Race, Gender, Sexual Assault, and Respectability Politics

Currently, all eyes are on Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Recently, Dr. Ford came out to the public and accused Judge Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a high school gathering in the ‘80s. After the testimonies from both sides, the Senate called for a one-week delay of the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for further FBI investigation.

The Kavanaugh hearing reminds me of the Anita Hill and Justice Thomas hearing as it exemplifies respectability politics, a phenomenon that occurs in social justice movements where the liberation of Black men and White women are prioritized over the struggles of Black women. In 1991, Dr. Hill accused Justice Thomas for sexually harassing her during her time at the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Unlike Dr. Ford, who was praised for her courage and bravery, Dr. Hill was considered a “race traitor” for speaking against Justice Clarence Thomas, a man who would make history for being the second African-American Supreme Court Justice after Justice Thurgood Marshall. Under respectability politics, Justice Thomas was protected by the Black and White communities at the expense of Dr. Anita Hill’s well-being and reputation. Unlike Dr. Hill’s hearing, where the Senate Judiciary Committee consisted entirely of white men, there are four women on Dr. Ford’s Senate Judiciary Committee: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California). Dr. Ford is far more fortunate as she has women representing her. Meanwhile, nobody stood up for Dr. Hill during the 1991 hearing.

Respectability politics has dominated the gender equality movement for a long time. The Me Too movement, for example, was founded by a Black woman named Tarana Burke; however, the mainstream media only applauded famous white women such as Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, and Taylor Swift. In an interview, Burke expressed: “We are trained as a country to respond to the vulnerability of white women...you have white women who are like ‘We’re all in this together, let’s start with us.’”

While Black women and White women both face the struggles of underrepresentation, objectification, and sexual violence, the experiences of Black women are different as they are subjected to the intertwining system of racism, sexism, and classism. While white women are overshadowed by white men, Black women struggle with respectability politics not only because of Black and White men but also White women.

Despite the increasing female representation in politics, little has changed since Anita Hill’s hearing as respectability politics are still rampant and Black women’s struggles are still placed behind those of White women.

 

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