The Intersectionality of Believability

In the wake of the sexual harassment and abuse accusations against Harvey Weinstein levied by nearly 60 women, many are asking why it took so long to bring to light the systemic sexual assault of women in the entertainment and music industry—an epidemic insiders saw as “an open secret.”

Liz Lemon / Creative Commons

It certainly isn’t news that Hollywood culture is a sexist one, nor is it surprising to know that a rich and powerful industry leader could be a serial abuser. After all, women have also been coming forward against stars like Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, L.A. Reid, Chris Brown and Nelly—with much less support and solidarity—and for the most part, the men they allege assaulted and harassed them have faced little consequence. This is even true of Donald Trump, who faced widespread allegations of harassment and abuse that his administration has dismissed as “fake news.” The notion that men of clout don’t sexually harass women has been moot since 1991, when Anita Hill came forward about the harassment she endured as a bright, young Yale Law graduate working for then-Supreme Court Justice nominee (now Supreme Court Justice) Clarence Thomas—an act which resulted in her being humiliated and insulted in the media and among her peers.

So, what took so long? Why are we only, finally, now—in 2017—watching a watershed moment come to fruition that women deserved to see decades ago?

Hill herself confronted this question in The New Yorker, where the now-Brandeis University Law professor presented a concise but complex answer: believability. “People often believe the myth that only conventionally beautiful women are harassed,” the article reads, “and so it didn’t seem that far-fetched to people that this would happen to beautiful starlets who we all know and love.”

“Thomas possessed, like many accused harassers, and unlike many accusers,” Hill told the magazine, “a winning ‘narrative.'” That narrative was that Thomas was being “lynched”—that Hill was part of an effort to stop a black man from achieving an esteemed position. And without a similarly widely accepted narrative, Hill was vulnerable to detractors supplying their own readings—imputing false motives, insinuating psychological problems and smearing her, as the American Spectator notoriously did, as “a bit nutty and a bit slutty.”

The notion that not all victims are believed is familiar to activists and advocates who have been working on issues of violence and harassment over the last decades. Our culture, as a whole, tends to distrust survivors and distrust women—a dangerous combination that has led to widespread victim-blaming and – shaming, in courts of law and courts of public opinion, toward women who come forward. But which woman is believed and not believed also has much to do with race and the political power of the accuser: The intersectionality of believability crosses at the roads of race and class.

A new study published by Psychology of Women Quarterly by Dr. Jennifer Katz—described as “Bystander Effect but with a racial twist”—proves this hypothesis. Katz and her colleagues Christine Merrilees and Jill C. Hoxmeier examined the intersection between bystanders, race and sexual assault—and found that white women, in particular, were less likely to help a Black woman who was clearly intoxicated being lured in a private room with a man at a party that they were if they saw a white woman being lured away alone with a man. White women reported feeling less responsibility and less intent to intervene to help a Black hypothetical victim than a white one. Katz explained an interview with PWQ’s podcast show that this bias is likely a result of the myriad stereotypes painting Black women as hypersexualized and less deserving, or needing, of help when they are in unsafe and predatory situations.

The experiences and stories of Black women like Hill simply do not hold the same weight in a sexist and racist culture as those of the mostly-white celebrity women who came forward about Weinstein. “We need to transfer the believability,” Hill said, arguing that the public needs to understand that women like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie “are just like women down the street.”

Jane Fonda, on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, also observed that racism was at play in this unique moment—and that it kept women waiting for these conversations for far too long. “It’s too bad that it’s probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them,” she said. “This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of color and doesn’t get out quite the same.”

Men who victimize young Black women have yet to feel the brunt of the #MeToo movement. Black women and women of color have a long way to go before they are believed in cases that pit them against against powerful men. A 21-year-old who accused rapper Nelly of sexual assault acknowledged this disparity in justice when she dropped her case. “We do not live in a society where a 21 year old college student can feel safe enough to pursue criminal charges against a celebrity for an alleged rape,” her lawyer wrote in an open letter. And we witnessed it when Lupita Nyong’o came forward with her own story about Weinstein—one of the few he took the time to disparage and paint as false despite dozens of similar claims by white women.

Believability is a privilege still reserved for white women. It is important to highlight the intersectionality of believability to create more inclusive reactions and support of survivors who choose to stand against powerful men. R. Kelly’s career goes on. Bill Cosby is still a beloved household name. And Clarence Thomas became Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

If bystanders need to psychologically identify with a potential victim in order to feel obligated to be involved, women of color are at a unique and truly dangerous disadvantage. If we cannot rally around women like Anita Hill but can establish a riotous movement in the name of Rose McGowan, something is wrong. It is tremendous that we are finally moving forward in the fight against sexual harassment and assault, but it is disappointing to know that for many women of color, the same sort of social or legal justice is long overdue and still further from their grasp.

Anita Hill was a pioneer in public survivorhood. It is long past time for us to begin building a culture where women of color like her are believed.

Jordannah Elizabeth is an author, lecturer, music critic and feminist writer. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Bitch Media, LA Weekly and Village Voice and is bi-coastal by nature. She is the author of Don’t Lose Track Vol 1: 40 Articles, Essays and Q&As.

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