a special seminar on handling emergency situations and then, practically upon leaving, I find myself having to use all of the tools given to me therein with the utmost urgency. Within the last 48 hours events in the commentariat have spiralled out of control and old revenants that haunt American politics now shriek with window-shattering violence. Clarence Thomas’ sins have been resurrected, countless commentators on the right have resumed bashing Anita Hill, the words ‘hi-tech lynching’ took less than a day to appear at the very cusp of the breaking news froth (on the BBC, no less), and a cavalcade of racism and racist appropriations have gushed forth from the mouths of every white talking head within shouting distance of a satellite link-up.
Yet what is of special interest to me, and what prompted me to say something, are the particulars of what a well-known white conservative woman has been saying about this scandal:
Ann Coulter, a right-wing commentator, called the claims “another high-tech lynching”, saying liberals couldn’t stand strong black conservatives.
She has quite a lot to say about Clarence Thomas, up to and including her beliefs about where accusations like this originate from:
“If you are a conservative black, they will believe the most horrible sexualized fantasies of these uptight white feminists,”
I’ve just returned from the washroom and after careful examination I have concluded I’m not white. But, moving on:
“Our blacks are so much better than their blacks,” she said, speaking of Democrats. (Source.)
I could just end the article right here as this, in some ways, can say everything that needs to be said about how white conservatives have handled this latest issue with Herman Cain. But much more should be said.
Let me say something very briefly to those of you who may think that Coulter is a professional troll to whom no mind should be paid: normally I would agree with you, but I address these criticisms not to Coulter herself, whom I personally do not take seriously, but to the countless people in her professional life who do. Her publishers, newspaper editors, employers at Fox, Sean Hannity (to whom she was speaking when she claimed ownership of black conservatives), and a host of others. This is also not just about Coulter specifically, it would be more than a little sexist to single her out here when all she’s done is capture a zeitgeist being enunciated in other ways by a gaggle of white men on the right, including Rush Limbaugh.
What Coulter said was elucidating precisely because it set side by side the appropriation and hypocrisy of white conservative racial politics. She accuses liberals of racism against Herman Cain, and then proceeds to say something stunningly and embarrassingly racist that, in a skilful economy of words, manages to at once colonise black people, casts them as owned and somehow exterior to white mainstream conservatism, and sets them up as a unity that antagonises (white) women.
It is impossible to fathom what world one must be living in where one could think it is even remotely ethical to talk about “our” versus “their blacks”; but I credit Coulter with giving voice to a political reality many of us people of colour are already familiar with. Right or Left, liberal or conservative, in the mainstream of these movements the white leadership very often views us as somehow belonging to them. Coulter, give her credit, at least grants utterance to the thoughts of the privileged, long censored by the new age of post-60s decorum but still very much acted upon. Credit her with bringing it into the light of honest and proud admission.
The comparisons to Anita Hill were almost inevitable, and yet again we find the racist reinscription of old narratives. Let us make one fact clear to the white rightists: Clarence Thomas was not the only person in that room who was black. Anita Hill is a black woman. Your silence, painfully deafening now as it was then, shows a refusal to speak out against the racism she encountered in telling her story. Rush Limbaugh has the audacity to say that Cain’s critics don’t like “uppity black people” yet had nothing to say about how some had accused Hill of “selling out” by accusing a fellow African-American of sexual harassment. He had nothing to say about how Hill was looked at by some as a “race traitor”; no sobreminded white conservative lectures about race were heard, not a one stood up to say that it was racist to expect a black woman to not have a mind of her own. This is not to suggest that the left was unaccountable for wrongdoing here; they too slipped into the same narratives. It was Joe Biden himself who blocked corroborating testimonies and other evidence from being brought before his committee that might have hardened the case against Thomas.
Clarence Thomas had no gender, Anita Hill had no race.
In all of the fictionalised accounts of that two-decade old hearing, conservatives cast Hill only as the unnamed pawn of liberal whites and white feminists. Yet does she not have a mind of her own? Does she not have a truth to tell? Is she not black? Does she not have the right to speak for herself? Does she not have agency to be more than an unwitting pawn?
