A paper I wrote in an Expository Writing course, The Femme Fatale, in Spring 2019
Are You Black or Are You Woman? Anita Hill and The Choice Between Silence and Fatalization
In October 1991, law professor Anita Hill was called forward to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas. Despite Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas and the several witnesses to corroborate her claims, although the committee did not call many of the most vital witnesses to support her (Jacobs), Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Hill was not in a position of power or dominance but instead, one of weakness and vulnerability, and she came forward, despite her initial hesitation, to admit that vulnerability. Yet in 1991, Hill quickly became a villain. Unsurprisingly, as a black woman, Hill was readily villainized by the all-white, all-male judiciary committee. However, what is more surprising yet not as present in public discourse about the Thomas-Hill hearings is that fact that she was also antagonized by many African-Americans. One may have expected most black Americans to come to the defense of a black person being interrogated and attacked by a group of white senators, yet the opposite was the case. How did Anita Hill so quickly become villainized within the black community?
Any woman who poses a threat to male power in the United States often runs the risk of falling into the trope of “the femme fatale,” a common character in twentieth century pulp fiction and film noir. The archetypical femme fatale in American pop culture is a powerful woman who brings about the demise of a man, typically by seducing him or drawing power from her femininity in some way (Place 47). In her essay, “Women in Film Noir,” Janey Place explains, “Often the original transgression of the dangerous lady in film noir is ambition expressed metaphorically in her freedom of movement and visual dominance. This ambition is inappropriate to her status as a woman, and must be confined” (Plance 56). A woman who is ambitious is a woman who is eager to move out of the domestic sphere, transcend her assigned societal role, and compete with men for jobs, wealth, and power. Whether her ambition is academic or economic, social or political, an ambitious woman can become a femme fatale because she threatens the patriarchy, a system which is not only dependent on men being in power but also on women being disempowered, passive, and unambitious.
One of the quickest ways for society to demonize a woman who attempts to disrupt the status quo is to cast her into the femme fatale role—to “fatalize” her by latching on to and amplifying any fatale-like quality. Anita Hill was one such woman, who stood in the way of a man’s power and was fatalized for her ambition. However, as a black man, Clarence Thomas was not the typical, white male victim of a femme fatale; thus, instead of being fatalized for endangering the white patriarchy, Hill was fatalized by the black community for threatening to strengthen the white patriarchy, by hurting the reputation of black men. The casting of Hill as a femme fatale among African-Americans revealed a larger tendency within the black community to privilege racial issues over gender issues.
In the Thomas-Hill hearings, Thomas victimized himself by appealing to the common femme fatale dynamic, positioning himself as the sympathetic center of a narrative that fatalized Hill for her ambition. In his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, published in 2007, Thomas reiterates many of the sentiments that he had felt and expressed during the hearings. He mentions his shock when he first heard of Hill’s allegations and describes being “shaken and demoralized” (Thomas 243). He explains, “People who had worked with me… called by the score to say that they knew I’d done nothing to Anita Hill, and that the meek and humble young woman they’d seen on TV was nothing like the abrasive, ambitious person they had known” (252-3), attempting to expose Hill as an ambitious femme fatale and demonize her for that ambition. In fact, he emphasizes that he had only ever helped her with her career, and asks, “Why, then, was she now attacking me in a way that seemed calculated to do the maximum possible damage at the worst possible time?” (Thomas 244) Not only does Thomas describe himself as being under attackbut he also suggests here, as he did during the hearings, that Hill was deliberately fabricating a story right before his confirmation to keep him off the Supreme Court—to keep him from a position of power. He also continually stresses the negative impact the allegations had on him, trying to gain sympathy. For example, he writes, “I have never in all my life felt such hurt, such pain, such agony” (Thomas 263). Like any male protagonist in a classic femme fatale story, Thomas made himself the innocent victim and shifted all blame onto Hill and her fatale-like ambition.
However, unlike other male protagonists in typical twentieth century femme fatale narratives, Thomas was not a white man; in fact, he actually emphasized his blackness, paradoxically drawing power from his oppressed status by using it to further victimize himself. In other words, he was able to leverage his privileged status as a man to capitalize on his underprivileged status as an African-American. The femme fatale was born out of white male anxieties about feminism; she is dangerous because she poses a threat to the white patriarchy (Doane 2-3). The fact that Thomas was a black man, then, altered the very foundation of the femme fatale dynamic, one originally constructed by white men and for a white male audience (Doane 3). During the hearings, Thomas famously called the entire affair a “high-tech lynching” (Jacobs), bringing his African-American identity directly into the spotlight. He used history and race to illicit more sympathy for himself, making the case that he was only being accused of harassment because he was a black man trying to attain power in society; in his autobiography, Thomas explains, “I was intensely aware of America’s long and ugly history of using lies about sex as excuses to persecute black men who stepped out of line” (Thomas 245). The irony, or rather, the absurdity, of the lynching metaphor lay in the fact that black men have historically been wrongly accused of assaulting white women; a black man was never lynched for hurting a black woman (Higginbotham 32-33). Although Thomas posited that white liberals and feminists were behind Hill’s accusations, conspiring to bring him down (Thomas 250), in reality, Hill was acting all-too alone, with not nearly as much support as she deserved, and was also a victim of the racism that Thomas said was at play in the hearings.
