Sexual Harassment

How it Affects African-American Women

By Tracey Porpora

For years, Rosie Grant would let out chilling screams late at night while she wrestled the demons that haunted her unconscious. Sleep became nothing more than a self-imposed torture chamber filled with angry mobs of people who chased, beat and stabbed her.

Perhaps Rosie’s most frightening nightmare was about a gang of people surrounding her in a sugar cane field -- a place that reminded her of her childhood in Trinidad. Fire was set to the sugar cane and Rosie found herself encircled in a wall of flames.

Night after night, Rosie’s cries in her sleep were a call for help to rescue her from the pain and suffering that plagued her wake world.

The five-year ordeal that turned Rosie’s life upside down centered around the sexual harassment she suffered from her direct supervisor at a fast food restaurant where she had worked for more than 19 years. It started with verbal assaults but eventually escalated to touching and biting parts of her body. In addition, her supervisor would yell, curse and scream at her in front of her co-workers. But she feared talking of the harassment, and kept her pain bottled up inside for months before she finally confided in her husband.

“At first he (the harasser) started screaming at her in front of customers and the other employees to the point where she suffered embarrassment,” says Ike Ridley, who noted that his wife gets “very emotional” when she talks of her experience.

“At one point she was left trembling in the back room for hours because she was too embarrassed to come out until everyone went home.”

Once she took action and reported the harassment to officials at the company, Rosie, a long time manager with an impeccable work record, was treated even worse by her harasser and co-workers, she said. Suddenly, she was being “written up” for minor things like not placing salt shakers on tables straight. She was transferred from the chain restaurant in Maryland to one in a crime-ridden section of Washington D.C., and the company threatened to fire her five times.

On Rosie’s behalf, Ridley began a letter-writing campaign to top officials of the company. But it wasn’t until the couple sought the help of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission did justice start to prevail. After waiting for almost three years, the commission granted Rosie the right to sue the restaurant. In July, 1997, the couple filed a lawsuit, and just this past October the case was settled.

“Through this whole thing, Rosie kept working. I am so proud of her,” Ridley says. Rosie Grant is just one of many African-American women who have suffered the pain and humiliation of sexual harassment. But she is one of the few who have stood up for her rights as a woman and fought back. Today, as she continues to recover from this painful ordeal, she spreads the word that “no women should be harassed that way.”

Vernellia R. Randall, a professor of law at the University of Dayton in Ohio, says that when African-American women are sexually harassed, “It’s rarely just about sex or sexism alone.”

“It’s also about race. For us, racial epithets are spoken in sexist terms, and sexist comments involve our race and our culture,” she also noted.

Randall points out that many African-American women who experience sexual harassment “fall between the cracks” because society perceives racism as something experienced predominantly by black males, and sexual harassment an abuse suffered mainly by white women. And while white women are more often harassed by white males, black women are harassed by both black and white employers, she says.

“Since sexual harassment is about power, often the harassment will happen to women who men perceive as not powerful,” said Randall. “Unlike white women, black women are not privileged by race. A white woman has some power that comes with her race. Black women don’t carry that power.”

Besides being viewed as less powerful, African-American women are often viewed by society as sexually promiscuous. Because of this stereotype, the black woman becomes a prime target to the sexual harasser, Randall also notes.

William Oliver, an assistant professor of criminal justice for Indiana University and an author who has studied violence among African-Americans, says the sexual victimization of black women, “is something that has been part of their history since the time of slavery.”

“You see numerous incidents in the history of black people. (African-American) women have been harassed and raped by men, especially the white men in society who have had the power and the privilege to victimize them,” he said.

He noted that the “jezebel” stereotypes about black women exist to “dehumanize” them, and makes them appear to be women who constantly “want sex.”

“I think the stereotypes about black women play a very significant role in the motivation of men who harass them. The sexually promiscuous stereotype of black women adds to the rationale that suggests that one can’t really sexually harass or sexually offend a black woman,” notes Oliver.

Ike Ridley says he believed racism played a role in the sexual harassment of his wife. “I think there was an element. Here’s this black women and they (the fast food restaurant) figured ‘we’re going to show her, and get rid of her and keep him,’’’ said Ridley, noting that her harasser, who was Hispanic, had voluntarily left his position about a month after Rosie reported the incident to company officials.

And he believes it wasn’t coincidental that all of Rosie’s subsequent supervisors at the chain restaurant were African-American females.

“They probably figured that she couldn’t claim discrimination by an African-American female. In 19 years she had never had an black female as her supervisor … This was a callous move on the company’s part to use African-American women against each other,” says Ridley.

