The allegations regarding Bill Cosby have proved very timely for recent discussions in my Race and Law class, as we just completed a unit on the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and the allegations of Anita Hill. I was somewhat surprised that some students had apparently never heard of the sexual harassment allegations against Justice Thomas.
I was completely flabbergasted, however, at the fact that some students, including some women, thought that even if Justice Thomas had done and said the things that were alleged, they did not constitute sexual harassment and/or did not have anything to do with his fitness to serve on our highest court. Some women opined that this was "just how some men are" in the workplace, and women needed to deal with it or get out.
I don't think that this bodes well for us as a society. And not because I consider the students’ comments blameworthy. I myself have been in situations involving sexual harassment of epic proportions, and my thoughts ran much the same way at the time. For instance, at my law firm summer job following my first year in law school, I was treated to remarks so vile and behaviors so obscene that I have never fully recounted them to anyone. When it became clear that this kind of behavior was pervasive in the firm, I agonized about what to do. Should I tell someone? Tell who, I thought. Some of the name partners were the worst offenders. Should I quit? I dismissed that possibility immediately. Though I had very good credentials, finding a firm job after first year summer had been like grabbing the brass ring, especially when so many of my classmates of color had not gotten such a job.
In addition, I did not wish to quit or address the harassment head-on because the money at my job was very, very good. It was more than I had earned in my life up to that point. It was more than my parents earned. And, as a poor kid, I needed that money. I more than needed that money. I wanted that money and the things that it could buy. There are pictures of me from that period of my life wearing one of my new Nordstroms business suits, standing next to my new car, holding my new briefcase, smiling broadly. It was a cynical inversion of a g-money cash fanning photo, except instead of selling drugs I was selling cool, college educated, black upwardly mobile yearnings. Not unlike those shown on the Cosby Show, which, not coincidentally, was a staple of my law school viewing. So, I soldiered on in the malign conditions of sexual harassment at my job. When, at the end of the summer, I was offered part-time work during the school year, I accepted it. I reasoned that it made no sense to pass up such high wages.
Finally, a few months afterward when I could take it no more, I walked purposefully into the hiring partner’s office and told him…that I needed to quit in order to insure that my grades remained high. We looked each other in the eye, and I knew that he knew the real problem. We shook hands warmly, and he gave me an excellent reference that sent me on the way to the rest of my career. Did I miss an opportunity to fight against women’s oppression? Maybe. Were the hiring partner and I complicit in maintaining the hideous atmosphere, with my excellent reference being the price of my silence (never mind that I had outworked every associate in the place)? Again, maybe. But more likely is the case that my relatively low status at the firm would have meant that my complaints would fall on deaf ears. Also more likely is the case that I would have been blackballed from other employment in the immediate future. So it went, and so it goes.
As I wrote in a piece in the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice reviewing a recent book by Anita Hill, Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings “both engendered and gendered a national conversation on sexual harassment in the workplace and demonstrated how such harassment had the potential to oppress and demean even relatively privileged women.” However, that testimony, and its aftermath, quickly became a part of what film theorists call the “space-off”: spaces not visible within a camera’s frame that may only be inferred from represented (main frame) spaces in the center of the camera's eye. Space-off material is sometimes even erased or subsumed in the represented space by cinematic rules of narrative. And from the space-off of so many years ago, Hill’s testimony, much like the allegations of rape by Cosby’s accusers, has traveled even farther, seemingly falling into the void of absent memory.
The absence of memory regarding allegations against Justice Thomas and Bill Cosby, and the ways in which the allegations have been addressed when they are remembered, speaks to how much work still needs to be done to secure the rights of women in the workplace and elsewhere.