To a great extent, the black community supported Thomas’s claim to victimization for the sake of racial solidarity, only exacerbating Hill’s fatalization. The white, male judiciary committee was notoriously vicious in its attempts to discredit Hill. For instance, one senator asked if she had a “martyr complex,” was trying to be a hero, or intended to write a book (Jacobs), endeavoring, like Thomas, to expose and attack Hill for her ambition. Beyond the judiciary committee, however, a Gallup poll found that support for the confirmation of Clarence Thomas onto the Supreme Court rose from 52% during the summer before the Thomas-Hill hearings to 58% in the middle of them (Gallup). Furthermore, of the support for Thomas, a Los Angeles Times poll conducted the weekend after the hearings found that 50% of white people were in favor of Thomas’s confirmation whereas for black people, that number was 61% (Chicago Tribune). An article published in The Chicago Tribune a few days after the last of the hearings quoted several black Americans in support of Thomas. For example, one young black woman said, “Why did [Hill] wait so long? She kept coming back, so I think she liked it” (Chicago Tribune), fatalizing Hill by depicting her as lustful, merely using her own sexuality against Thomas. Moreover, Nathan Conyers, the black publisher of the Milwaukee Times told the Tribune, ''No one wants to see a black man taken down by scurrilous accusations that cannot be proved” (Chicago Tribune). Similarly, an elderly black woman was quoted to say, “'I don`t think blacks should be against blacks… when someone is trying to get up there, I don`t believe the other should drag him down” (Chicago Tribune). In the eyes of many black people, not only did Hill’s ambition get in the way of Thomas’s power, but it also got in the way of African-American progress at large, which Thomas came to represent. At once, many African-Americans branded Hill as an overly ambitious femme fatale, a threat to men—a historically privileged group—and criticized her for threatening the standing of African-Americans—a historically underprivileged group.
The question arises, why would the black community defend Thomas and fatalize Hill if to be a femme fatale is to threaten the white patriarchy, a system that oppressed African-American men as well as all women? One significant reason lies in the historical and continued fragility of black male power in the United States, which has left black women all the more susceptible to fatalization within their racial community. In the slavery era, many white slaveowners systematically emasculated their black male slaves; for instance, they would render black men unable to provide for their families, whip them in front of their children, and rape their wives (Horton 59). As such, not only have many black men had to struggle to reclaim any lost masculinity from slavery, but the old stereotypes of them as passive and emasculated persist today, continuing to hold many of them back from achieving the level of white masculinity (Horton 59). When it comes to economic mobility, studies have shown that black men are lagging behind white men to a greater extent than black women are falling behind white women. In a New York Times article, Ralph Richard Banks described research conducted by Harvard and Stanford economists that demonstrated significant income gaps between black and white men raised in similar households, but no such gap between black and white women (Banks). About 50% of black boys who grow up in poor households will stay poor as adults whereas over 60% of white boys born poor will escape poverty by adulthood (Banks). Even black boys in wealthier households are twice as likely to end up poor as white boys born into wealth (Banks). Black men have historically and to this day been denied access to ambition, wealth, and power—which are all typically linked to masculinity—whether by the system of slavery or modern manifestations of racism. If an ambitious woman can be so greatly demonized for threatening a white man, whose masculinity and power are stable, one can only imagine the extreme extent to which a black woman can be fatalized for threatening the already imperiled masculinity and power of a black man. Thus, the fatalization of Anita Hill and the criticism that she was bringing down black people, particularly black men, were not unrelated; in fact, her role as a fatale was centered on the threat she posed to the advancement and reputation of the black community in American society. She was dangerous not because she threatened to weaken the white patriarchy but because she threatened to strengthen it by further oppressing black men.
