So Kevin Spacey has been roasting on the bonfire of public opinion this week. His career has been in freefall since the first allegations of abuse with an underage boy came to light. His popular show House of Cards has been shelved, and director Ridley Scott has decreed the soon-to-be-released film “All the Money in the World” will now feature Christopher Plummer in Spacey’s former role as J. Paul Getty.
It’s been a festival of pain in Hollywood for weeks now. People are running from the accused faster than Flo Jo trying to distance themselves from the stink of perverted power. It’s worse than the Salem Witch trials with all the pointing fingers and skeletons tumbling out of the closet. Even worse because most of those women who burned on the pyre back in Salem weren’t actually witches. These men are guilty.
I’m happy that so many women are coming forward to tell their stories, and that the public and key industry decision makers are rallying behind them to bring a reckoning to those who have abused them. But I can’t help but wonder, would this response have been as deep and outraged, would the punishments have been as severe and crippling if the victims weren’t primarily white?
I don’t want to ask that question, but the fact that I did leads me to think the answer is no. There has always a veil of purity attached to white women that women of color have not been granted.
Women in general are often sexualized with little to no provocation. Sometimes it seems like all it takes to bring out the worst in the Weinstein’s and Spacey’s of the world is that you draw a deep breath and walk around. But women of color suffer a special kind of sick attention from these perverts. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons, but the main one is the world and all the would be abusers in it, know firsthand how little support and backup we really have.
In the court of public opinion a white woman will have a hard time convincing her boss she didn’t ask for it. But she has a chance. In some cases something will be done, even if it’s not enough. But a black woman in the exact same position might find the task to get justice nearly impossible because of the way society has sexualized us for so long. The world has perpetuated that “She’s Gotta Have It” stereotype so hard that having a curvy butt and a tiny waist is perceived as an indictment of your character.
That Spacey is gay and women are not his preference is irrelevant, as my point about women of color is no less true when the victims are men of color. Recall former NFL football player turned actor Terry Crews who came out with his own tale of being groped by a high level Hollywood executive at a party. There’s something about dark skin that makes forced sex, the desire for it or the ability to give permission to engage in it, less of a crime.
I remember stories my mother told me about being chased around desks when she was younger, sometimes for weeks before she could find a new job.
“Find a new job? Why didn’t you just go to HR and complain?”
She looked at me with pity for my ignorance or innocence, I’m not sure which, and said, “No one was going to believe I didn’t incite that white man.”
“You were married,” I pointed out. “And I know you didn’t dress provocatively. I know you behaved professionally.” My mother has always been a hard worker and is still one of the most stylish women I know at 77, and I’ve seen pictures of her in her 20s and 30s. She was a beauty, elegance personified.
She just shook her head. “That don’t matter. Being a black woman was like throwing gas on a fire when it comes to sex. You couldn’t make nobody believe you didn’t ask for it, or want it. Too many of them were quick to say, ‘I know you looking for somebody to help you take care of those kids. And I had a husband who owned his own business!”
Basically, she told me that her color would eliminate any wrongdoing if she spoke out. It would make the bruises she got knocking into furniture to escape while she was being chased around those long ago offices all but self-inflicted. And the boss who caused them would be looked at with sympathy as though she had waved some kind of red flag to incite his sexist behavior, and was now a problem that needed to be dealt with.
“It was much easier to find a new job than it was to complain,” she said.
That’s not the case now, the job market and the recruiting landscape being a righteous mess, but I remember we were eating dinner at the time. Watching her sit at her place at the head of a large, vintage silver and glass table, I felt the burn of anger for what she’d suffered. But it faded. Snuffed out by the knowledge that everything she said was true back then because it’s still true now.
All female lives don’t matter. This moment we’re experiencing currently, where so many big wigs are exploding in the public eye, is beneficial for all women. The harsh consequences the guilty are experiencing as they fall down a shame spiral of their own making helps us collectively.
It acts as a caution to discourage would-be perpetrators from stepping out of line, for one thing, and makes it far more likely that when one does and a woman – or a man – speaks up with an accusation of sexual misconduct in the workplace they will be heard and protected. But all women’s voices do not resonate at the same level. They just don’t.
Women of color have a barrage of historical and societal baggage blocking their attempts at truth telling. Deep rooted beliefs abound that Latina or Black women are hotter, spicier, that we like sex more, thus why would an attempt to give her what she wants be considered wrong? Asian women have to battle the Geisha stereotype that places them firmly under a man’s thumb, expected to perform on a whim, silent and retiring, living to serve without concern or care for herself. Disabled women have to deal with the pity theory. “Of course, she wanted it. She’s just grateful for the attention!”
These stereotypes weaken our voice, make it even harder to speak out and ask for help because the world has already stamped a sexual label on our foreheads that is extremely difficult to remove no matter what we say, or how we dress.
I’ve ignored enough pork chop looks from white men – black ones too – watching as they passed by stunning females from their own race to glom onto me with oily grins and lame ass raps about how sexy I am. Me, standing next to a nearly six foot tall blonde with enough curves poured into a bandage dress to landscape a freeway, in plain black pants and a jazzy oversized blouse. Why?
It’s not because of my looks. I’m cute and stylish enough, and they say confidence is sexy, but the incident I’m referring to happened because I’m a black female. Therefore, sex is often an implicit part of my image.
Well, Kellye, you don’t know that for sure.
Yeah, okay. And nobody knew cigarettes caused cancer for decades either. Some people still deny they’re as dangerous as people say. But that doesn’t mean you should smoke while pregnant. You get me?
All women and men deserve to feel safe from sexual predation at work and everywhere else. That’s true and undeniable. I just hope that if you, as a manager or a leader, are faced with this type of situation involving an employee of color, bias does not prevent you from awarding that individual the care and protection she or he deserves.