Much has been written over the last week about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about a sexual attack by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, but Kimberlé Crenshaw sums it up best: “I think what we…found out is that there is a huge lack of balance between the discursive capital, the ability to speak and be taken seriously, between men and women, and…between whites and nonwhites [sic]…those who have more power have a broader range of possibilities.”
Crenshaw, who is a law professor at UCLA and Columbia University and founder of the African American Policy Forum, assisted Anita Hill’s legal defense team. She explains to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, “Kavanaugh can go in and pretty much lose his mind, and people think that he’s credible, whereas Dr. Ford had to walk a very, very narrow line to be found credible. And even after she was found to be credible…there was just a brief pause, and then Kavanaugh comes in and sheds his tears, and suddenly we’re back to square one again.”
Goodman reports that Anita Hill herself weighed in, “‘No female candidate for a Supreme Court position would ever have the license’ to speak with similar fury.”
Crenshaw sees this lack of discursive capital as “the broader context in which men have far more power not only to create harm, but to deny responsibility for the harm they create.” She reimagines this political moment as “the new moment for intersectionality, to really denounce this use of whiteness, maleness, and power, the intersection of power, and to say, ‘We deserve better than this.’” For Crenshaw, the Anita Hill moment was an earlier moment—one that we missed.
The context for this political moment is the #MeToo movement. Founder Tarana Burke recently wrote about the movement at this political moment in Variety, “If we could pull back from focusing on the accused and zero in on the ones speaking out, we would see common denominators that bridge the divide between celebrity and everyday citizens: the diminishing of dignity and the destruction of humanity.…This movement at its core is about the restoration of that humanity.”
Much of what was written was about Dr. Ford’s evident humanity. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart wrote on the day of Ford’s testimony, “They allowed Ford to show herself to be a human being. And once her humanity came through—once her sincerity and her agony became impossible for any decent person to deny‚ it was all over.” Trump, Beinart writes, “understands the power of dehumanization,” and the only way to fight back is to humanize, though he notes not everyone gets the opportunity to do this.
In fact, some reporters could not help but align themselves with the dominant power narratives in their own descriptions of Ford’s humanity. The Huffington Post’s Zeba Blay captures it beautifully in her aptly titled, “Why Did Christine Blasey Ford Have To Perform Her Victimhood For Us?”
As Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Nina Totenberg, the venerable Supreme Court observer, made an observation that belonged more in the realm of theater criticism than legal affairs. [Dr. Ford], she suggested, was “nothing like Anita Hill,” who in 1991 accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. [Ford] was “shaky, physically shaky,” and thus “a much more typical victim” than Hill, who was “imperturbable and unshakeable” in her appearance before the same committee. All of this made [Ford] a “powerful witness for herself.”
What does it mean that for a woman to be a powerful witness for herself, she must perform victimhood well, showing acceptable signs of power for a woman, like marriage, high class, modesty, and deference, but certainly not anger? And not just at the violation she recounts, but about the conditions in which she recounts them, a male-dominated space.
Blay correctly notes, “Just who they imagined the audience for this performance to be, the analysts did not say. Certainly, it did not include the people of color who might also identify with the stoicism of a young black woman negotiating a roomful of white men.” She continues,
People commended [Ford] on her intelligence, on her vocabulary, on her mixture of poise, respectability and sincerity. These are the traits of a “credible” victim, one of Nina Totenberg’s “typical victims”—not so much a believable person as someone who has successfully approximated a figure whom the culture is willing to believe. (As the pundits’ comparisons of Hill and [Ford] might suggest, these aren’t the same thing.) But what if she were unpolished, uneducated, unpossessed of shiny credentials? What then? Was there a whiff of the aristocracy in some of the compliments paid to [Ford], as if someone less “impressive” would necessarily be less credible, too?
The Cut’s Rebecca Traister writes,
Of her own 1991 testimony, Anita Hill wrote, in a later essay, “My reality was so different from that of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that they found it incomprehensible. They failed or refused to relate to almost every dimension of my race and gender, in combination with my education, my career choice, and my demeanor.” A few of the senators, she wrote, “could not understand why I was not attached to certain institutions, notably marriage, which has traditionally defined the relationship between men and women, and the patronage system, which has often defined the relationship between African Americans and whites.”
Hill’s words should give us pause and make us consider the relative value of stories, depending on who’s doing the telling.
So, while many of us were impressed with Dr. Ford’s ability to speak in the third person about her hippocampus, how many of us took notice of Dr. Hill’s ability to perform double consciousness as she describes both her experience and the experiences of the powerful, who she knows can’t see her?
As my daughter has pointed out to me, while white women struggle with the male gaze, black women struggle to be seen.
The Atlantic’s Megan Garber recently wrote,
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Thursday’s hearing, in its assorted grotesqueries, was its own kind of clumsy joke, precisely because of its transparent display of reason-defying entitlement. The event…was a testament to the corroborative effects of power: the ease with which those who edit entries and chair committees and run countries can rearrange the facts of the world until they conform to, and allegedly confirm, the tales told by the powerful.
