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 Marilyn Yarbrough with Crystal Bennett

Excerpted from Marilyn Yarbrough with Crystal Bennett, Cassandra and the "Sistahs": the Peculiar Treatment of African American Women in the Myth of Women as Liars Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 626-657, 634-655 (Spring 2000)(254 footnotes omitted)



According to historians and sociologists, the stereotypes of African American women predate their arrival in America. In the Old Testament, Jezebel was a prostitute, a loose woman, who caused Elijah to be exiled. Since that representation, though for reasons that cannot be laid totally at the Bible's door, African American women have been objectified, not just as "other," but as objects to be tamed and possessed. As women, they were expected to be servile and obedient. As African American women, they were expected to be servile, lusty and obedient. As powerless African American women, they were to be servile, lusty, obedient and available.

The Cassandra myth is often referred to as a simple tale of a mortal woman refusing the advances of a god and suffering the consequences: a clear vision of the future in which no one would believe. The fall of Troy, her rape by Ajax, and her presentation to Agamemnon as a prize followed. Further, her return to Greece with Agamemnon and his failure to believe her when she warned him of danger, led to their eventual murders by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

A fascinating 1979 "autobiography" of Cassandra purports to allow her an opportunity to "tell" her story. In her notes before the text, the author refers to Cassandra's conviction that the fall of Troy would be the beginning of "the social demotion of women for centuries to come" as "an interpretation of historical findings and their interpreters." How prophetic!...


1. Anita Hill

The Clarence Thomas hearings exemplify how an accomplished African American woman is susceptible to attack when she challenges the truthfulness of an accomplished African American man. In October 1991, Professor Anita Hill testified before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Immediately, senators judged her veracity and character. Shortly after hearing her testimony, Senator Arlen Specter (R. Pa.) accused her of committing "flat out perjury." He even argued, suggesting a "prompt complaint" requirement, that Hill's allegations must not be true since she came forward years after the asserted sexual harassment. Senator Specter, however, failed to consider that Hill's story was not voluntarily disclosed. It was the result of reports from friends and acquaintances who learned of the harassment when it occurred. Professor Hill only came forward to testify after she was interviewed and heavily lobbied by investigators from the FBI and staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Hill received [a] verbal lashing [from] other senators, and was portrayed not just as unworthy of belief, but as mad (a Jezebel-Sapphire combination)." Why was she so distrusted? Author and Professor Toni Morrison explained,

she was contradiction itself, irrationality in the flesh. She was portrayed as a lesbian who hated men and a vamp who could be ensnared and painfully rejected by them. She was a mixture heretofore not recognized in the glossary of racial tropes: an intellectual daughter of black farmers; a black female taking offense; a black lady repeating dirty words.

Hill herself later recognized that African American women are not trusted to tell the truth, at least in instances when it comes to sexual misconduct. Others have speculated that if Hill had been white, she would not have been treated the same way because "the complaints of [w]hite women are more likely to be believed, or at least cared about." Many people in the African American community resented Hill for "airing our dirty laundry in public." They believed that Hill broke what Charles Lawrence describes as the "unwritten code of silence." This unwritten code prohibits the reporting of African American male violence against African American females, and it keeps the "intra-community oppression of [African American] women suppressed." Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson similarly defended Thomas's right to deny Anita Hill's claims even if they were true and characterized Thomas's behavior as a "down-home style of courting." Despite his concern that this public spectacle caused the protagonists "inhuman, and undeserved pain, tragic pain" and his suggestion that "they will never be quite the same again," Patterson notes that "the hearings were perhaps the single most important cultural development for [African Americans] since the great struggles of the civil rights years," proclaiming "the culture of slavery is dead." Despite his conclusion that Thomas was justified in denying his actions by utilitarian moral philosophy, Patterson points out that the "airing our dirty linen" at the hearing, behavior so often condemned in the African American community, contributed to breaking down stereotypes, even while generating stereotypical accusations against an African American woman.