At the Intersectional Margins
Every conservative who plays fast and loose with these classic stories reinforces the subordination of black women as people with no specific claim to discourse on race, while rendering the gender of black men as inoperative, inert, and beyond consideration save as a small marker of victimhood. Incidentally, what is defended is the privilege that all too many men seek to exercise: entitlement to women, our bodies, and our lives.
More damning still, however, is the resurrection of the hi-tech lynching mythology. Feminist and critical race scholar Kimberle Crenshaw (the woman who gave a name and theoretical coherence to the concept of “intersectionality”) put it best when she said that Thomas “adamantly insisted that blacks be judged on the content of their characters rather than the colour of their skin [and then deployed] the colour of his skin as a defence to judgements of his character.” She identified a classic two-step, routinely exploited by white men, and also points out how Anita Hill’s very existence disrupted so many raced and gendered narratives about sex and violence. Hill embodied a complicated reading of the raced-gendered terrain of how black women are sexually assaulted; Thomas offered the seductive possibility of the traditional male-centred narrative of black oppression. Hill demonstrated the complicated calculations that specifically inhered to being who she was and where she was: her experience as a woman cannot be understood without understanding the realities of her life as a black woman. The identity as intersectional rather than in tension, as it is so often artificially constructed. As Catharine MacKinnon put it, her particularities are “part of what being there as a woman means. Her specificity helps make up what gender is.”
And I would add, her specificity helps make up what race is as well.
If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Both Thomas and Cain’s maleness privilege their race as somehow representative. We do not know the race of the women who accused Herman Cain of harassment, but conservatives already proved that they only care about the race of the accused man. For them Anita Hill was whitewashed: a narrative of the rapacious, sexually animalistic black man which they themselves had used for decades now presented itself as a way of covering their tracks in a new age of minimally inclusive conservative politics. The reinvention of an old white myth still serves the interests of white men in power: this should surprise no one.
A myth once used to persecute black men is now manipulated in the defence of a microscopic minority of conservative black men and specifically deployed in antagonism to women, regardless of our race. I as a Latina, and many other women of colour besides do not exist in this universe. As Ann Coulter said, all feminists are white, and as Clarence Thomas’ defenders often alleged, only prissy white women had the audacity to get all princess-like and complain about things like sexual harassment.
Yet we insistently exist.
What gender is in the modern world is not a universal but a highly granular series of contradictory textures. Specifically, the ways in which women are now being enlisted to perform masculinity both destabilises and solidifies the current structure of gender and race (both being always already implicated in each other). It is Laclau and Mouffe’s suture: culture always tearing apart and sewing itself shut once again. Stability, even as it melts into air. This is part of what race and gender mean in the world today, dominated as it is by new and ever-evolving phases of imperialism and capitalism that are forever struck through by their patriarchal and white-supremacist ferment. Everything new is old again.
The Right to Entitlement
Let us make gender all the more visible here. Watergate co-conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, now a well paid commentator for America’s right, tweeted the following:
“Ladies, in the light of the Herman Cain controversy is there a politician whose advances you would welcome?”
I found his choice of background on his Twitter account to be quite interesting, to say the least.
Let us be abundantly clear here: what we are witnessing on the part of conservative men and their small number of women allies, is the marshalling of yet another spirited defence of male entitlement. Liddy seems to be saying, if Herman Cain can’t harass anyone, how will (cis) men ever get the pussy? Indeed, my heart bleeds all over the floor for him. One can just picture poor, sorrowful Mr. Liddy forced to tug himself off to the calendar he’s immortalised on his Twitter.
Lest I descend too far into the most vicious of snark, however, it is also worth reflecting on the fact that pernicious stereotypes of black men have existed in feminism and have been manipulated by white feminists. What is ignored by those who, in turn, seek to manipulate that history is that some of the most trenchant critics of this racism have been other feminists, many of whom are women of colour. Indeed, a sterling critique of such racism in Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will can be found in Angela Y. Davis’ Women, Race, & Class. As a black radical feminist she picked this apart from the inside with far better perspicacity and sensitivity to all concerned than the white right’s callous opportunists.
