The Deliberate Attempt to Humiliate Fani Willis with Racist Stereotypes

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The following is an opinion piece by PoliticusUSA’s Editor-in-Chief Sarah Jones.

The hearing into Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has been conducted in a way that is very familiar to women in power and even more so to women of color: It has been focused on humiliating her by delving into her romantic life to portray her in a manner consistent with a racist stereotype of Black women as a Jezebel, with a focus that has nothing to do with the Trump RICO case.

This tactic is not new and it is sadly familiar to women. While it is a frequent scheme by Trump throughout his life, it is not specific to him. Rather, Trump’s misogyny and misogynoir merely exploits existing bias in our culture.

They dragged Special Counsel Nathan Wade in to be questioned intensely about his since ended relationship with the Fulton County DA. Harry Litman pointed to these questions, like “When did you first sleep with her?” as “tawdry.”

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It can be argued in good faith that this relationship needed to be addressed. It can be argued that it wasn’t great for Willis to engage in a relationship with the Special Counsel. It can also be argued and is a fact that work relationships should be disclosed to superiors.

But it cannot be argued in good faith that questions about when he first slept with her are relevant. These were asked to suggest a sexual scandal should compel more attention than the actual charges against Donald Trump of election interference. The only pertinent matter that could have disqualified her would have been if kickbacks were involved, but her testimony dispelled any such accusations.

To that issue, Willis was interrogated about a dinner paid for by Wade by the same people defending Supreme Court Clarence Thomas’ wildly corrupt grift, including 38 undisclosed trips billionaires paid for by billionaires some with cases in front of the court. Just one of those trips is estimated to have potentially exceeded $500,000.

The DA rightfully pointed out that she is not on trial, as she was being treated like her relationship was more concerning to the public than the actual defendants’ attempt to steal an election and overturn U.S. democracy. An absurd but often successful gambit when aimed at a woman with power and especially a Black woman.

“You’ve been intrusive into people’s personal lives. You’re confused. You think I’m on trial,” Willis testified. “These people are on trial for trying to steal an election in 2020. I’m not on trial, no matter how hard you try to put me on trial.”

Watch:

Willis: You’re confused, you think I’m on trial, these people are on trial for stealing an election in 2020. I’m not on trial. pic.twitter.com/YgARkEgJB6

— Acyn (@Acyn) February 15, 2024

The online discussion surrounding Fani Willis during her testimony became about her romantic life, with pundits fretting about how “aggressive” she was, and how she was unprofessional by doing something men in power have been doing seemingly forever. That is to say, most people fell for it. They fell into it. They were easily baited into commenting on how even though this had nothing to do with anything, it didn’t reflect well on her (‘it’ being acting like a white man with power).

White, conservative women in Congress are allowed to grope their partner in public and have rampant rumors about their extra-marital affairs, and yet they are championed by some of the same people calling Fani Willis a “Jezebel.”

A partisan divide in standards for women is accepted in our culture, primarily because Republican women are working to uphold the patriarchy. (See then V.P candidate Sarah Palin’s hacked emails which gatekeepers said would be not decent to report on; contrast with Hillary Clinton’s campaign’s hacked emails which the press feasted on.) They are not, say, Black women holding Donald Trump (ultimate representative of unearned entitlement of white men) to account for his attempt to steal an election or for massive fraud against the state of New York.

Donald Trump is the embodiment of white patriarchy trying to hold onto power by any means, and so it’s hardly a surprise that he is followed by people who easily buy into hateful tropes about people they don’t think should even be “allowed” to have power. But it’s not just the MAGA crowd who buy into these harmful stereotypes; but rather our whole culture.

This isn’t to suggest that Willis was smart to engage in a relationship with the Special Counsel; but rather that the point of raising it in the sexual manner it was raised was to inject a very specific portrayal of her, one that is usually successful. Revenge porn is weaponized against women because it is effective (see former Rep. Katie Hill, who was driven from office by it). It humiliates and denigrates a woman in the eyes of the public, in a manner it would not if it were a man. Men are entitled to be sexual and to make mistakes, women are not and women of color are doubly not.

I pointed out during the hearing that this humiliation was a purposeful effort meant to intimidate her. The sexualization of a woman in power immediately turns her into an object of male gaze, removing her authority in the eyes of the uninitiated public.

For Black women, this comes with an even more powerful connotation meant to strip them of command. “The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype…This depiction of black women is signified by the name Jezebel,” the Jim Crow Museum explains in The Jezebel Stereotype.

Just how dangerous is the Jezebel stereotype? It was used to justify the rape of Black women slaves. Or rather, to claim that rape didn’t even exist because all Black women wanted relations with white men. It’s also the dominant image of Black women in our culture; when given the current state of affairs, the dominant image of Black women in our culture should be that of a heroine saving democracy.

“The Jezebel has replaced the Mammy as the dominant image of black women in American popular culture. The black woman as prostitute, for example, is a staple in mainstream movies, especially those with urban settings. The black prostitute and the black pimp supposedly give these movies cutting edge realism… A half century after the American civil rights movement, it is increasingly easy to find black women, especially young ones, depicted as Jezebels whose only value is as sexual commodities.”

Remember, if she is a sexual object, she is less than. She is without power.

Here’s Trump in August of 2023 already deploying this tactic against Willis:

Trump claims Fani Willis is racist against white people like him and spreads rumors about her sex life pic.twitter.com/DJu4XWCang

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 8, 2023

Why is he going for her sex life? Because it works.

It’s not just Willis.

Southern Baptist Convention pastors started calling Vice President Kamala Harris a Jezebel two days after she took office.But one example is a pastor tweeting and telling on himself: “I can’t imagine any truly God-fearing Israelite who would’ve wanted their daughters to view Jezebel as an inspirational role model because she was a woman in power.”

Lisa Sharon Harper is quoted in Religion News explaining that the Jezebel trope is specifically a window into the beliefs of white Southern men, and since this attack is being waged on Willis in Georgia, this is even more impactful.

“They legitimize their own racist, white supremacist worldview by placing it on top of a biblical reference,” Harper said. “This could be a way of white men trying to put Black women back in their place, which is under them.”

Putting a Black woman in her “place”, which is under the white man.

Pennsylvania Attorney General candidate Keir Bradford-Grey, who if elected would be the first woman of color to ever serve in statewide executive office in the state and has more than 20 years experience as a state and federal defender, told the Associated Press that the questions probing Willis’ personal life in the investigation were “disgusting” and had disturbing implications for Black women in leadership roles, adding, “I can’t imagine a world where we have to continue to be treated like this as we seek leadership roles, and we do them well.”

This is not to suggest that when a woman fails to do her job properly she should not be held accountable. But when attempts are made to sexualize women in positions of power, and it happens so reliably it might not be something you’ve even thought about before, we all need to be better than we have been taught to be. When the focus is not on her job performance, but rather as a sexual being (i.e., does she meet male approval in her looks, does she present as feminine enough or is she “shrill”, who has she slept with and how can that be used to demean her, why has her husband “left her”, etc.) her power is being attacked through cultural misogyny.

Fani Willis is a powerful woman who is doing her job to hold to account a former president known for intimidation and harassment.

When Black women are being dragged down into this established Jezebel stereotype, we need to see it for what it is, call it out, and deny it the power it seeks.

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