For the past several weeks, the United States has been enthralled in the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. While the process has been rushed and highly abnormal – par for the course for the Trump Administration and Congress – the most striking aspect of the process has been the allegation of sexual assault made by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford against Kavanaugh.
Last week, Dr. Ford testified during a Senate hearing about the allegation, followed by a bizarre line of questioning that was not dissimilar from the questioning that Anita Hill was subjected to nearly three decades ago when she testified at Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing that he had sexually harassed her for years. There is, however, one key difference we must recognize between Anita Hill and Dr. Ford: Dr. Ford is white. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has been lauded as brave, composed, and a symbol for all women – both by the committee and the general public. Anita Hill, a Black woman, was not given this same praise, respect, or positioning. And neither has any Black woman who has ever spoken up.
In a time where women’s voices are beginning to change the way in which women are treated, this change is not universal. While the #MeToo movement has played a large part in creating this change, it has also been rightfully criticized for centering middle- and upper-class white women. Tarana Burke, a Black woman and the founder of Me Too, began the movement more than a decade ago, but it did not take off until white women came forward with their stories of sexual abuse. This is nothing new. Black women’s experiences have always been marginalized and diminished because of inherent systemic racism.
Black women experience sexual assault differently than white women because they experience the world differently. Since the beginning of our country’s history, Black women’s bodies have never been their own. This history spans from the rape of Black women during slavery, to the rampant sterilization of Black women (which continues to this day), and the perception of Black women as both hypersexual and undesirable. The convergence of gender and race places Black women in a position where power is often wielded against us through acts of sexual violence. Thus, Black women who speak out about sexual assault and harassment are dismissed, since any claim deemed legitimate wholly contradicts the notion that Black women serve to fulfill the pleasures of white men.
The role of Black women in the lives of white men is only reinforced by Black male patriarchy. Black women have always fought for racial and gender equity, but when confronted with sexual violence committed by a Black man against a Black woman, women are expected to prioritize race over gender. The ways in which Black men are dehumanized by our society often compels Black women to stay silent for the sake of protecting the lives of their own. This silence speaks volumes. Black women are less likely to report instances of assault than white women, but are more likely to be assaulted. So when Anita Hill, a highly-educated and successful Black woman, accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, she challenged centuries-old conventions of white and Black Americans. Thomas insidiously invoked these conventions when he claimed his hearings were a “high-tech lynching.” His use of the history of white supremacist violence ensured he would gain sympathy from Black America while simultaneously stoking the Senate’s fears of being charged as racist if he were not confirmed. This strategy worked. But only because he demeaned a Black woman in the process.
Amid hostility, Anita Hill testified against a Black man in front of an all-white, all-male committee. In many ways, she did what Black women have always done – lead the charge for justice while reaping little reward.
As history repeats itself, we must understand the significance of Anita Hill’s testimony and its impact on Dr. Ford’s. It is hard to predict how Dr. Ford would have been treated and perceived had it not been for Anita Hill, but there is no denying that Hill’s testimony laid the groundwork. Her testimony informed the entire process by which the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Dr. Ford – an outside female prosecutor was hired to question Dr. Ford, the questioning took place in a smaller courtroom to accommodate her anxiety, she was given ample breaks, and was able to prepare in a way Anita Hill never could. It is the bravery of Anita Hill that paved the way for the bravery of Dr. Ford. And it is the determination of Tarana Burke that has given voice to millions of women. The list goes on.
It’s likely that Kavanaugh will still be confirmed to the Supreme Court despite Dr. Ford’s testimony, similar to how Clarence Thomas was still confirmed to the Supreme Court despite Anita Hill’s testimony. Our collective fight for justice, however, must continue, and we must fight for all women, including Black women. Many lessons can be learned from the Kavanaugh hearings, but if there is one we should all take away, it is that for true gender equity to be achieved, all women must be able to speak up, be heard, and ultimately believed. It’s everyone’s job to make this happen.
—written by Francesca Simon
Writer, advocate for Black women