Several years after her televised testimony riveted America, Anita Hill posed a provocative question.
Hill’s query came during an interview about her experience facing an all-white panel of male senators in 1991 during confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee.
Hill, who publicly accused Thomas of sexual harassment, said it seemed during the hearings “as if I had no race” because Thomas, who repeatedly denied the claims, had drawn all the attention to his skin color by comparing his own treatment during the process to a “high-tech lynching.”
Yet Hill thought her race was actually more relevant than his.
“How do you think certain people would have reacted if I had come forward and been white, blond-haired and blue-eyed?” Hill asked her interviewer in 2002 at Stanford University.
Hill’s question was rhetorical, but the American public may get an answer Thursday to the scenario she posed. That is when Christine Blasey Ford – a white, blond-haired woman – is expected to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee that Brett Kavanaugh, a Supreme Court nominee, sexually assaulted her while they were teenagers. Kavanaugh has denied the claim.
While many comparisons have been made between Ford’s and Hill’s hearings, few have asked a question that highlights one significant difference between the two: race.
Will people treat Ford differently than Hill because she is white?
“Of course, Ford will be treated differently because she is white,” says Ravi Perry, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “In fact, she already has been.”
Why color, not just gender, matters
Perry was one of several political scientists who talked about how color, not just gender, matters in how the public perceives Ford.
A white woman doesn’t carry the same burden of proof that a woman of color does, says Perry, author of “The Little Rock Crisis: What Desegregation Politics Says about Us.”
“People perceive a white, middle-class woman with blond hair a particular way, and that image has been marketed for much of the entire fashion-model industry,” Perry says.
White people are seen as inherently more reliable, social science research has demonstrated again and again. Darker-skinned women must meet a burden of proof that white or fairer-skinned women don’t have to, Perry says.
“Had Anita Hill been white or been a light-skinned black person or maybe even Latina or a light-skinned Asian woman, people would have viewed her differently,” Perry says. “Dark skin, for a lot of people, has an association with that which is untrustworthy.”
Ford’s whiteness also helps her in another way – it evokes more empathy, others say.
Ford has been widely praised after making her accusations, though she’s also received death threats since coming forward this month. Part of that is due to the emergence of the #MeToo movement. Yet Ford’s race has also made it easier for more people to see her as a multidimensional person, says Katherine Foss, an associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University who teaches media studies.
The media has already offered in-depth stories into Ford’s educational and professional accomplishments as a psychologist. They’ve also humanized her by releasing photos of her as a teenager, in which she looks like a typical high school cheerleader, Foss says.
“There is a lot of information on her upbringing. Even on Fox News, they had a story where someone said, I understand why she didn’t come forward sooner,” Foss says. “This is not something you saw with Anita Hill. That kind of empathetic view is a big difference between what we saw in the ‘90s versus now.”
The isolation that Hill confronted
The dominant visual image of Hill reinforces another point – the sense of unique isolation she felt, says Moya Bailey, an assistant professor at Northeastern University in Boston whose work focuses on race and gender representations in the media.
Bailey has a word for that type of isolation: ”misogynoir.” It’s a term she coined to describe the double-barreled combination of racism and sexism that many of women of color experience.
When Bailey thinks of Hill, one image dominates: Hill standing before her male congressional interrogators in her teal blue dress, a look of exhaustion and sorrow etched on her face.
“She looked visibly alone,” Bailey says. “I remember this vision of Anita Hill being by herself with this all-white-male panel grilling her about the sexual harassment she endured from Thomas.”
Hill was isolated by her skin color in another way: Even many members of her own community rejected her.
Today, Hill, a professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, has become a heroine in the #MeToo movement. She has publicly supported Ford, as have many people who have been mobilized by a growing awareness of how pervasive sexual harassment is throughout America.
Hill didn’t get that kind of support from the black community in 1991. She was seen by many as a traitor, even though the NAACP had opposed Thomas’ nomination “with regret” after much internal debate about his position on civil rights and other matters – all weeks before Hill’s claims came to light.
Her testimony was viewed as “black-on-black crime,” says Doreen Loury, a sociologist at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania.
“You had this whole group of black men and black women who were saying, the sister is out of pocket,” Loury says. “A lot of black people didn’t like what she said.”
The racial stereotypes that women of color face
Hill was so vilified that some black women felt a need to band together to publicly support her. Loury was one of them. About 1,600 women signed the “Sisters Testify” proclamation, a public letter that protested the “racist and sexist” treatment of Hill during the hearing process and castigated Thomas for “manipulat(ing) the legacy of lynching” to shelter himself from Hill’s allegations.
While Thomas might have evoked one racial stereotype from the past – the violent black man who needed to be put down – the reality was that Hill was actually confronting another racial stereotype during the hearings: the hypersexual “Jezebel,” some say.
There were those who blamed Hill for her alleged sexual harassment by Thomas. They were evoking the stereotype of the oversexed black woman who preyed upon men. That image, Loury says, was a form of projection – white men who raped black women during slavery projected their own lust onto their victims.
“You justify rape by making her loose,” Loury says. “A lot these slave masters are raping these women and having biracial children, and they’re saying at the same time that she wanted it.”
Ford won’t have that racial history to contend with. But it’s still possible – and would be ironic – if the media and the public ignore the significance of her race and treat her in the same way Hill alleges she was treated.
Perry, the political scientist, says he, for one, doesn’t expect Ford to be subjected to the explicit, embarrassing questions that Hill faced but sexism will still be a factor.
“Given the stakes, Ford is likely to be treated poorly,” he said, “but not as poorly as Hill.”