Not only do some members of the African American community resent African American women for "airing our dirty laundry," some African American women who themselves have been sexually harassed or assaulted often feel that it is wrong to report these incidents. They feel that they would be putting another "brother" in prison. These women have been told by their mothers and grandmothers to be strong, this has happened before, just go on with your life. They have been programmed to believe that racism always trumps sexism, and that the "hierarchy of interests within the Black community assigns a priority to protecting the entire community against the assaultive forces of racism." Many of these women also fear feeling disloyal, shunned or vilified.

A fundamental question remains: Is this problem of unbelievability unique to African American women? Is it peculiar to controversies involving sexual abuse? Monica Lewinsky was believed, although her statements were not intended (by her) to be personal accusations of sexual abuse. But Patricia Bowman, Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, three white women who made public accusations of sexual misconduct against powerful men were disbelieved . . . but were they? Has the absence of meaningful vindication for them and for other similarly situated claimants been the result of the operation of sexist stereotypes, or has it been because of their political and economic positions vis-a-vis those of their alleged attackers? A combination of class and gender is undoubtedly involved on some level. When the question is one of simply gender and class, stereotypical notions of a desire for notoriety or an expectation of an out-of-court settlement or money damages arise. But when James Carville referred, however obliquely, to Paula Jones as "trailer trash," his remark was understood to refer to economic differences, not chastity. Gennifer Flowers acknowledged that her affair with President Clinton was consensual, but she is still considered in some circles to have been the victim, the defiled. Likewise, although her age may have much to do with it, Monica Lewinsky is viewed in much the same manner. Recent attention to the late Pamela Harriman routinely reports on her notoriety as the lover of powerful men. In later life, she became Ambassador to France. Think of the consequences had any of these women been African American, branded with age-old stereotypes about their behavior, sexuality and credibility.

Professor Darlene Clark Hine reminds us that African American women likely would not have been in the position of Patricia Bowman, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones or Pamela Harriman. We should remember that Anita Hill did not put herself in that position. Professor Hine writes of Hill:

The magnitude of her courage to tell her story is revealed most effectively when viewed against the historical reluctance of Black women to draw attention to their inner lives. Because of the interplay of racial animosity, class tensions, gender role differentiation, and regional economic variations, Black women as a rule developed a politics of silence and adhered to a cult of secrecy. They cultivated a culture of dissemblance to protect the sanctity of the inner aspects of their lives. The dynamics of dissemblance involved creating the appearance of disclosure, or openness about themselves and their feelings, while actually remaining enigmatic. Only with secrecy, thus achieving a self-imposed invisibility, could ordinary Black women acquire the psychic space and gather the resources needed to hold their own in their often one-sided and mismatched struggle to resist oppression.

As noted above, in legal parlance, the Cassandra curse is ascribed to those who are not perceived to be credible. In a 1995 article in the American Bar Association's Judges' Journal, Lynn Hecht Schafran, after defining the term "credible" as "encompass[ing] many meanings: truthful, believable, trustworthy, intelligent, convincing, reasonable, competent, capable, someone to be taken seriously, someone who matters in the world," describes three types of credibility--collective, contextual and consequential:

As a group we are perceived as less competent than men; the context of the harms for which we seek redress in the courts is often completely foreign to the trier of fact; and even when the harm is acknowledged, it is often minimized by a de minimis punishment for those who injure us.

Although Schafran uses Anita Hill's encounter with (mauling by?) the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 as an example of "contextual credibility," she fails to recognize that the contemporaneous opinion poll figures suggesting that respondents believed Thomas rather than Hill may have resulted from factors other than the public's inability to put her failure to report the harassment into context. An alternative theory is that initial preferences for Clarence Thomas' credibility over Anita Hill's in some segments of the population could as easily have been caused by long held stereotypes about the truthfulness of African American women generally, particularly when they report instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment. The public's attitudes were merely reflective of the behavior of the Senators on the Judiciary Committee. As noted by several commentators, on the subject of relationships between Black men and Black women, the rift between the sexes so very evident in reactions to Anita Hill's testimony in the Thomas confirmation hearings had been in the making for some time. It continued into the 1980s with the publication of Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Shahrazad Ali's The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman.

