Monday, January 15, 2018

Tarana's Box and Tawana's Curse: Sexual Harassment's Reverse Tsunami

There is a line from a well-known hip-hop artist from one of his songs in the '80s that popped in my head as I began writing this: "One after another/Another to the next..."

Celebrities of the masculine gender seem to be, like dominoes lined up in an intricate pattern, falling with every passing day due to the societal issue du jour:

Sexual harassment, abuse, and other improprieties.

The recent rash of men being accused of one or more of the following is spreading with the speed and effect of a coast-to-coast pandemic with no apparent panacea in sight. This is a hot button topic unlike any other. It has a seemingly eternal shelf life and shows no end in sight.

This issue is not news. This has been a challenge for our American experience. From human trafficking of young girls to white collar back-room trysts, the misadventures of sex have been an unshakeable bugaboo. But we need to be clear about what motivates the perpetrators of these personal-space violations. When you break it all down...

It's not a gender thing...although gender is a major factor these days. I would say that it's easy to paint women as the only victims of sexual harassment. But before you try to rake me over the coals, how do you explain Terry Crews and his experience of being sexually harassed? Although men are typically accused of sexually harassing women - and clearly more often than women - it would be unwise and ill-advised to suggest that the door doesn't swing both ways. Women are subject to being accused as the victimizer as well as men. The former doesn't get as much press as the latter - and there are gender-based reasons behind that - but nonetheless there is still press. Here is proof. So neither gender has a unilateral claim of victimhood.

It's not a political thing...although the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill and previous residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC have unsolved mysteries and untold (or yet-to-be-told) accounts of unwelcome sexual advances or transgressions carried out by political figures that were unwelcome or uninvited by their victims. The list stretches back to the early days of our democracy/republic. Some people may still remember the name Robert Packwood, who resigned after 29 (yes, 29) women came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and assault. He denied it until he was later busted out because he was keeping diaries of his exploits. Even during the last decade with such names as Herman Cain, Anthony Weiner, Al Franken, and John Conyers, this issue has traveled in almost true tennis-match style from one side of the aisle in Capitol Hill to the other. But to state that politics is responsible - even with the current President, Donald Trump, being the ostensible poster child of these escapades - would be, well, irresponsible.

Hollywood's public enemy #1...
It's not a race thing...although race is and always will play a major role. The slavery experience of African Americans in this country taught us very well that, no matter how some try to downplay or dismiss it, African Americans have been victimized in sexual ways for the better part of 400 years. The ripple effects of that victim experience are still being felt, the result of a trickle-down process that has manifested intra-racially. In other words, these behaviors practiced and modeled by some of Caucasian descent have likely rubbed off on some of African descent. (For reference, see Thomas, Clarence.) And before you jump on the bandwagon to suggest that this is only the domain of rich and successful white men, I submit to you Bill Cosby, Russell Simmons, and Tavis Smiley.

It's not an economic thing...although this unwanted behavior has made a veritable living out of making women feel as though they were escaping the Matrix for the first time. Inappropriately requested favors or tasks, inappropriate opportunities for advancement, and inappropriate paraphernalia are just a snippet of the work environment women have to endure for upwards of 40 hours a week. The concept of quid pro quoin the arena of workplace sexual harassment didn't just pop up out of nowhere.

It's not even a religious thing...although the scandal involving Catholic priests accused of molesting young boys leaves an unfortunate smear across all religions. Interestingly, the term scapegoat has its origin in a religious context, yet it's convenient to point the finger at the deity they are targeting. But it's much larger than that, so leave Jesus out of it. Or Buddha. Or Allah. Heck, add the Dalai Lama for that matter.

In a world where sex intersects with everything - politics, entertainment, sports, journalism, religion, etc. - there is sure to be some level of sexual impropriety that surreptitiously travels and lingers in the dark for decades. But we need to be clear about the string that runs through the beads. There is one common denominator and it shouldn't be hard to miss. When it comes to sexual harassment and abuse...

It's a power thing.

And power is often juxtaposed with morality. Very few have been able to demonstrate power and exhibit morality simultaneously and honorably. Usually what we have is this dynamic: power increases as morality decreases, and vice versa...and I'm speaking purely from a humanistic standpoint. And power implies influence.