Angie, another African-American woman, says that she has been harassed by different men – mostly black men -- her whole life.

“Men have always seemed to harass me. I was a shy teenager. Men would embarrass me with unwanted attention, even when I would walk down the street, obviously pregnant; as a teen, walking to church with my older sister and even walking with my now husband,” said Angie, which is not her real name.

And because her husband is of another race, she says black men would often harass her just for that reason.

“I had a black man at a neighborhood business come up to me and ask why I was with this white man when I could be with him, a black man. I had no interest in this man, nothing in common other than we were both black. Black men seem to think they own you although they know nothing about you,” Angie says.

“I've had men call me a high-class whore and a slut because I would ignore their advances even though I never dressed provocatively, but was always neat and clean”.

In addition to sexual harassment from strangers, Angie has also suffered from incestuous advances from a family member. One incident that stands out in her memory is when an older cousin entered her bedroom one night.

“He had me put my hand on his erect penis when I was a young teenager, saying it was time that I learned about men so I would not be taken advantage of,” Angie recalls sadly.

Oliver says that Angie’s experiences are not uncommon in the African-American community. Harassment against African-American women by men of their own race will often start at a young age in a social or school setting, he notes.

“The harassment that black women tend to experience toward them by black men will occur in the context of their social lives …whereas sexual harassment directed to them by other men, especially white men, I would argue tends to occur primarily in the context of the workplace,” he said.

“If Black men in particular find you attractive, they are going to say words to you. And that certainly can be a form of sexual harassment. Statements like, ‘Hey girl can I holler at you?’ and then when the women continues walking away, the harasser might say ‘F*ck you.’ To me, that is harassment,” Oliver adds.

The father of three teenage females himself, Oliver says that he and his wife teach them how to handle situations when harassed by their male peers.

“We tell our girls that if someone speaks to them to just say hello and keep walking. If the harassers become verbally abusive, just keep on walking. But if the girls feel threatened, we tell them to find a security personnel or a police officer and report their concerns. But most of all, we try to teach them not to respond. Because that particular type of harassment is occurring from males who are engaging in these verbalizations as a way of enhancing their manhood and esteem before their peers,” he said, noting that these verbal abuses can, in some cases, lead to violence.

“I think there is a thin line between perceiving and defining this type of thing as harassment and flirting,” he added.

But while we have heard of many sexual harassment cases in the media, it wasn’t until Clarence Thomas became a household name that this issue was brought to the forefront in the African-American community. When Thomas was nominated by former President George W. Bush to the Supreme Court, Hill charged that Thomas harassed her by initiating discussions of sexual acts and pornographic films after she had refused his invitations to date him. When Thomas testified about Hill's claims before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, the Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Clarence Thomas as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Christine Stolba, Ph.D., Director of Economic Projects for the not-for-profit Independent Women's Forum in Arlington, VA, says that the public “perceptions and misperceptions” about Anita Hill's testimony highlighted the issues of race and sexual harassment in the African-American community.

“Although Hill never actually accused Thomas of sexually harassing her (in the legal sense of the term), the Thomas hearings introduced the American public to sexual harassment,” she said. “Issues concerning race and sex were central to this contentious episode, and aren't easily separated. I think this is true for African-American women who experience harassment in the workplace. Sometimes, that harassment might be linked as well to racial animus; other times, race might not be a factor. The vicissitudes of each case are such that it is not easy to make generalizations.”

Stolba advises that if a woman feels she is being sexually harassed by an employer, she should investigate the company’s policy on sexual harassment. She can also seek help from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which has issued guidelines outlining the definition of sexual harassment. Women have the right to legal recourse under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when they are “faced with severe and pervasive harassment,” in the workplace, says Stolba.

According to Title VII, sexual harassment can show itself in two forms: "quid pro quo" -- when a women is threatened with the loss of her job if she doesn’t perform sexual favors for her employer -- or when a "hostile work environment" is created. A hostile work environment is defined as an environment where a woman is subjected to sexually abusive conditions.

However, Randall says that African-American women often have a hard time proving their case because “judges and juries tend to disbelieve what African-American women say.” And if the harasser is an African-American man, Randall says society tends to believe that “black women can stand up to black men.” This is due, in part, to the media and society at large perceiving African-American women as being strong, she says.

“Part of the mythology is that this is what we like,” said Randall, referring to society’s perception that black women enjoy the challenge of warding off a sexual harasser.

“Black women have had to be strong as a group for a lot of different reasons, but I don’t think black women are any stronger than anyone else would be under similar situations. We are just as vulnerable as any other group have,” she adds.

Tracey Porpora is a writer living in New York