Let’s start with the laughter: how it was the thing that Christine Blasey Ford remembered best.
During a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, in a marathon session that ran more than three hours, Blasey Ford recounted how Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, then a 17-year-old, sexually assaulted her at a high school party.
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Blasey Ford, now a psychology professor, said during questioning. “The laugh—the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”
“I was, you know, underneath one of them while the two laughed, two friends—two friends having a really good time with one another,” she continued.
I found that part of her testimony haunting. It was haunting because it was personal: it’s the laughter when you’re being casually humiliated, when your body is just an object, a punchline in a cruel joke for whom you’re not the audience.
That laughter exists on a continuum—it’s the same laughter men share after they’ve appraised your body publicly. The catcalls and lewd comments they hurl your way are a performance for the men around them: your body just a platform for them to bond over. It’s an act of performed masculinity, which in a public setting is an act of dominion.
It haunted me because it wasn’t just personally familiar; I’d written about such laughter in another context. It’s also the laughter of white supremacy.
Almost a year ago, I spoke to Texas A&M Professor Joe Feagin about blackface—and why it is that white people, despite the clear and obvious repercussions—continue to do it.
“It’s kind of a white male bonding ritual,” Feagin told me. In putting on racist costumes, in telling “nigger jokes,” non-black people use racial degradation and humiliation to laugh with each other, to bond. It may be why white people often profess to not meaning to offend, insisting on their good intentions and their virtue. They weren’t performing blackness—despite what the tar-black paint on their skin says—they were performing the ultimate act of whiteness.
This is what dehumanization is: Your body is the punchline. You are the joke.
America is a patriarchy built on white supremacy; the one informs the other. Blasey Ford’s testimony reminded me as a woman of color that when you are being humiliated, it’s a cultural expectation that you accept that humiliation. You are, after all, just incidental in it.
This message was supplemented by Kavanugh himself as he gave his testimony: his erratic, angry performance a perfect distillation of whiteness and maleness and how our country—its institutions, its decision-makers—continue to defer to it.
Women, having just seen Blasey Ford be so accommodating to the people questioning her, saw Kavanaugh’s rage and bluster and knew their anger could never be so accepted—treated with so much sympathy—in the halls of the senate.
Black men also knew this to be true. Kavanuagh’s level of rage would be disqualifying should they have employed it. What was collectively embraced by the Republican senators—all of whom were white, all of whom were male—as righteous indignation by Kavanaugh would have simply been viewed as “dangerous”or “threatening” had it come from a black man.
Which gets us to the heart of what it is to live in a country that is very much still a patriarchy, where white supremacy is the foundation of the very Senate: It’s the question of who gets to be a victim—which is to say, who gets to be virtuous.
By and large, when Anita Hill testified before the Senate against then-nominee Clarence Thomas in nearly identical circumstances, she was not afforded such virtue by the press, nor by the public, nor by the process.
But Blasey Ford—almost universally lauded as “credible” and “vulnerable”—was afforded this virtue, and when the press uses the term the “perfect victim” it’s important to interrogate exactly how whiteness and class play into it.
But all things being equal—when Blasey Ford was matched against a man of equal privilege, of equal background—it was Kavanaugh who got to hold onto his virtue in the eyes of his male contemporaries. He insisted on that virtue. To watch him weaponize his rage, his tears, and his silence throughout that dreadful hearing was to watch a white man used to acting with impunity. And if you are not white or male it was stunning to behold: not unlike watching a creature you’d only read about in books squawk and preen and cry in the wild. A man who can treat a Supreme Court seat not as an honor or privilege, but a birthright. Someone who doesn’t treat power as something given or earned—but something he is owed.
This was white male arrogance on display. And it was a sight.
Regardless of how today’s confirmation vote goes, the Kavanaugh debacle has put on display one crucial tenet of how racism and misogyny works: Even in your darkest and most shameful moments, whether that moment is in a bedroom at a debaucherous party or on Capitol Hill, if you are white and especially if you are a white man, you can insist on your virtue. You can insist on your goodness. And you will be rewarded by the white men who have monopolized power in this country since its inception.
Picking through the various roundups and summaries of the hearing from last night and this morning, I was struck by one particular passage from Jonathan V. Last in the Weekly Standard, who wrote: “It’s impossible to look at the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings and not see America as a nation in decline.”
Perhaps a writer like Last (he also called Kavanaugh’s conduct during the hearing “exemplary”) doesn’t know the country he reports on. America is a patriarchy build on white supremacy. Kavanaugh’s hearing didn’t show a nation in decline. It showed the nation that’s always been there.