Some might wonder, however, if many black men fatalized Anita Hill to protect their jeopardized power, why did black women also antagonize her? To answer this question, one must first look at how Thomas’s monopoly on blackness, cemented by the black community’s support, forced Hill to separate her race from her gender and forego her own blackness. In her essay in Toni Morrison’s anthology, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw explains that, during the hearings, “Not only was Thomas suddenly transformed into a victim of racial discrimination, but Anita Hill was further erased as a black woman. Her racial identity became irrelevant in explaining or understanding her position, while Thomas’s play on the lynching metaphor racially empowered him” (Hill 416). As a man, Thomas was not only afforded a monopoly on power, but as a black man, he also wielded a monopoly on disempowerment; he claimed the race card as his and his alone, “erasing” Anita Hill’s blackness by taking away her ability to speak to her own racial oppression. In defending Thomas, many African-Americans only contributed to the “de-racing” (Crenshaw 407) of Hill, ignoring the possibility of her race and gender being inextricably connected in her experience of oppression. In linking his victimization to his race, Thomas turned the hearings into a battle of oppressions, with racial discrimination pit against gendered abuse. Crenshaw goes on to explain that even the white feminists who supported Hill ignored her blackness, “content to rest their case on a raceless tale of gender subordination” and in turn, only helping “maintain the chasm [between feminism and antiracism] by endorsing the framing of the event as a race versus gender issue” (Crenshaw 415). The division that arose between race and gender served to separate the two as inherently unrelated and mutually exclusive forms of oppression, such that the mere possibility of Hill’s blackness affecting her womanhood and vice versa went wholly unacknowledged. Her unique struggle as a black woman—who is tasked with overcoming distinct stereotypes such as the “strong black woman” who cannot be raped and the hypersexualized black woman who is always “asking for it” (Tillman et al.)—was rendered invisible.
The race versus gender dichotomy that surfaced in the Thomas-Hill hearings was indicative of a greater norm within the African-American community when it comes to intra-racial sexual abuse; black women are all too often expected to separate their interconnected identities and subordinate sexism to racism. In a Political Science and Politics article, Jane Mansbridge and Katherine Tate explained, “Black women of all classes face a tension between support for the women’s movement and the mandate to ‘stand by your man’” (Mansbridge and Tate 489). They quoted a black woman to have said, “‘I’ve got a husband and two sons. As a woman, I can relate to Anita Hill. God knows we’ve all been subjected to some form of sexual harassment in our lives. But as a mother and wife, I know this society has a history of mistreatment and abuse toward Black men. You have to wonder, what if my son is accused of this. Is he going to get a fair shake?’” (Mansbridge and Tate 489) Black women can feel pressured to relegate the importance of gender issues not just for the sake of the larger black community, but also for their own families. Beyond worrying about the impact of negative racial stereotypes on their black male family members, black women also often experience sexual aggression perpetrated by black men they know or are related to (Mansbridge and Tate 489). According to the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, 40% of black women experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetime (Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault); on top of racial loyalties, family or friendship loyalties can also cause black women to prioritize race over gender and expect others to do the same. Further, as Emma Jordan writes in an essay in Anita Hill’s anthology, Race, Gender, and Power in America: The Legacy of the Hill-Thomas Hearings, the unspoken mandate among black women to keep matters of sexual violence private “depends upon a stratification of race and gender identities. To retain approval of the race, black women must not only excise our gender identity but must substitute the identity of black men for our own” (Jordan 47). This identity stratification forces black women to de-gender themselves, and as soon as they try to speak to their unique female struggles, as Anita Hill did, they are de-raced. The modern black woman must pick between gender or race; she cannot acceptably claim both identities at the same time, almost as if doing so would be too ambitious and, in a way, fatale-like.
One of the gravest consequences of privileging racism over sexism within the black community is the silence of black women when it comes to sexual violence and harassment. Today, black women are less likely than their white counterparts to report sexual abuse; according to End Rape on Campus, while white women report 80% of rapes, black women more likely to be assaulted, and for every one rape reported by a black woman, at least fifteen go unreported (End Rape on Campus). The fatalization of Anita Hill within the black community highlighted one of the distinctive dilemmas of the modern black woman, which is this: you are either black or you are a woman. If you choose to be black, you are largely expected to be silent about any injuries concerning your gender. If you choose to be a woman and speak out about sexual harassment or abuse, you run the risk of being fatalized, of being a traitor to your family, your friends, and your entire race. But what kind of a “choice” is that? The options are between two kinds of injury—injury to one’s body or to one’s reputation—and as such, they leave little room for healing and little room for justice. Feminist Audre Lorde once asserted, “There is no hierarchy of oppression” (Gorski and Goodman). What is more productive and more just than privileging certain forms of oppression over others is acknowledging all forms of oppression, especially since in today’s world, many of them intersect with and influence each other. Racism is a problem that should concern feminists and sexism is a problem that should concern anti-racism activists, because as Anita Hill and countless others have shown us, there exist black women who are victims of both. If the Thomas-Hill hearings taught us anything, it is that silence and fatalization—both forms of injury and injustice—cannot be the only options any longer.
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