But this is not an aberration; this is exactly what privilege is: immunity from the demands of others. The powerful white men who rally around Kavanaugh like a Greek chorus are not just protecting him, they are protecting their right to privilege. Much has been made of Kavanaugh’s blistering response and how much sense it made to so many (because anger in a powerful man is appropriate, even one accused of sexual violence). We know that Trump has used reversal, a favored technique for the challenged powerful, to flip the story into one where it is Kavanaugh who made a “powerful, honest, and riveting speech”; it is Kavanaugh who is wronged; and it is men who should be worried about the rising tide of women who won’t just quietly go back to their corner and let men run the world. Above all, the world should be safe for white men, anything else is chaos, or at a least that’s the story.
Garber adds, “The country learned a lot, this week, about the rarified culture of prep schools and colleges into which those schools feed…It learned a lot about America’s power brokers.” This is what a stratified society looks like. We know this is the kind of society in which we live. This is not new. What is new is that the disregard is so brazen, that the enemy is also white women.
As we, the multitude, increasingly learn to come together, we must sharpen our narratives, our discursive power—the ability to accurately read the signs of power (with intersectional nuance), to connect the narratives into a larger liberation story against all forms of domination, and to tell a bolder, plural, more compelling story.
The stakes are very high, and as Crenshaw warns, we must heed the intersectional lesson now. Traister reminds us, “By building a court that can reverse precedent—around affirmative action, reproductive autonomy, fair wages, voting and collective bargaining—Republicans believe that they can push back the populations that threaten the dominance of the white patriarchy.”
The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino sums it up: “Part of the reason the Kavanaugh news cycle has been such a flashpoint…is that it illuminates the centrality of sexual assault in the matrix of male power in America. In high schools, in colleges, at law schools, and in the halls of Washington, men perform for one another and ascend to positions of power.”
And then there are the “token torturers,” women who are used as scapegoats, subservient torturers of other women, identified by feminist theologian Mary Daly, in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, as one of the seven elements of the patriarchy’s operation manual, what she collectively calls “sado-ritual syndrome.” (It is worth a read.)
For Daly, the role of women in patriarchy is limited. She writes, “The token woman is the outer woman, Daddy’s girl, the artifact. Add to this the realization that in the State of Totalitarian Tokenism the women who have escaped, to any significant degree—the condition of The Painted Bird—are a small minority. The majority of women, then, are in this condition of tokenism.”
This tokenism, in addition to severely circumscribing the power of women, works to use what remains to prevent them from bonding with each other, especially across race and class. Daly writes, “This masks the male-centered-ness of the ritualized atrocity and turns women against each other.”
Some Republican women came out in support of Kavanaugh, including women who had been sexually assaulted. AP News’s Meg Kinnard wrote,
Nancy Mace, the first woman to graduate from The Citadel and a Republican state representative from Daniel Island, South Carolina, said she had been sexually assaulted as a teen herself. She expressed sympathy for Ford, but said Kavanaugh deserved protection, too.
These women focus on the timing of Dr. Ford’s allegation, unable to integrate the readily available information about how people who are sexually assaulted tend to behave. This circular, apologist language is not meant to engage; it is meant to assert a reality, hoping that it will hold.
But the starring role of token torturer goes to Rachel Mitchell, the prosecutor that the all-male, Republican members of the Judiciary Committee brought in to do their bidding.
Covering her performance, the Intercept’s Briahna Gray notes that Mitchell’s job was to simultaneously “raise the burden of proof in Kavanaugh’s favor” by stating that he “should be judged by the same standard extended to criminal defendants”—even though this is not a trial, but consideration for one of the highest offices in the country—while weakening Dr. Ford’s credibility with higher standards for credibility. The response to Mitchell’s report sums it up. Gray writes,
On Sunday night, Mitchell released a memorandum outlining what she says is her “independent assessment” of Ford’s allegations, based on her professional experience as a sex-crimes prosecutor in Arizona. Many on the political right have seized on the memo as “exonerating” Kavanaugh.
This in spite of the fact that Mitchell was dismissed and not allowed to question Kavanaugh, and there were other interactions that denoted her lower status there, even vis-à-vis Kavanaugh. So, the sex crimes prosecutor was only allowed to interrogate the alleged victim and not the alleged perpetrator. Further, the main alleged witness was not questioned at all. A court proceeding was invoked regarding standards, but not followed in process; very selective and orchestrated indeed. All while accusing the other side of orchestrating a political machination.
The ultimate reversal was Lindsey Graham’s, “Boy, you all want power. God, I hope you never get it.” We bet you don’t, but that’s exactly where we’re going with all of this, and our narratives should reflect that. Valuation practices are built into discursive practices, when we speak, we give value to ourselves and others. This is critical to the construction of social inequality as well as equity. Status is enacted—claimed, maintained, mitigated, and reversed—in discourse. Those of us who care about social justice and equity must engage the discursive terrain in ways that dismantle hierarchies of human value.