Perhaps the most important context, however, for white viewers of this drama was that they were confronted with a scene that they just did not understand. Confronted with a docile, smiling, dark-skinned, conservative, Republican federal judge, who publicly denounced his own sister in his discussions of welfare reforms and what was wrong with the nation and who was about to become a United State Supreme Court Justice, they could not compare him to any public figure they knew. Justice Thurgood Marshall, the firebrand freedom fighter, on the other hand, reminded the nation on its 200th birthday that the celebration did not mean the same thing to all Americans. In the space of a very few days, white viewers experienced incredulity when confronted with an equally well-educated, equally conservative, equally articulate African American law professor who, despite her soft manner and religious background, would go on national television and talk about large penises and pubic hair. To then, in rebuttal, have the smiling, docile Republican judge turn into a preacher and martyr confused the issue even more for white viewers. But it made the choice of who to believe just that much clearer for the white public. Thomas subtly reverted to type; this they could deal with. She, too, they likely thought, must have been masking her true self; she was Jezebel and Sapphire mixed together. She appeared to be Claire Huxtable when she was really Nola Darling.


2. Others

Whether she is plaintiff, defendant, or witness, the African American woman in the courtroom faces numerous obstacles to being considered a believable, reasonable person. Because she is so far removed from the mythical norm, her very existence is deviant. Not surprisingly, African American women's courtroom credibility issues have not gone unnoticed by scholars. Documented juror and judicial attitudes concerning the veracity of African American women reveal that certain stereotypes are persistent, and these extra-legal factors inhibit not only the African American female victim at trial, but African American women in all walks of life. In her book Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, Gerda Lerner described a judge's remarks in a 1912 case. Upon hearing an account of sexual assault on a Black woman by her white employer, the judge declared "[t]his court will never take the word of a nigger against the word of a white man." Almost sixty years later in United States v. McKendrick, an African American man was on trial for assault and robbery. The defendant was identified by several witnesses, one of whom was a thirteen-year-old African American girl. In his closing remarks, the prosecutor discussed the maturity of other African American girls in the community, namely, a fifteen-year-old who had one child and another one on the way. The prosecutor implied in his remarks that all African American girls in that neighborhood knew and were sexually involved with all African American boys. The prosecutor went on to say that this thirteen-year-old knew "the young bucks in that neighborhood and she knew Terry Cox [the codefendant]." Therefore, the thirteen-year-old witness should be considered credible (in this case), because she should be able to correctly identify the defendant, who was also African American. The court found that this statement was prejudicial. Even the dissenting judge found that the prosecutor utilized untrue stereotypes, such as "all black girls are sexually promiscuous."

Four years later in People v. Richardson, an African American man's testimony and a white man's testimony were at odds. The prosecutor made the following assertion in his closing: "We [whites] abide by the law--they [African Americans] do not. That is the difference. . . . [T] hey don't live in the same social structure that we do, that you and I do. . . . [They would lie] if one of their own is being prosecuted by white society." The prosecutor further asserted that the white witness was telling the truth because he had

had intercourse with a black woman. That [was] embarrassing. It is so embarrasing (sic)[;] it is reasonable to believe the rest of [his] story is true. When a man comes up and says "yes, I had intercourse with a black" [he] wouldn't (sic) lie about anything else. . . . [H]e wouldn't admit having intercourse with a black woman. The court found that the prosecutor's entire closing argument was an appeal to prejudice, and it therefore found reversible error. It is telling, however, that in these cases the prosecutors perceived their arguments as appropriate. In our criminal justice system, the prosecutor generally has broad discretion as to prosecution, settlement and the prosecution's witnesses, all in the name of "we the people." Although these examples are twentyyears old, to assume that these stereotypes no longer exist seems naive. Biases of all kinds persist even when it becomes politically incorrect to voice them.

