Veronica R. Wells
Anita Hill & Our Aunties: How Black Women Help & Hinder The Fight Against Sexual Assault
These past few months have been consumed with talk of sexual harassment. For the rest of his life, at least in the public space, Harvey Weinstein will be this generation's poster child for sexual assault and harassment. Even though he was far from the first or last man to use his power to intimidate women, he's the one who opened up the floor for everyone else to be exposed. And since his downfall, we've seen men like Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Louis C.K., Russell Simmons (and I'm sure more to come) meet similar fates.
Most women, the group who have been the most affected and impacted by sexual assault, from the beginning of humanity, recognize that this reckoning is long overdue. Finally, the nation is having very real and uncomfortable conversations. And while I think that a majority of people understand the necessary ramifications behind sexual assault and harassment: firings, oustings, loss in income, being exposed, etc.; I've learned that not everyone gets it.
Earlier this week, I listened to Cam'Ron's interview on "The Breakfast Club," and at the very end of it, Angela Yee asked him what he thought about all of the sexual assault allegations and the consequences men were suffering because of them. I waited with baited breath. Up until that point, Cam'Ron had come across incredibly charming in the interview and coming from a man deeply entrenched in Hip Hop, an art form known for its misogyny, there was a good chance that he was going to say something to offend me.
I wasn't offended by what he said, I just realized that he didn't all the way get it. Cam'Ron, cosigned by Charlamagne, said that he fully supported the women coming forward, he just wished that they would do it when the assault or the harassment initially happened instead of waiting for years or riding a wave to feel comfortable enough to step forward and say something.
Thankfully, Angela Yee offered that a lot of women are scared to come forward for fear that it will cost them their jobs, future opportunities etc. She didn't really drive the point home. And as I was watching, I wanted her to push the concept and hopefully his understanding of it a bit further. They're scared that they'll be traumatized all over again when no one believes them or pretends that what happened to them wasn't a big deal. If she's Black and her harasser or assailant was also Black, there is the strong likelihood that she'll alienate the entire Black community and be accused of trying to keep a Black man down.
Cam'Ron understood the fear. Still, he said he wants to encourage women to come forward when it happens.
I agree. In a perfect world, women would come forward when it happens. But I understand why they don't. And not only do I understand, I don't blame them if they decide they never want to speak publicly about it. If sexual mistreatment toward women has been going on since the dawn of time, our propensity to publicly address it is a phenomenon still in its infancy. And it's clear that people, mostly men, still aren't sure about how to handle it.
Today, I was in a room with several men and one of them mentioned the whole sexual harassment piece. He kind of trailed off at the end of his sentence, saying he hadn't taken part in it because people, mostly women, weren't open to dialogue about the subject with any nuance.
I was intrigued by the suggestion that nuance existed in this issue and I wanted to know his thoughts so I asked him what he had to say about it.
He acknowledged that since sexual harassment had been a part of our world, the status quo since forever, how was it fair to just now start holding people accountable for behaviors that have been so widely accepted and embraced?
It's an interesting...albeit disappointing question. And there are a couple of responses to it. One, while these behaviors have been considered the norm, in order to progress as a society, as human beings, we have to constantly examine our behavior, particularly when it causes harm to other human beings. While this disrespect has been normalized, these men still know that what they were doing needed to be shrouded in secrecy. Louis C.K. has devoted entire comedy sets to speaking about the dangers women feel when they simply go on dates with men; but behind closed doors, he pulls his dick out and asks to masturbate in front of two aspiring female comedians. A large part of him knows it's not acceptable to do that in public. He knows how he'll be received.
Russell Simmons is love and light in the public eye. He meditates. But in his personal life, he's having sex consensually (and allegedly not consensually) with teenagers, he's asking business associates if he's ever fucked them.
These men know that while excuses have been made for their behaviors, morally they can't show that face to the public. Not because our sex lives and sexual attractions are private, but because the ways in which some men act on these attractions is immoral.
Secondly, even if these men didn't realize they were behaving poorly, there are very distinct laws on the subject. Virtually every corporation teaches classes on sexual assault and harassment. We all, Black people especially, watched Anita Hill explain and advance the definition of sexual harassment for the entire nation. Her testimony while it didn't keep Clarence Thomas from the bench, was the catalyst for real change in the ways our country treats women in the workplace. Americans know this history. And still, these men and millions more like them, acted against it. Likely because on some level, their power made them feel as if they were beyond reproach, that they wouldn't get caught, that the women they intimidated and coerced, "wanted it." There's a legal, moral and sociological foundation that precedes the current conversation about sexual assault. So by all means, any man who chooses to ignore it should be held accountable for his actions.
Anita Hill is the perfect person to bring up at this time; because frankly, Black women are responsible for so much of the country's consciousness. But honestly, had I not visited a great aunt of mine, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, I don't know that I would have been thinking about her.
Like most American families, after we exchanged hugs and finished our meal, the conversation turned to current events. And for the past few months, that's been sexual harassment.
I missed the connection but somewhere in the conversation, my great aunt, who is in her late 70s to early 80s said, "Like that woman Anita Hill."
My ears perked up believing that she was referencing her as a pioneer. Instead, my aunt said, "Testifying against that man like that, just trying to bring him down."
There were instant groans.
My precious father said, "Now if you're going to defend somebody, don't waste it on Clarence Thomas."
Thankfully, my father and a couple of my cousins, male and female, chimed in to say that they always believed Anita Hill.
Turns out my aunt did too. But she said, "She wasn't saying anything any other woman hasn't experienced."
It was one of those statements that was profound for both its accuracy and depravity.
In the days since I've heard it, I recognize how much pain it held as well. How much hurt, humiliation, disrespect, and abuse had our aunts, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers swallowed because they simply believed that it was normal? How many of them internalized the notion that women were built to be disrespected, abused, dismissed, discarded and diminished to nothing more than sexual objects?
If women have been the recipients of this type of treatment throughout history, I'm happy to be living in a time where just a small, minuscule, infinitesimal percentage of the men who have been inflicting it, are being taken to task for it.