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Detroit Proper: The Darker Side of Sexual Harassment

Desiree Cooper explores the black woman's burden and responsibility when it comes to speaking out against sexual harassment.

If there was ever a canary in the sexual harassment coal mine, it was Anita Hill.

You remember her, right? That self-righteous race traitor who silently harbored vicious allegations against her boss for years, pretended that they were friends and even followed him to another job, then brought out the fangs when they were sure to let the most blood. She was the vindictive, black man-hating black woman who, in 1991, tried to take down the second African-American to ever be nominated for the United States Supreme Court.

If you don't remember this characterization of Anita Hill after she publicly accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, either you weren't born yet, or you weren't woke. At the time, Thomas, no friend of civil rights and a vehement blackness denier, called Hill's (and all liberals') attempt to discredit him as a "high-tech lynching," the irony of which was as astounding as it was offensive.

Barbara Wynder remembers it well. In the early 1990s, she was a lawyer at the city of Detroit's law department. "We were so engrossed in that hearing; it was like a soap opera," she says. "We believed from the beginning that every word Anita Hill said was true because we had all experienced that kind of behavior from men in the workplace."

Hill's case is eerily reminiscent of the sexual harassment horrors of Hollywood that are surfacing today – a net that is now widening to include politicians (egads!), ex-presidents (who knew?) and even the moral voice from the future, George Takei (et tu, George?). When Anita Hill stepped forward, few accomplished women had ever come forth to publicly accuse their powerful sexual abusers. It was a watershed moment in American history, one that Hill paid for with death threats, threats of sexual violence and attempts to get her fired despite her tenure at the University of Oklahoma. Thomas was rewarded with a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.

A group of black women refused to sit idly by. They formed African American Women in Defense of Ourselves and issued a proclamation. They were "particularly outraged by the racist and sexist treatment of professor Anita Hill," and went on to explain the particular quandary for black women:

"This country, which has a long legacy of racism and sexism, has never taken the sexual abuse of black women seriously. Throughout U.S. history, black women have been sexually stereotyped as immoral, insatiable, perverse; the initiators in all sexual contacts – abusive or otherwise. The common assumption in legal proceedings as well as in the larger society has been that black women cannot be raped or otherwise sexually abused. As Anita Hill's experience demonstrates, black women who speak of these matters are not likely to be believed."

The proclamation gathered 1,600 signatories from black women and allies across the country. Not only that, African American Women in Defense of Ourselves raised $50,000 to publish the proclamation in six major newspapers, including a full-page ad in The New York Times. This was a quarter century ago, before social media.

"When I heard about their efforts, I had to be a part of it," says Wynder, whose name appears among the signatories in the ad. "While this remains an issue for all women, black women face additional challenges. If we protest, we become the angry black woman – that's a danger when speaking up at work. We are often perceived as being sexual or provocative simply because that's how others see us and our bodies, not because of what we have on. And finally, we are often alone in the workplace. There is no one else to speak up for us."

Wynder looks at the headlines today and can't help but think of the anger she felt during the Anita Hill hearings. But then she received a surprising postcard in the mail. It was from African American Women in Defense of Ourselves, which is now reconnecting with the original signatories. They've launched Sisters Testify, urging women to "speak on issues that remain ripe." The organization is gathering new stories for this new moment in women's history.

For Wynder, it is a welcome invitation. "It pushes Anita Hill back to the forefront, where she belongs in this conversation," she says. "And it helps us remember how far we've come, and how far we still have to go."

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