Jurors as well as judges and prosecutors display negative stereotypes regarding African American women in litigation contexts. Professor Linda Ammons, in her path-breaking work on stereotypes of African American women, introduces readers of legal materials to the rich social science literature compiled by researcher Gary LaFree. LaFree states, "perhaps jurors were influenced by stereotypes of Black women . . . ." LaFree cites other examples of alleged rapes of African American women, discounted because of the accuser's race. He quotes one juror who stated, "'[n]egroes have a way of not telling the truth. They've a knack for coloring the story. So you know you can't believe everything they say."'

As noted earlier, courtroom credibility issues impact African American women as rape victims. Because of society's image of African American women as highly sexual beings, there is a lingering myth that they cannot really be raped. This phenomenon is due to the idea that "chastity was thought to bear on the woman's general character, and, hence, on her credibility. A woman's propensity for falsehood was assumed to increase proportionately to her sexual experience. . . ." The concept of chastity has never been race-neutral; stereotypes suggest that African American women could not possess chastity.

When Professor Susan Estrich revealed certain aspects of her rape, she stated, "[w]hen I tell my story, no one doubts my status as a victim." She made this observation in the context of a white woman being raped by an African American man. She also noted that, "[h]is being black . . . probably makes my account more believable to some people. . . ."

In a 1974 article on a study that looked at the attitudes toward rape victims of thirty-eight judges in Philadelphia, the author discloses that several judges admitted that they equated the category of "vindictive women" with females of the Black ghetto. One judge actually stated "[w]ith the Negro community, you really have to redefine the term rape. You never know about them." How many of those judges remain on the bench? How many of those who remain became enlightened in the ensuing years and changed their attitudes?

The public disbelief of Anita Hill, though undoubtedly the most public of the instances, and because of that, probably the most egregious example of this phenomenon, is not an isolated incident. Numerous very public examples of contemporary African American women deemed incredible in their claims of abuse come to mind. Joanne Little, the then twenty-year-old North Carolinian who killed her jailer when he tried to rape her, would have remained invisible had the Southern Poverty Law Center not come to her defense. Young Tawana Brawley, accused of defiling or participating in the defilement of herself, was condemned as the perpetrator of an enormous and hideous lie. Desiree Washington, the demure beauty queen, was denounced as a Jezebel for entrapping Mike Tyson and as a Sapphire for trying to bring him down.


a. Tawana Brawley

The story of TawanaBrawley illustrates the stereotype of a promiscuous, young Jezebel who is thus incredible. Fifteen-year-old Tawana Brawley told the police that she was kidnaped by six white men and taken to the woods near her home in Wappingers Falls, New York. Brawley was found in a plastic bag behind the apartment building from where her family had been evicted. Her body, hair, and clothes were covered with feces, and the racial slurs "KKK" and "Nigger" were written on her chest. Brawley told her family and the authorities that she had been abducted and raped by six law enforcement officials.

When a part-time policeman named Harry Crist, Jr., who fit the description given by Brawley, committed suicide days after Brawley's beaten body was discovered, investigators traced Crist's whereabouts during the time Brawley was missing. Officials linked State Trooper Scott Patterson and Assistant District Attorney Stephen Pagones to the case after it was discovered that Patterson and Pagones were alibi witnesses for Crist for part of the time Brawley was missing. In spite of these facts, Brawley's mother was fined and sentenced to thirty days in jail for refusing to cooperate with the grand jury investigating the case, possibly because she saw the grand jury as part of the same system that spawned her daughter's abductors and rapists. Later, Tawana Brawley's case was thrown out of court with the New York grand jury determining that her story was without merit. Recently, Pagones won a defamation suit against one of Brawley's spokesmen who publicly accused him of Brawley's abduction and rape.