She also vivifies the often forgotten history that lives in the shadow of male privilege: the armies of black women who fought against lynching, like Ida B. Wells, Mary Talbert, Sojourner Truth, Frances E.W. Harper and Mary Church Terrell; the black women who were themselves raped and lynched; the white women like Jesse Daniel Ames whose Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching was an instrumental part of the fight against racial terrorism; the black women who were raped as part of white male masters’ entitlement during slavery. The list goes on. This history is as much a part of the background to all of this as the mythology of the black male rapist. Far from invisible, black women were always at the forefront of the struggles against both racism and sexism.
This 1981 book remains deeply relevant. A quote from it at-length is in order in which Davis explains why (poor) black men historically bear the brunt of blame for rape and sexual assault:
It seems, in fact, that men of the capitalist class and their middle-class partners are immune to prosecution because they commit their sexual assaults with the same unchallenged authority that legitimises their daily assaults on the labour and dignity of working people.
The existence of widespread sexual harassment on the job has never been much of a secret. It is precisely on the job, indeed, that women- especially when they are not unionised- are most vulnerable. Having already established their economic domination over their female subordinates, employers, managers, and foremen may attempt to assert this authority in sexual terms.
She threads an elegant line, eviscerating the racist stereotype of the black male rapist while also articulating an intersectional politics of rape and sexual harassment, identifying its class-based dimensions and other interactions with power. Her voice, her analysis, should count for quite a lot.
The stereotype of the sexually voracious black man is still being used, yes, but do not pretend that Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly or the rest are anything approaching experts on critical race questions. Much less that they are in any sense sensitive to these issues. The elegance of Angela Davis and others like her puts the lie to their pretended and shamelessly manipulated ‘concern.’ None should concede their right to be entitled to African-American history.
Courage Through Tragedy
“All the women are white, all the blacks are men, but some of us are brave.” This powerful aphorism gives itself to the title of a black feminist anthology, illustrating the pain and the struggle of living at that intersection of radical politics, and it came to painful life during the Thomas hearings. Anita Hill was brave. I’ve often used that phrase in my own political life to say “all the women are cis, all the trans folk are men, but some of us are brave”- and I could say the same about being Latina; it illustrates much the same problem, the issues of isolation and reductive thinking that come from failing to understand identities not as little tick boxes neatly separated by black lines, but as being parts of a contiguous whole; where identities begin and end tend to be found at the boundaries of the person, rather than somewhere within them.
At this point it would be unfair to say that I know the truth behind the accusations against Herman Cain, but I will say that my greatest fear is not for him; it is for the women themselves who thought they’d put this behind them and may before long find themselves at the centre of a misogynist media circus. Their names are already known to the press, multiple agencies including NBC News and Politico have confirmed this. All that needs to happen is one leak, one mislaid email, one lost scrap of paper. Then this might really get ugly. (ETA: One of the accusers wishes to voluntarily come forward, pending her freedom from the disclosure agreement with the National Restaurant Association. My take on this is simple: if Cain has the right to slander these women as having made false allegations only to walk away with a wad of cash that he “hopes wasn’t too much,” they are within their rights to respond. I wish them all the luck in the world if and when they do.)
Karl Marx once famously said that history always occurs in a dyad: first as tragedy, then again as farce. The high drama of Hill’s testimony, where the suffering of millions of women was given bright, raw visibility, and where scores of old wounds were opened and cast into the light away from denial and ignorance… and then the fact of Thomas ascending to the Court anyway. This was a tragedy, if a beautiful one for the courage of Professor Hill, who emerged from that hell with a dignity whose power it was my pleasure to witness in person two weeks ago. She continues to write incisively about politics. Herman Cain, however, with his poor singing, SimCity politics, lazy one-liners, bizarre ad campaigns, and self serving bravado of the most uncreative sort, had already emerged as one of several jesters in the Republican presidential lineup this year. Now the farce comes full circle with these accusations and we see here a pale imitation of Hill’s pathbreaking moment, a sorry attempt to thrash about and resurrect the old ghosts of the racism and sexism that threatened to destroy her.
To top it all off, Cain sang his way out of the glare of press attention to this scandal. Farce indeed.
In the meantime, however, I encourage us all to continue to speak out against conservative efforts to tell us where we stand, and against the right’s efforts to render women of colour invisible and irrelevant; much less to claim they and their white liberal counterparts somehow ‘own’ us. And on that note:
I still believe Anita Hill.