Speaking Truth to Power: Why Anita Hill’s Voice Still Matters5/08/2014
by Stephanie Gates There were three of us in the theater—me and two other White women watching Anita: Speaking Truth to Power , the docum...
by Stephanie Gates
There were three of us in the theater—me and two other White women watching Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, the documentary chronicling the story of Anita Hill’s testimony of sexual harassment against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. A young woman in my 20s, I remember being transfixed along with the rest of the nation in front of the TV.
My support of Anita Hill never wavered, and I defended her against those who thought she must have had some ulterior motive for waiting for so long to speak her truth. Though I didn’t have a verbal reference point for sexual harassment before the hearings, I knew that it existed because I had both experienced it and witnessed it at the hospital where I worked. Harassment and abuse of Black women occurred with such regularity that it almost seemed normal.
During my last year of high school, I started working part-time in the billing department. One day I came to work really sick. My throat felt like inflamed golf balls had found their way inside, and I had a mouth full of canker sores. My sister-in-law, who was also my supervisor, sent me to see the Asian doctor. He was quiet and meek, not loud and impatient like some of the others. She thought he was trustworthy. After he looked down my throat and in my mouth, and pressed on my glands, he instructed me to remove my gown. I thought it was odd, but I complied. He was the doctor; I was the patient. While examining my breasts, “Bite?” he asked as he noticed the scar on my breast. “No, a burn,” I replied. He nodded and wrote me a prescription. I got dressed and returned to work, but I never said anything to anyone about the exam. I silenced myself, and I didn’t know why.
Located in a blighted area on the west side of Chicago, most of the patients received public assistance.
So, race, class and gender were the perfect combination for rampant unwanted sexual attention. When I changed departments and worked as an outpatient clerk, I was responsible for filling out requisitions for lab work, x-rays, ultra sounds etc. per the doctor’s request. There was this weird sexual dynamic in place that Black women were play things for the men in the hospital. We didn’t have rights or feelings as employees or patients that mattered most of the time.
One evening I was working alone when I felt a hand on my hip and hot breath on my neck. My heart raced. I turned quickly and looked into the face of the orthopedic surgeon who saw patients in between surgeries and rounds on Fridays. Until that day, our interactions had been professional yet friendly. When I asked him what was he doing, and why were his hands on me, he turned red, and said, “I can’t afford to touch you!” I couldn’t believe my ears. This man had just insinuated that I was a whore. I was livid!
I witnessed the mistreatment that the patients received from the doctors. I know how the female employees were often times treated, and I couldn’t let it go. I had to take a stand, and I accepted that whatever happened as a result of me reporting him, I was going to be okay. So, I wrote a letter to the medical director--a woman—that evening before I left, and then I followed up with a phone call Monday morning. She assured me that she would take care of it, and she did. He was hostile after that and he would tell the patients that I liked to write letters. I didn't care what he said so long as he knew that I had a right to voice my concerns about his unethical behavior.
There were patients who described troubling sexual scenarios with the one of the obstetric-gynecologists. One woman laughed as she told me that the doctor stuck his hands in his pants and moved his finger around like a penis and said, “You see what you do to me.” There was another woman who came into the office crying after seeing the same doctor. She had come in with a discharge from her breast and when she shared her concern with the physician, he told her to tell her boyfriend to stop sucking so hard on it. I never heard any of the women complain to the hospital administration. They just accepted it. It’s hard to speak truth to power when your truth has been horribly skewed by myths and stereotypes.
If I didn’t have value myself, no one else was going to either. We had a patient who liked to talk about what he wanted to suck and lick. He did this every time he came into the office. My department was all women of color and we all complained, but the patient was never reprimanded. We were told he was a patient; just ignore him. Sometimes he would sit in the waiting area making such obscene gestures that I would just close the door. But one day, a new administrator, a White woman, was walking down the hall and when she passed the patient he said, “I ain’t prejudiced; I eat White p@##$, too!” He was banned from the premises after that.
All of these incidents came rushing back to me as I sat in the theater in disbelief at the ridiculous questions the Senate Committee was throwing at Anita Hill as if to trip her up and catch her in a lie--that or they got some perverse pleasure out of having her give details of the nasty things that were said.
Reliving the testimony from an adult perspective, I was even more convinced that Clarence Thomas had lied. The saddest thing about the entire episode is that Anita Hill’s testimony was a mere bump in the road of Clarence Thomas journey to the Supreme Court. A woman in the movie said, “It wasn’t about truth; it was about winning.” And it was clear that her testimony was never about truth. They didn’t want to know if it was true because then they would be forced to deal with the fall out of unchecked sexual harassment. It was easier to just throw Anita Hill under the bus.
From my understanding of race and gender in this country, I knew that the all-White senate had no point of reference for Anita Hill's predicament especially when most of them probably had little if any regard for the safety of Black women. There was no consideration given to Anita Hill's plight as a Black woman. It played right into the sexual stereotype of the Black woman's wonton sexual appetite. If we can't be raped, surely we cannot be harassed.
When Clarence Tomas hit them with the race card, it was over. He called the hearing a “circus and a national disgrace” a “high tech lynching for uppity Negroes” who would be hung by the U. S. Senate rather than from a tree for daring to speak up for themselves. It was brilliant! Even though there were other women that could have backed up Hill’s testimony with lurid stories of their own, they were never called. The Senate Committee didn’t want to look like a bunch of racists after Thomas’ remarks because we know racism only happens to Black men, and sexual assault only happens to White women. There was no place in the conversation to discuss the bruised and battered bodies of Black women.
Today, I hear the term sexual harassment being flippantly tossed around almost as if it were a joke. I don’t even know where we are in a struggle against abuse and harassment because we seem to have lost our way. But I know the fight must continue. I left the theater thankful for Anita Hill’s bravery on that October day back in 1991. She reminded me that even in the most adverse circumstances how important it is to continue to speak our truth to power. Sexual harassment and abuse of Black women and girls is fact, not fiction.
Photo credit: Greg Gibson/AP Photo
Stephanie Gates blogs here.