'Confirmation' And The Silencing Of Black Women To Shield Black Men

No amount of respectability could save Anita Hill from misogynoir.
Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in HBO's "Confirmation."
Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in HBO's "Confirmation."

There's a moment in HBO's "Confirmation" that sums up the complicated dynamics of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment hearings. Hill, played by the stellar Kerry Washington, is distraught after Clarence Thomas makes his game-changing "high-tech lynching" statement, suggesting that Hill's allegations against him are simply perpetuating racist sexual stereotypes about black men. 

Hill's attorney, Charles Ogletree (Jeffrey Wright), tries to calm her down, but he also concedes that it was smart for Thomas to bring racism into the conversation.

"This is political theater. And Thomas just performed," Ogletree explains. "I hate that it was him of all people, but he did tell a truth." 

Thomas, that day in 1991, did tell truth about what it means to be a black man, a powerful black man, a black man with dissenting views, in America. But he used that truth to diminish another truth: Black women are constantly being thrown under the bus in the interest of propping up black men. 

Watch a clip from "Confirmation" in which Anita Hill and Charles Ogletree discuss Clarence Thomas's deposition below:

In "Confirmation," this second truth is epitomized as Hill, during her deposition, reveals that Thomas warned her to keep his inappropriate sexual remarks about pubic hair and his penis size secret because, "If I ever told someone about his behavior, it would ruin his career." 

The pressure of knowing one could be responsible for toppling everything a man like Thomas has achieved, is the kind of pressure that echoes throughout the lives of so many black women, during moments when they've felt the need to change or silence or hide themselves in order to protect or accommodate men.

The implication is always, always, always that to get these men in trouble is to, somehow, betray them. And by betraying them, we are betraying our communities as a whole. It feeds into the false narrative that black women are endlessly strong. This narrative is glorified. And it is dangerous. It strips black women of their right to be vulnerable, our right to be weak, our right to ask for help, and our right to challenge abuse.

The parallels between the events in "Confirmation" and sexual abuse cases involving black men today are uncanny. In 2016, there are people still espousing conspiracy theories about the rape allegations against Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, and more recently Afrika Bambaataa. These people scrutinize the alleged victims of these men more than they do the men themselves. They remind us how these men have done so much for the community, as if their legacies are more important than the lives and the trauma wrought upon their many victims. 

But like the victims in these cases, what Anita Hill was trying to do in 1991 was get justice for herself and other women abused by Clarence Thomas, not "bring down another good black man."

Kerry Washington, brilliantly channeling Anita Hill.
Kerry Washington, brilliantly channeling Anita Hill.

Solidarity between black men and black women is important, perhaps now more than ever. But speaking out against abuse of any kind, if that abuse is being perpetrated by a black man, isn't about bashing black men as a whole or bringing good black men down. Black women should not have to compartmentalize their identities in the interest of others. Using race as a way to dismiss sexism against black women does not combat racism. All it does is silence the voices and diminish the experiences of black women. 

As Anita Hill's actions showed, it's the system that's messed up, not the black women who ask that black men be held accountable for their transgressions. The fact that Thomas, or Cosby, or R. Kelly are put under scrutiny for their actions isn't racist. The fact that many white men in power aren't put under an equal amount of scrutiny is.

To silence black women instead of calling out that disparity is simply to perpetuate the scary, dangerous idea that black women's voices don't matter -- not even on Capitol Hill. 



Women Who Reported Sexual Harassment