PRINT January 1992

Democracy, Inc.

bell hooks

WATCHING THE CLARENCE THOMAS hearings was both disenabling and disempowering for masses of individuals, many of us female. While viewers admired Anita Hill’s courage in daring to name publicly that she had been sexually harassed by Thomas, it remained distressing to some of us that it was never clear what she intended by her disclosure. Hill never really stated an agenda. Did she feel that Thomas’ willingness to use power coercively meant that he was an unworthy candidate for the Supreme Court? Did she speak out lest female subordinates working “under” Thomas might suffer the same fate were he to gain even more power? Did she believe that the nation would suffer with a person on the Supreme Court who lies, manipulates, deceives, etc.? And when she agreed to participate in public hearings, why did it not occur to her (or to her advisers) that she would need to explain, even justify, in a compelling and convincing way, why she continued working relations with Thomas, sometimes at her own initiative? Though many women viewers felt we understood Hill’s actions, any woman, especially a black woman, making such charges within the context of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, if indeed she expected those charges to be taken seriously, should have recognized that she would need to do more than simply state her case.

Anita Hill stated her case. But she did not appear to have a strategy based on consideration of the needs, desires, and expectations of her audience, both on the Senate committee and among the millions of viewers watching on TV. I have talked with many women of various ethnicities who admired Hill’s calmness, her steadfast monotone as she gave her rational testimony. Yet such admiration need not obscure the reality: Hill’s performance suggests that she brought to the hearings a misguided faith in a system that has rarely worked for women. It was this faith that led her to enter the lion’s den without necessary protection. And this is not admirable.

Had Anita Hill been an advocate of feminism, mild or militant, she would have brought to the hearings the kind of feminist thinking and awareness that would not only have enabled her to face the reality that white-supremacist patriarchy had already “chosen” Thomas but would also have given her the wisdom to understand that to intervene in that choice, she would need to subvert the system. Subversion requires strategy. Simply stating the case is not enough. Hill has stated, “I am hopeful that others who may have suffered sexual harassment will not become discouraged by my experience but instead will find the strength to speak.” Yet the Thomas hearings made it abundantly clear that coming to voice around sexual harassment is only one stage of a process for any individual female seeking justice.

While it is crucial that women come to voice in a patriarchal society that socializes us to repress, it is also crucial what we say, how we say it, and what our politics are. To see the hearings solely in terms of a female coming to voice in a case of sexual harassment, as many folks do, is to reduce the complexity both of Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court and of Hill’s relationship to the political system that chose to support him. In these hearings we were not simply seeing a black man and a black woman at odds with one another over sexual harassment. We were seeing two conservative blacks who have shown by their political allegiances that they identify with mainstream white conservative culture and politics. Watching Thomas and Hill, I was reminded of Malcolm X’s declaration that there are those black folks “who love white folks more than they love themselves.” Both parties, by their willingness to participate in the public spectacle of the hearings, suggested that they believed it was indeed possible for them to gain recognition, voice, and a fair and just hearing within a white-supremacist patriarchal state that has stubbornly refused to hear the voices of oppressed and marginalized black people seeking justice.

As for Thomas, he clearly strategized. His declaration that he was a victim of a “high-tech lynching” was a shrewd move that not only deflected attention from the victimization of Anita Hill but shifted the nature of the public discourse. Practically all the surviving visual images of lynchings of black males show that the men had been sexually mutilated, usually castrated. Lynching, then, must be seen as both a racial and a sexual crime. In effect, Thomas covertly suggested that he was being subjected to a form of sexual harassment more gruesome and brutal than any verbal harassment could ever be. To use the vernacular, he was saying “Y’all trying to cut off my dick.” The white male members of the Senate committee could empathize with the idea of an endangered phallus. They could not and did not empathize with the suffering of Anita Hill.

Thomas’ evocation of lynching echoed the work of Eldridge Cleaver, a self-confessed rapist who in Soul on Ice attempted to justify this perverse, aggressive, sexist behavior as a necessary response to the racialized sexual victimization of black men at the hands of white men. Cleaver insisted that it was white racism that had forced him to become a rapist—that white men were obsessed by the desire to control black men’s bodies. Clarence Thomas’ response to lynching and implicitly to castration evoked this image of white males controlling black manhood, and it was most effective. In the popular imagination of white and black folks alike, he represented the black male standing up for his right to participate fully in patriarchy, in the culture of the phallus. He became a heroic symbol. Within such a context, it is not surprising that Anita Hill became the object of fierce, sexist interrogation.

To many viewers Hill’s calm demeanor was a sign of her integrity, her choice of the moral high ground. Yet to some of us it seemed yet another example of black female stoicism in the face of sexist and racist abuse. It might not have changed the outcome of the hearings in any way had Hill been more strategic, more passionate, and, dare I say it, perhaps even angry at the assault on her character, but it would have made the sessions less of an assault on the psyches of black females and on women in general. Contrary to those who claim the hearings as in some way a feminist victory, it was precisely the absence of either a feminist analysis or a feminist response on Hill’s part that made this spectacle more an example of female martyrdom and victimization than a constructive confrontation with patriarchal male domination.

bell hooks is a cultural critic and feminist theorist who lives in Oberlin, Ohio. Her latest book, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, has just been published by South End Press, Boston. Her essay here is a shorter version of a lecture given in New York in late November.