27 years after Anita Hill testified before Congress, her performance is being put on trial again.
Comparisons have poured forth of Hill’s 1991 testimony about then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. A few in particular are revealing the very different ways that Americans view black women and white women who are victims of sexual violence and abuse.
On Thursday, CNN commentator and Supreme Court analyst Joan 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. The vulnerability of this witness is coming through much more. You feel her reliving it. And I think that makes it much harder than what Clarence Thomas faced with Anita Hill, because it was almost an equal ‘he said/she said.’ This time around, the idea that she’s living it almost on a daily basis, the way she talked, I think it’s tougher. Much tougher.”
The allegations made by Ford and Hill differ, with Hill accusing Thomas of workplace sexual harassment and Ford alleging that Kavanaugh assaulted her while in high school. That said, Biskupic’s comments illuminate how, in the white-dominated political media, the stereotype of the strong black woman can be used against black women, in that we are not seen as vulnerable and worthy of protection.
Writing for the New York Times, Kimberlé Crenshaw notes, “Black women are vulnerable not only because of racial bias against them, but also because of stereotypes — that they expect less nurturing, they are more willing, no one will believe them. This is what marks them as prey to men of all races.”
Our so-called strength then makes us an even match with the men who abuse us. Indeed, we are easier prey in no small part because even when we gather the strength to share our trauma from sexism and violence, white people and white women in particular do not see our pain.
In 1997, Hill, who studied psychology and attended Yale Law School, discussed rewatching her own testimony, saying “the thing that I think about when I see it is how painful it was and how it’s written all over my face during some of the worst parts of the testimony. I was struggling so hard to help people understand what had happened.”
In the worst case, this inability to see black girls and women as vulnerable has allowed a figure as prominent as the singer R. Kelly — who has been accused of sexual abuse and exploitation of many black women and girls — to still perform and release music in the #MeToo era.
In 1997, Hill said she was “very disappointed” in then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), who, as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, did not move forward with subpoenaing three witnesses who could have supported her testimony. He also faced criticism for not doing more to discourage the more personal attacks on Hill. Biden has said this year that he “owes Hill an apology,” but to date, he has not apologized to her in person. It makes me wonder if Hill’s perceived “strength” is part of the reason.
As Crenshaw notes in the New York Times, “with the #MeToo movement, millions of ordinary Americans have come to realize just how badly our institutions had treated Ms. Hill.” By sending the message that Hill, and other black women like her, are not seen as vulnerable and effective witnesses to our own pain, it looks as though our institutions still have a way to go.