“The more things change. The more things stay the same.”
My 7th grade English teacher, the black woman who taught me how to write, said that quote in class on a cool spring day in March 2006 and looked at us to explain what she meant.
Loads of us scratched our heads in that, “Well, shit, I don’t know” way until someone in the back blurted out, “Well, that means things haven’t really changed then, right?”
To which my English teacher said, “Precisely.”
Reading the coverage for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, I am reminded of the quote. Mostly because 27 years after the Anita Hill hearing, sexual-assault survivors are still treated like criminals when they come forward, but mostly because this entire administration has been a testament to how fickle, delicate and temporary progress can be when it is not purposefully and willingly protected.
But that’s not the only thing that has stayed virtually the same. Looking at the coverage by several mainstream outlets, I noticed that many were quick to compare Ford to Hill, and in those comparisons, it became painfully clear that the mindset of the predominately white media hasn’t progressed much since 1991 and still believes that black women like Anita Hill are neither worth believing or protecting.
I know you’re wondering how I can say that so blatantly and confidently. Here’s why:
1. Media comparisons painting Ford as a “vulnerable” survivor versus Hill as a stoic, strong survivor stem from racist and misogynistic stereotypes about black women and are completely ahistorical.
The Ford hearing had barely begun when CNN commentator and Supreme Court analyst Joan Biskupic thought she was sharing an enlightened thought by invoking the racial trope of the strong black woman that Hill had to contend with in 1991. To be clear, Biskupic said, “I just want to draw a comparison to what we saw with Anita Hill and what we see with Dr. Ford, is that Anita Hill projected strength and control and a real professionalism to match then-Judge Thomas.”
She went on to comment that with Ford, you can tell this had affected her every day since it happened—as if that could never be the case for Hill. It was as if Ford’s “vulnerability” as a witness shined through more. Was more palpable. And perhaps, more palatable.
Especially to white America.
Biskupic was not the only person or news outlet to share this view. The New Yorker asserted that in many ways, Ford’s experience was just as bad or maybe even worse than Hill’s. Mind you, this is under the assumption that Hill had the same capacity and opportunity to be as “emotive” or “vulnerable” as Ford (which is untrue). Despite noting that Hill had to face down an all-white and all-male committee (unlike the Ford, who faced four female senators, two of color) and suggesting that the tide had turned on discussions of sexual assault—no doubt thanks in part to #MeToo and #TimesUp—while also pointing out Ford’s vulnerability and “disarming directness,” the New Yorker says that Ford may have had it worse than Hill.
Which is notable, because on top of that, Ford had the power of social media and, I would argue, public opinion on her side. Alyssa Milano was photographed at her hearing. Hashtags, pins, even fan art circulated in her honor. The closest support Hill had that could even be mildly comparable back in 1991 was when 1,600 black women put out an ad with the headline “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves” in the New York Times, saying that they supported Hill (because we are all we have).
And most importantly? Ford had the additional protections of being a white woman and everything that comes with that, including a history of tears being accepted as fact and her virtue as a white woman being fiercely defended at all costs.
Hill did not.
Of course, this discourse would not be possible if not for the misogynoiristic stereotypes that exist about black women, particularly the strong-black-woman trope that has been forced on us. We are expected to take abuse and violence with grace and a smile. This trope asserts that we can tolerate pain better than seemingly any other demographic. It is a sentiment that has derailed our education straight into the school-to-prison pipeline, has us on our deathbeds after giving birth and has encouraged society’s lack of empathy toward us and its tendency to not believe us in cases like Hill’s.
Because we can take anything. Do anything. And if it happens to us, it couldn’t have been all that bad, right?
No, that’s not quite right, but saying so would deviate from America’s parochial and hidebound understanding of black women and force society to find value in us, but clearly, that’s a tall order for a country that is perpetually and systematic invested in our muleship. And imagine how different things would have turned out if Hill were white.
But, you know, white America wasn’t the only sphere of the country that was bringing ahistorical takes to the table. Black America had some things to answer for, too.
Which leads me to my second point:
2. Most of the think pieces that have come out since last Thursday, even from black writers, were often missing the added nuance of respectability and race-first politics and what role they played in Hill’s hearing—and how her testimony (and innocence) was regarded by the black community.
Let me be very clear. In 1991, Anita Hill had to testify before two Americas: black America and white America.
And neither side made it easy on her.
Thomas was nominated to a mixed reception from the black community mainly because of his conservative politics (especially following someone like Thurgood Marshall), but once Hill came forward with her account, African-American support almost immediately veered in Thomas’ direction, particularly after he called the hearings “a high-tech lynching.”
It was particularly evil and devious wording. But also, ingenious.
Invoking white-supremacist violence and claiming that was, in fact, what the all-white committee was doing was enough to sway even the most ambivalent in our community to side with Thomas. Invoking such imagery made it so that the “good” and “virtuous” Thomas had to be protected at all costs. No matter the cost. Even if that cost included the degradation and near-destruction of Hill, a black woman.
This race-first politics is a sentiment familiar to many black women and black queer and trans folx—that the success of cishet black men is paramount to our community and the only thing that matters; that we must put all our intersections, all our pain, abuse and sacrifices aside to further the race. As if we are not all these things and black at the same time.
And listen, it’s particularly galling because respectability politics dictated that Hill would have been immediately dismissed if she did not come “correct”—that her credentials and accolades (accomplishments achieved long before she even worked for Thomas), had to be far superior to any shortcomings that could have been exploited by the media’s extremely potent white gaze. It’s the same reason Rosa Parks was seen as a better cause to rally around than Claudette Colvin (who had refused to give up her seat on bus to a white woman months prior to Parks but was ignored because she was a teen mother.) It’s the same reason Hill couldn’t afford to blubber or weep or cry or be “vulnerable.” The world was watching and Hill needed to maintain her composure or she would be mercilessly dragged, disgraced and dismissed—especially by the black community.
And still, her efforts did not protect her from abuse. She was called “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” by sham-of-a-writer David Brock, painted as a spurned lover thirsting after revenge and eventually had to resign from her position at the University of Oklahoma College of Law because of increased scrutiny after the 1991 confirmation hearings.
And while her sacrifice resulted in a surge of women being elected to Congress and, in many ways, made Ford’s testimony even possible, I am tired of America requiring the blood sacrifice of black women in order to continue spinning or to finally get real about how incredibly bigoted this country is only to discard us like dirty mop water in the aftermath.
I am tired. We are tired. And we are worth so much more than that.