And for those journalists (Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose) who have interviewed - and in some cases grilled - those who were accused of sexual harassment, the situation becomes even more awkward. Seeing that this subject matter has crossover appeal into sports (NFL Network's Marshall Faulk, Ike Taylor, Donovan McNabb et al), entertainment (Harvey Weinstein), the halls of justice (Alex Kosinski), cuisine (Marco Batali), the arts (James Levine), the allegations and the subsequent fallout needs a program to keep track. I just happen to have one here...

"Say it isn't so, Tavis"...and it sounds like he is...
There is still a slippery slope embedded in this whole narrative. It's one that many fear to tread because they don't want to come off as insensitive, viewed as blaming the victim, or just being on the wrong side of history. But this is a slope that exists nonetheless. The victim is not always a victim. And that is truly a matter of perspective because the more connected the victim is to the ones who typically have power, the less victimized they tend to be.

That last sentence may seem rather oxymoronic or maybe even paradoxical. It most certainly should not be generalized or applied with a broad stroke to minimize any abused person's harrowing experience. So to illustrate this, let me submit two names, names of Black women who preceded this apparent tsunami of sexual harassment, but serve as touch points to possibly bring this national narrative to its reluctant knees. One coined a term that loomed prescient in a regretful moment of lost opportunity. The other remains a cautionary, proverbial tale to those now celebrating this necessary yet groundbreaking chapter in history. One is getting a relative sliver of publicity; the other dwells in an inglorious infamy.

And even though women in our country are finding a voice where they often and unfortunately had none, there are still victims. And the ones to whom I refer are not powerful, rich, white men. And I also am not highlighting those who may still suffer from some form of sexual misconduct, generally speaking. There are victims that routinely get lost in the shuffle of women's rights and feminist activism, victims of an unforgiving caste system that has sung a "what-about-us" refrain for centuries, and these two women are microcosms of the whole issue.

Tarana Burke and Tawana Brawley.

If you are not familiar with these names, here are the Cliff Notes versions:

Tarana is a social activist who was solely responsible for the brainchild of the #MeToo movement. As the story goes, she had been working with sexual harassment survivors for years until she listened to one young girl sharing her painful account of being abused by her mother's boyfriend. Tarana recounted that she could not bring herself to whisper "me too", being a survivor herself. 10 years later after she began the movement that gained little to no traction, Alyssa Milano, the actress, set off a tidal wave of social activity by hijacking importing Tarana's #MeToo slogan as a hashtag on social media.

The resultant Internet and non-Internet traffic led to a crescendo initiated by Time magazine's Person of the Year edition for 2017, lauding the women (mostly rich, white and famous) who were considered the "silence breakers". All the while, Tarana was basically reduced to a footnote in the story, buried some 2000 words into the article. The original "silence breaker" trudged along with a worthwhile grass-roots movement that did not see the light of day until powerful, rich, or famous White females celebrities came from the shadows and spoke out.

Alyssa, if you're going to throw up the fist, it would help to have Tarana next to you...
Tawana was only 15 at the time she was found in a plastic bag on a New York street with her body covered with racial slurs and dog excrement. As the story goes, she was raped by four white men (one with a badge) who left her violated and disheveled. The Black community came out in droves to speak out against this heinous hate the point that Tawana was a prominent figure in the Public Enemy video, "Fight The Power", which was directed by Spike the point that Al Sharpton turned himself into a national figure in the fight for civil rights after deciding to support and represent her.

Once the dust settled, a grand jury chalked up her story as an elaborate hoax and the prosecutor successfully sued her for defamation. Now in her 40s, Tawana operates in obscurity, no longer in New York, working as a licensed nurse under an alias, and living now as a pariah of sorts. All the while, she refuses to speak about the circumstances behind what occurred that fateful night or her unfortunate coal-raking experience by the judicial system who concluded she made it all up. Last time she spoke up was 10 years ago - ironically the birth year of the original "Me Too" movement - and at that time she still maintained her story was true.

But let's look at the obvious similarities...besides the fact that their names share the same spelling, save one letter, and their initials are TB. Both are Black. Both are women. And in a society that tends to find ways to devalue women on general principle, arguably Black women have it the worst. Yes, women are as a whole are potential targets of sexual violence or harassment. Black women, sadly, seem to be sporting a larger bulls-eye than other women. That is simply because Black women have always had a larger mountain to climb. Sexual harassment is just one cliff for Black women to scale on the way to Abraham Lincoln's chin on Mount Rushmore.

