Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Harrassment by Men Named Thomas

Yesterday was a banner day for stories about sexual harassment by people with the surname Thomas. First Anita Hill published an 0p-ed in the NY Times defending herself against charges leveled against her by Justice Clarence Thomas in his new book, My Grandfather's Son. Then, the jury in the sexual harassment case against Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks returned a verdict for plaintiff Anucha Browne Sanders.

The cases have further parallels as well. In both cases, the accused steadfastly maintained (and still maintains) that the charges were false. Both cases involve allegations by a professional African-American woman against an African-American man. And despite the intra-racial nature of each dispute, both were nonetheless racially charged.

In 1991, then-judge Thomas famously referred to the portion of his confirmation hearings focusing on Hill's charges as a "
high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves," thus contending that Hill was part of a conspiracy by the black and white liberal establishment to silence black conservatives. Although he himself did not make the point, Thomas also could have been understood to be complaining about a double standard under which powerful white men in Washington---including some of the very Senators voting on his appointment---routinely engaged in sexual harassment without suffering any consequences.

The double-standard issue arose in the Isiah Thomas case as well, but with a twist. Thomas said in a videotaped deposition that he would regard a white man calling a black woman a "bitch" as a worse offense than the same term being used by a black man in referring to a black woman. This double-standard on Thomas's part was damaging because it indicated that Thomas was himself willing to use such language towards Browne Sanders, and because it indicated that Thomas tolerated such language when used by Knicks guard Stephon Marbury in reference to Sanders. For his part, Thomas denied both that he called Browne Sanders a "bitch" and that he tolerated that language when used by anybody. He claimed that he was simply making a comparative point.

In the interest of starting a discussion, I want to suggest that (Isiah) Thomas was onto something (which doesn't mean that the jury was wrong). Interpreting Thomas in the most charitable way imaginable, he was saying: (1) When a black man calls a black woman a "bitch," the man is being sexist; but (2) when a white man calls a black woman a "bitch," he is being sexist AND possibly also racist; (3) and even though sexism standing alone is bad, sexism plus racism is worse still, so the white man's use of the term is worse than the black man's.

Of course, this all leaves unaddressed the other glaring problem for Thomas, which is that when a basketball team plays poor defense and has an offense with two low-post players and no pure outside shooters, it usually loses, regardless of the race of its players.

Posted by Mike Dorf, recovering Knicks fan


Sobek said...

Since when is the word "bitch" an indication of racism?

If you substitute in other words, such as ugly, dumb or incompetent, it may also fairly be said that they suggest possible racism, but not because the words have any racial connotation. It's because of the person using the words.

Jon Swift said...

Is it racist to say Clarence Thomas seems to be a very angry black man?

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

I think one way to look at it is from the view of the recipient.
If a black woman hears certain phrases from a white man, it is likely (not guaranteed) that the woman reads that as an intentional reminder of past oppression. As a dorky white middle class guy, I'm in no position to say that's an unreasonable perception.
I do however, question whether "bitch" on its own qualifies as such a term. It might not be loaded in the same way Imus' words were a little while back.

Posted by egarber, recovering Braves / Falcons fan

Paul said...

Mike is clearly right about the Nicks. That aside, though, calling someone a bitch seems to me to be at most sexist, not quite likely not even an indication of sexism. I certainly don't see how it could be racist - even if a racist person were using the term.

I am also not sure I can agree that sexism + racism is clearly worse than sexism standing alone.

Nathan said...

Could Isiah perhaps have been reflecting the fact that rap/hip hop music, and by extension Standard Black English, often employs derogatory terms in a manner that some might contend is endearing or neutral? There are certainly scholars who recognize the existence of legitimate dialects within the English language that cut along racial lines, and hence make sure to identify the dialect of the speaker before analyzing what the speaker said. Isiah might really have been saying that in Standard Black English the word "bitch" doesn't carry the same meaning as it does in Standard White English.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Okay, so with the exception of egarber, the consensus of the comments seems to be that "bitch" as used by a white man to a white woman is not inherently racist. There even seems to be some skepticism about whether it's sexist.

As to sexism, this seems pretty clear to me. If Mr. X calls Ms. Y a "jerk," an "idiot" or an "asshole," that's obviously not sexist because the same epithets can be and are used against men. But "bitch" is a clearly gendered word. Indeed, although it is sometimes used to describe men, when a man says that another man is his "bitch," he means that the other man is a possession in the way that a female called a "bitch" is. So there's no real getting around the sexism.

I agree that the racism is a tougher inference. Certainly a white man who called white women "ladies" and black women "bitches" would be engaged in racism but I agree that this is not because of anything inherent in the word. What Isiah Thomas was suggesting, I think, is that use of the b-word by African Americans is inherently different from its use by white Americans in somewhat the same way that use of the n-word is different. In this account, the b-word gets reclaimed as a kind of honorific when used intra-racially but remains a slur when used inter-racially---and precisely because of that dual meaning it takes on a racial connotation that it would otherwise lack. Or to put the point more crudely, using "bitch" simply to mean woman is a kind of hip-hop slang, which when used by white people (other than say M&M) usually has a racial tinge.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Uhm, in thst comment, when I said "white woman" in the first sentence I meant "black woman."

Paul said...

I don't think it is fair to label as "sexist" anything that necessarily has sex distinctions. For example, the sentence "A woman has a vagina; a man has a penis." would not generally be noted as "sexist." So, sure, "bitch" necessarily has female connotations, but I do not see how it's use is inherently sexist.

To the extent the term is used to describe a woman in a negative light for characteristics such as assertiveness - for instance a man calling his female boss a bitch for ordering him to do something well within his job description - then, yes, it is being used as sexist. Outside of that context (or the one you noted below where one man asserts possession of another man), I am not sure I can agree it is clearly sexist.

Sobek said...

Prof. Dorf, your last comment has me close to convinced, but even in rap lyrics, the word is still clearly a pejorative.

In the words of political philospher Snoop Dogg, referring to the Don Imus controversy, "It's a completely different scenario,... [Rappers] are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about ho's that's in the 'hood that ain't doing sh--, that's trying to get a n---a for his money. These are two separate things."

So Mr. Dogg would apparently agree with Thomas, but his use of the word "bitch" is still highly offensive, and intentionally so.

Nathan said...

I don’t think that you can intuit from Snoop Dogg’s comments regarding the word “ho” any general rule regarding the use of the word “ho” in hip-hop, as he’s only one rapper, and I really don’t see how you can leap from the word “ho” to the word “bitch.” I think that you can find numerous instances where both words are used in a neutral context, referring generally to a woman, and there are also instances where the word might even be positive (I have some instances in mind, but I don’t think they’d be appropriate to reproduce here). One other possibility is that the word has become so ubiquitous in hip hop that while still derogatory, it has lost much of its bite. But when a White person uses the word, as it is used more sparingly, it remains a deeply offensive.

No Exit said...

yes, yes, there is some sexist overtone in the use of the word bitch by a male, but that really doesn't do justice to the gradations of prejudice possible.

For instance, a plausible argument can be made that for all of Mark Twain's supposed open-mindedness, it was still Nigger Jim this, Nigger Jim that... ie. Rascist.

I posit that it is at least possible for a man to call a woman a bitch merely as an expression of frustration, outrage and reflexive resort to, admittedly, sexist stereotypes.

This obscures the fact that the man may not be a sexist at all when not provoked.

The jury clearly found that Thomas crossed the line, but there is a a way to interpret his statements regarding bitch calling as plausible.

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