Hollywood is currently in the throes of Weinsteingate.
It is impossible to log into social media or to read any American news and not encounter it. Daily, more women are coming forward, breaking long-silences, admitting to having been the victim of sexual assault at the hands of powerful men. Good on these women for speaking out and facing down their oppressors – that’s damn hard to do.
Thing is, you don’t have to be a Hollywood starlet to know what sexual assault feels like: the powerlessness, the fear, the shame, the is-it-my-fault conversations with yourself, not to mention the rationalisations (“But this is my bread-and-butter. I can’t make trouble.”) Many ordinary women know exactly what that dilemma feels like, though most of us don’t have a platform to talk about it.
Many of us figure it’s just the way of the world. That’s why there’s a word for it, right? Misogyny. The term is enjoying a new popularity these days.
Many of us are trying to forget these incidents ever happened. We balk at making ourselves, even in our own minds, “the victim” of anything. But then, here comes Weinsteingate, stirring up the silt of repressed memories.
That’s what’s been happening to me. I’ve been remembering things. Things I chose to forget. What keeps floating up are the times when I felt the smallest, the times when I was halved and then halved again by some man – two bites of the cherry, so to speak. I’m talking about a special kind of misogyny, not your plain vanilla kind, something a bit darker than that.
Like my first job out of Law School, working for a big, German guy. Him hiring me and saying in his heavy accent, “Yes, I can use you on the Australian and European market.” Me, twenty-four years old, not understanding what he meant until several months into the job, when a private plane landed and a flock of Swiss millionaires alighted on the office conference room. They had come to discuss plans for setting up a private offshore bank. My boss called my telephone extension, ordered me down to the meeting. I grabbed a legal pad and pen, thinking I would jot down his instructions before stepping into the room. I grabbed a copy of the private banking legislation on the way out of my tiny office. I ran down the stairs, rehearsing what I already knew about private banks. My boss was waiting in the corridor, a couple paces away from the conference room door. His only instructions were, “Sit where I tell you. Next to the most important guy. Look pretty and smile. A pretty black girl is kryptonite to them.” I did as I was told.
Months later, the firm hired another lawyer: a hot-shot Italian tax-attorney from the West Coast of America. They put him in the same office as me. We sat back to back. He kept trying to flirt with me. I kept ignoring him, politely declining invitations, skirting his hints and advances. Then one day, he swung his chair around and announced, “You know I don’t need to work, right? I told you before, my family is rich. I’m just here to learn the ropes in this offshore thing.” I confirmed that he had told me all about his family’s pizza empire and all about the money he made Stateside, as an attorney. We went back and forth, I played dumb, he grew frustrated. Eventually, he said, “Listen, honey, I’m a white man.You know what that means, right? I can open up a whole other world for you…in America. I can get you outta this dump.”
I changed jobs. Next job was for a brand-name firm. It included going to meetings with Senior Government Officials, and Captains of Industry. I was early for one such meeting. It was only me, the plate of chocolate chip cookies and a tall, red-faced British guy – a Captain of Industry. His phone rang. He answered, guffawed for a few seconds and then said in an extra-loud voice, “Yes, yes. I’m back in Her Majesty’s Colonies.” I looked up then, at him, he was looking straight at me with a smirk on his face. When the meeting started, he talked over me, rebutted everything I tried to say – by saying it differently. At break time, while we were getting coffee, he brushed up against me.
In a brand-name firm, you get to meet brand-name people from the other franchises. The Managing Directors of all the regional firms came to town. On the last night of their conference, they invited middle management of the local firm – which included me – to dinner. I was seated next to one of the very affable, very fatherly, very light-skinned MDs – probably of European extraction. At some point during the dinner, he mentioned that he couldn’t wait to go see the beautiful beaches, he had made reservations at a resort. Later on, he invited me to join him at said resort. I politely declined, pleading the exigencies of work. At the end of the night, he leaned in, whispered, “I love your skin. Your colour es so beautiful.” A couple months later, my boss told me the same thing.
