“At all times it has also been profitable to deny or suppress such knowledge…You already know that. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and draw conclusions.”
Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes
For years, 17 to be exact, they’ve tried to get me to forget it ever happened, ever since the former director of affirmative action at this predominantly white Midwestern university called to warning me: “You better not tell anyone.”
The affirmative action officer, a Black man, a surrogate for fellow white colleagues and administrators—including women colleagues and administrators—delivered the message from the powerful just as he would have done in the years of our enslavement.
And while the trauma of being interrogated and threatened for over two hours in this man’s office didn’t result in a sexual assault, the bullying was intended to force me to fall in line; and, if I refused, I was to relinquish my right to resist and exist at this institution. I wouldn’t be allowed to sign the contract! Here is an example of complicity with the practice of white supremacy.
It’s a tradition. Violence, verbal and physical—lethal—is a tradition, right along with the apple pie. Having studied the prevalence of Southern Chivalry in all of US culture through the works of William Faulkner, I’m familiar with his insistence that the past is never over. The past is not even the past. Much of what I read depicted the groping, the fondling, the outright rape of Black women who could not escape the daily sexual assault of men raised on the narrative that Africa needed “civilizing.” What was in the darkness of Africa, in the cabins, behind stately pillared homes, is out in the open now. The foul mouths and bullies, the gropers and rapists are right there in offices, on film lots, in hotel rooms. In the White House and under the Capitol doom, too.
Our reality is still the rape of Africa!
On this soil, Black women labored for hundreds of years for no pay, and knew intimately the authority and the power of tyranny. It’s better to intimidate, to blacklist those who refuse to obey and fall in line, better to outright lie, protracting a smear campaign against individuals that last for year than it is to apologize. But no half-baked apology can erase what happened no more than a half-baked apology can erase the legacy of the historical violence of enslavement and segregation. And above all, the forced silencing of the victims.
It’s still with us, and it hasn’t gone away. The abuse of power is well managed—by perpetrator and victims, alike.
White people don’t take kindly to hearing how white supremacy works. Blacks have been asked to follow the pointing arrow, recognize America’s enemy within us while Americans, asked to look outside themselves, not surprisingly, see the criminals and terrorists—in our internalization of this nation’s irrational fear of difference. But there’s the flip side: women don’t need to stay home. Encouraged to join the workforce, women work harder but for less pay. The “bonus package”–for the privilege of working—is expecting sexual harassment, intimidation, bullying. Consider it an admission fee. And, in the meantime, the sham continues: white American men are family men. Protectorates. Good ole’ boys!
It may have been historian Timothy Snyder suggesting the term, “managed inequality,” to describe the work of those exercising tyranny while proclaiming progress.
I can understand why the victims of sexual assault are speaking out now, years after the crime. And I can understand the slogan, there’s power in unity: it works for the minority of white supremacist, sexists, capitalists, who can manipulate the majority to work against their best interests. To work on the side of violence.
If one voice speaks out, it may not be enough. Fear of being maligned, of being isolated is real. And then again, there’s another historical era, complete with black and white photos of burnt Black man dangling from tree. In the foreground are gleeful men and women, hoisting children over their shoulders to ensure the memory of an event that will come to take many forms. This is how inequality is managed and sustained. This is how the appearance of a racism-free society or a rainbow-coalition masks the sinister reality of a rampaging abuse of power.
When people of color, women, and white men, put self-interest ahead of social responsibility, then they must throw any claim of civility out the window. Anything is possible. Few are left to declare themselves innocent. Given the number of men forced to resign or fired since the Weinstein revelations, we have to see this as a teaching moment. It’s obvious that not only boys and men lack an understanding of what is inappropriate behavior toward another human being—but even some women and people of color have become too adjusted to the “boys will be boys” culture of terror, abuse, violence. It’s no accident that Hollywood markets images of women who are just as hawkish any “evil” doing male predator. We came; we saw; we conquered!
At least two hours! I was warned I shouldn’t leave. This was it! I was told I needed to go back where I came. I wasn’t “fit,” he declares, to teach. Suddenly after 13 years, I wasn’t “fit” to teach!
Why, you don’t even have a car! You have to speak with a psychologist.
And he dials a number and hands me the phone and leaves the room.
It’s the summer of 2000, I have yet to sign the contract, but I’ve been hired. Just a month before the school year is to start, and this man has notified my building manager that I have a cat. The English department, in the meantime, has already seen to it that I am without an office among them. The only Black faculty in that department.
But I refused. I was crying, and I was shaking. This good-sized man stands between me and a livelihood. And I was in my late 40s. Had been a published writer since 1979, a college instructor since the late 1980s. I had my doctorate. But I was alone. Just the month or two before, I had come to the smaller town from a big city—alone.
And as a Black woman who had been an activist since the age of 14-years old and who refused to stay, as I had been told by the hiring chair, to “stay low key,” I was to exit. Leave the campus! Two other Black women did the same, I was informed, as if it a matter to celebrate. One left before the contract started and the other after—and, warning—you don’t want to wait until after you sign the contract to quit! You’ll have to pay us back!
I sat there alone. Where was I to go? Back where? My parents had been died. My siblings much younger. Friends, too, were struggling with adjunct positions while trying to advocate for social justice. This was a full-time position.
I understood what was happening. This is what I told the white woman on the line. It wasn’t me, I told her and, hanging up the phone, I left that room. I didn’t know how things would end, but I left that room.
Two years later, a month or two after the dean of faculty stood over me and pointed his finger down and me, saying, I better not ask for tenure track, I receive a call from the affirmative action director at my home. “You better not tell anyone.”
When I did tell a couple of women faculty, I received from them another message: self-interest trumps a fellow woman’s experience of abuse of power. You have no children, Lenore! We do!
As for the chair, he let me know that whatever happened was between you and Mr.______! Good day! And don’t “bother” me again!
Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, Al Franken, John Conyers, James Toback—and on and on and on—because abuse of power is just that deep-seated in this culture. Just so matter-of-fact. Former President Bill Clinton and the current one, DT/45, brag: “they let you do it.”
It’s not as if we are ignorant of this knowledge. Tyrants manage inequality—because, at best, it’s our complicity gives them the power to do so, and thus, they appear to function so well as to be almost invisible.
We women must ask ourselves, why should we expect change when some of us are unwilling to challenge the supremacy of power and inequality?