Gabrielle Union, the well-known actress who just so happens to be Black, summed it up better than I ever could:
I think the floodgates have opened up for white women. I don't think it's a coincidence whose pain had been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.
Power and pain go hand in hand in a cause-and-effect manner. And when Black women are the subject of systemic powerlessness, marginalization, and subjugation, power becomes a team sport. It's not just White men, but a number of White women who sign as free agents on the squad that has the most pull and experienced the least pain...or find another, more disadvantaged victim onto whom to transfer their pain.

Tawana Brawley circa 1988
As I said before, the victim is not always a victim. The more connected the victim is to the powerful, the less victimized they tend to be. To borrow from Cris Carter, former football pro, you need to have a fall guy. And it may be the perception that, since Black women don't have far to fall anyway, they are better positioned to shoulder the pain.

Gabrielle didn't stop there. She added this nugget of reality:
If those people (famous white women) hadn't been Hollywood royalty. If they hadn't been approachable. If they hadn't been people who have had access to parts and roles and true inclusion in Hollywood, would we have believed?
Which is the crux of the matter. When it comes to sexual harassment, abuse, and improprieties, credibility is always relative. American slavery taught us that. The Emmett Tills and "strange fruit" of our country's historical past are deceased adjunct professors in this field. And the burden of credibility exclusively fell upon the victim. Until now. At least for rich and famous White women, of course.

For Black women, the struggle to be taken seriously and believable continues. I mean, it took 10 years for someone to take Tarana's "me too" and Me Too advocacy seriously. What if someone powerful heard her cry when she was the actual victim? Or perhaps when she uttered that slogan for the first time? What if she was a rich, famous White woman instead...would Hollywood have rallied around it even quicker than they did?

Or what about Tawana's purported ruse? What if this was a 16-year-old White girl who alleged the same things at the hands of a bunch of Black men? Would she have been taken more seriously and suspects been manufactured out of thin air? Or is it even the least disturbing that an underage minor who happened to be a Black girl was mercilessly put through law enforcement and judicial machinations that ultimately dismissed her rape allegations as not credible? What if what she alleged was actually true?

It could just be me, but I think Gabrielle is only getting started.
This is the box that has been opened and the curse we now bear as a country. There is no going backwards now...except that the White and powerful could (and most likely will try to) potentially leave Black women behind once again, deeming them the exception and not part of the class action suit brought into the national consciousness by the "silence breakers". It would not be wise for them to try to reverse a tsunami by isolating a segment of the population that is hurting exceedingly worse than those who are now finding voice to their pain.

Not to mention the notion that the professed "silence breakers" are likely complicit in keeping the plight of their sexually harassed "sistas" silent...just like the traditional feminist power structure has historically done and continues to do. Just because you are a victim today doesn't mean you stay a victim an hour later. It just depends upon where you fall on the sexual harassment spectrum. And Black women are offstage right, prepared to make their entrance into the spotlight, primed to show their pain in ways never before witnessed by this country.

The Taranas of our world struggle to fight against having their voices shuttled back to the sidelines, when it was their lone voice in the wilderness that cried out like John the Baptist in an unpopular atmosphere. The Tawanas continue to either suffer in silence or have their voices muted either by circumstance, fear, apathy, misfortune, or numbness from historical or systemic forces. And the Gabrielles are learning to be the contemporary prophets and truth-tellers for Black women (and all women for that matter) at the risk of sacrificing their careers, connections, and, dare I say, Blackness at whichever altar this country finds sacred this month.

Jim Rome, the sports talk radio icon, frequently says that sex is undefeated in the history of the world. I beg to differ. Sex has never been undefeated and is even further under .500 now. Sex is now losing more than it can count to infinity. And sex is losing big time in the court of public opinion...and stands to lose even more soon for at least one good reason. It is simply because of hurt, angry, overlooked, abused, harassed, played, and dismissed Black women...who were once a somewhat untapped resource, yet now becoming a proven indomitable and indefatigable American force to be reckoned with.

Just ask Roy Moore.