I changed jobs. This one involved international travel and forging links with international firms. I was sent, along with a male colleague, to a major tax conference in London. We were meant to scout for new business and make visits to business partners. One such person was an old upper-crusty British gentleman – a highly respected academic on certain aspects of offshore financing. He and I had been doing business on the phone and via email for some time. He was attending the conference as well and had agreed to meet in between sessions to discuss future plans. He was not expecting my male colleague to be with me. The gentleman seemed vexed. On the second morning of the conference, he approached me in the breakfast queue and asked how my jet-lag was. He said he had taken a room in the hotel and would gladly prove to me that a good massage was the cure for what ailed me.
I wasn’t hungry anymore. I left the breakfast buffet and got a coffee. My colleague followed. “You didn’t deserve that,” he said. “I heard what he told you. I can imagine how you feel. He made you think he wanted to talk business but that wasn’t it at all.”
I appreciated those words: that my white, male, European colleague had called bullshit. It wasn’t all in my head. Because up till then I had wondered if it – all of it, every incident – had, indeed, been a fiction in my head. Or had I done something wrong? Had my skirt been too tight? Had I laughed too hard at his jokes? Had I done that silly, Caribbean thing and touched him while speaking?
And up till then, I had been confused: how could my law degree, all my qualifications – so nicely typeset and embossed on my business card – how could they be so easily ignored? How could somebody look at me and see nothing but a black hole. Literally, a black hole.
But that day, in London, as I talked to my colleague and explained how betrayed and belittled I felt, my mind jumped backwards and resurrected something I already knew. Something I’d learned in my prestige Catholic high-school, the place where all my ambitions of becoming A Respected Professional were born. I remembered Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling – the great European men we’d studied – and I remembered The White Man’s Burden, and I saw that it extended to black women, to the terrain of our skin. These men thought I was vacant, starving, inherently inferior, but lush and ripe for the taking. They thought I wanted to be taken. They thought they were doing me a favour by offering to possess me. They had decided all of this based on my gender AND my race.
In time to come, there would be other white men, saying the right words and offering “love.” But I could never bring myself to take the risk that it wasn’t that but, rather, jungle fever talking.
Still more years passed and I learned of Sarah Baartman, the African woman who, in the 1800s, was taken to Europe under false pretences by a British doctor. She was stage-named “Hottentot Venus” and was paraded around freak-shows in London and Paris with crowds invited to ogle her large buttocks – her genitalia were fabled to be just as disproportionate. After her death in 1815, her sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains were only repatriated to South Africa and buried in 2002.
Recently, I discovered there was a word for what I had experienced, for what Sarah Baartman had endured: “Misogynoir”. It is a term American professor, Moya Bailey, invented to describe the specific way racism and misogyny combine to affect black women. It’s a term you don’t hear much about in the mainstream media. I can recall encountering it only once, when Twitter blew up with racist abuse aimed at actress/comedienne Leslie Jones: “big-lipped coon” they called her.
I wonder how many black women in Hollywood have been the victims of misogynoir: pursued or pawed for having too much melanin, too much ass, too much lip. I wonder if any black starlets will come forward after Weinsteingate. Perhaps, like me, they won’t say anything and won’t call out any powerful men, but will brush off the abuse and move on with their lives. Or perhaps they will admit the assault but redact some of the hurtful words that were said, edit out the other layer of pain. Why? Because no one wants to survive one misogynoir trope – The Hypersexual Black Woman – only to fall prey to another misogynoir trope, The Angry Black Woman.
Weinsteingate may change things. Some people seem hopeful it will cause an enlightenment in Hollywood, which will positively change workplace gender relations everywhere, for everyone. So why do I find myself reading these predictions and quietly humming Bob Marley:
“They say the sun shines for all,
But ah in some people world,
It never shine at all.”
I’ve heard it said: to be poor is a crime, but to be poor and black is to be invisible. Well, I would add: to be a woman is a crime, but to be a woman and black is to be a hole.