From the beginning, the media's fascination with questions concerning Brawley's credibility diminished the atrocities she had suffered. As one scholar noted, "Tawana Brawley's rape, like the rape of all Black women, [was] surrounded by suspicion and doubt. The notion of a Black woman being raped has always been considered patently absurd by white society. To be a Black woman has meant to be sexually 'loose' and 'available."' Because Brawley did not testify under oath about what happened to her, the public and the grand jury readily disbelieved her. Moreover, the real message the public sent was that a young African American girl who accuses white men of rape and sexual assault is normally a liar. In society's eyes, Brawley became the wild young Jezebel who loved to lie and who was definitely not an innocent victim. Eventually, Brawley broke her silence. In 1997, ten years after the incident, at a rally at the Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn, she stated, "[i]t happened to me, and I'm not a liar. I'm not crazy."

b. Desiree Washington

During the rape trial of Mike Tyson, many depicted Desiree Washington as a stereotypical female liar who lusted after Tyson's money--in other words, a gold digger. In July 1991, Mike Tyson telephoned Desiree Washington at her hotel room and asked to see her. Around 2:00 a.m., Tyson sent his limousine to her hotel to pick her up. Tyson told Washington that he forgot something at his hotel and asked her to come up to his room while he retrieved it. According to the part-time limousine driver, a public school guidance counselor who specialized in crisis intervention, and who took Tyson and Washington to Tyson's hotel, approximately an hour after Tyson and Washington left the limousine, she saw Washington rush out of the hotel. The driver, Virginia Foster indicated: "She looked all frantic like she might have been in a state of shock. She looked dazed, disoriented." Back at her hotel room, Washington confided to her roommate that Tyson had raped her.

Tyson's defense attorney portrayed Washington as a sophisticated woman who viewed suing Tyson as an economic opportunity. Consequently, Tyson's supporters labeled Washington a vindictive, jealous woman. Washington's supporters, however, were convinced that she was a young, inexperienced and naive girl. In the end, the jury found Desiree Washington to be a credible woman who was telling the truth. Washington knew many people would think she was a liar. In her 911 call to police, "[she expressed] her fears that no one would believe her or that they would think that she was just after money."

She was correct. People disbelieved her even though other women had previously accused Tyson of sexual and physical violence. Although vindicated by the conviction and incarceration of her attacker, Washington continues to be criticized for assuming it was safe to go to Tyson's room and for subsequently reporting the account to police. As many African American women who accuse celebrities and non-celebrities of rape, Washington feared that she would be deemed a liar. Even when the jury convicts the rapist, as in Washington's case, the victim still suffers ongoing attacks on her credibility. A year and a half after the rape, Washington stated: "I think I was also tried and convicted." The victimization that Washington experienced was not unique. African American women rape victims are advised:

"Don't talk about date rape, because we won't believe you, you must have consented." "Don't cooperate with the Man in taking down a Brother, even if you think he is wrong, especially one who is a celebrity." "Your concern about your bodies and how males inflict pain on you has to be subordinated until the racial problem is resolved."


c. Unnamed Sisters in Contexts Unrelated to Sex

Research conducted in the last decade by Korn/Ferry International, a large executive recruitment firm, and Catalyst, an organization dedicated to the development and promotion of women in corporate structures, reveal that minority women make up five percent of women corporate officers, who in turn make up only three to five percent of all corporate officers. Consequently, the Department of Labor examined why barriers exist to job advancements for African American corporate women. The Department found that prejudice against African American women continues to be the single most significant barrier to their advancement into the executive ranks. Perceptions, true or not, perpetuate the existence of the glass-ceiling barrier. The Department found that corporate executives continue to factor stereotypes into employment decisions. The study revealed that employers perceived African American women as aggressive, hostile, sly and untrustworthy.

As Patricia J. Williams expressed in 1987, "no matter what degree of professional or professor I became, people would greet and dismiss my black femaleness as unreliable, untrustworthy, hostile, angry, powerless, irrational and probably destitute." These stereotypes can affect public policy as well as routine transactions and employment decisions.

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