An 'encouraging' and 'gut-wrenching' week for women — especially black women

Just about everywhere I’ve been over the last week, I’ve run into people who are trying desperately to make sense of what we had just seen: a once beloved actor, Bill Cosby, being led away to prison in handcuffs after being sentenced for a sexual assault that took place decades ago and a U.S. Senate hearing on whether Brett Kavanaugh should be elevated to a lifetime job on the U.S. Supreme Court despite a very credible allegation that he sexually assaulted a woman when they were high school students.

For women, it is hard to imagine a week more encouraging or more gut-wrenching — yet I fear that we are in for more of the same as we await the final decision on whether Mr. Kavanaugh becomes the next justice of the United States Supreme Court and Mr. Cosby’s team pursues an appeal.

This won’t go away any time soon.

For women who have been harmed by men, as has been par for the course for many of us, the Senate hearing has been another assault, awakening long buried memories and stirring feelings of degradation, fear, loneliness, self-loathing. For them, Christine Blasey Ford is a kind of Everywoman: the college professor whose allegation has peeled back the layers to expose Mr. Kavanaugh as a member of a merry band of beer-swigging teenagers who mistreated teenaged girls. Mr. Kavanaugh is the stand-in for their abusers: a once happy-go-lucky young athlete of privilege whose career is now far more important than what any woman says about his treatment of her.

In those Republican senators who have humored the professor while vowing to vote for Mr. Kavanaugh come hell or high water, they see the powerful forces that for eons have compelled women to suffer in silence or be punished for speaking out. Adding salt to the wounds is the head cheerleader for Mr. Kavanaugh: the president of the United States, a man who has himself bragged about his abusive conduct toward women.

For black women there is all that plus more. If a white man is our abuser, we have to overcome the historic assumption that our bodies are not due the same respect as white bodies. If black men are our abusers, we are urged to consider the good of the race ahead of our personal truths. We are implicitly told to do what we can to uplift black men because society at large has historically done its damnedest to tear them down. And much of society at large has always thought the worst of our people. So keep quiet about the family member. Keep quiet about the deacon and the preacher. Keep quiet about the rising politician. Keep quiet about the rising corporate executive.

We salute Ms. Ford for speaking out in ways that many of us wish we could or wish we had.

Amid all those spiraling thoughts, Mr. Cosby gets into our heads — at least, those of us black women and men of a certain age. I’m pretty sure that millennials, no matter their race, couldn’t care less.

Seeing the manacled 81-year-old actor-philanthropist-Jeremiah taking a perp walk elicited a cavalcade of emotions. Many black people believe Mr. Cosby is the victim of a society that has historically sought to keep black men in their place, punished them when they aimed too high, destroyed them when they were accused of taking liberties with white women. Most of Mr. Cosby’s accusers have been white women. For all those who say that if you do the crime, you do the time, there are others who say that justice has never been blind when it comes to black men.

For black women there is all that plus more. The saga of Mr. Cosby’s downfall calls upon a lot of black women to navigate between our womanhood and our blackness — an exhausting exercise that is never satisfying. As a woman, you probably want to see someone punished who has admitted, as Mr. Cosby did in a deposition years ago, that he secretly drugged women before engaging in sexual behavior with them. As a black woman, you cannot help recall all the white men who’ve gotten away with worse.

And so it is.

The reckoning now underway is leaving many people feeling far more pained than triumphant. And if you are a black woman, that is doubly so.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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