A Black Feminist Theory of Sexual Harassment: Hostile Environments, Plantation Violence, and Black Vernacular Misogyny
Alyssa Catherine Clutterbuck
Carole Boyce Davies
Thesis DT 3.5 2011 C588
xi, 199 leaves ; 29 cm.
This thesis advances a Black feminist theory of sexual harassment, exploring how unwelcome sexual advances against Black women intersect with racial-sexual structures of subordination in legal and public spheres. Black women were among the first plaintiffs to bring Title VII harassment claims to court; a connection to their protracted history of activism against sexual degradation. Their contestation of sexual harassment is a civil rights and human rights challenge against the perpetuation of white male supremacy. I, therefore, center Black women’s experiences by highlighting the historically-rooted forces driving their sexual mistreatment in today’s workplaces.
I begin by discussing the overrepresentation of Black women as plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases with respect to their presence in the female labor force. This is driven by the radicalized nature of sexual overtures against Black women that heightens their vulnerability and compounds the impact. These contemporary realities are then contextualized within the violent roots of slavery, the inaugural site of Black labor in the United States where sexual exploitation typified Black women’s work. I then discuss this legacy of sexual denigration in today’s Black vernacular culture, which I argue is justificatory space for sexual harassment and violent incitements against women in speech, lyrics, and cultural performances. I present the concept of Black vernacular misogyny as the assaultive speech against Black women defended as vernacular expression in order to provide Black men access to the patriarchal power that racism denies them; a transfiguring of structural inequality into impediments to Black men’s ability to reach the level of dominance held by white men in society.
I come to this theorizing of sexual harassment as a budding legal scholar consciously articulating the power of Black feminism to explain and fight for the legal rights of Black women. Ultimately, this project illuminates the elements of Black women’s experiences with sexual harassment so that the frequency of the occurrences, the ostracism of the victim, and the emotional difficulties of the formal process can be a lesser burden.