excerpted from: Katherine E. Leung, Microaggressions and Sexual Harassment: How the Severe or Pervasive Standard Fails Women of Color, 23 Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights 79 (Fall, 2017)(Note) (107 Footnotes)(Full Article Not Available)
Fighting sexual harassment is a bit like fighting a mythological Hydra every morning when you walk out the door. For every head we manage to chop off through civil rights statutes or litigation, it grows several more, determined to come up with new ways to sexualize and humiliate women who are just trying to go about their lives in peace. Whether we're walking down the street, having drinks with friends, or sitting at a desk, women face the possibility of sexual harassment everywhere we go. Going out for drinks with my friends frequently presents the textbook example of how men sexualize women of color. From "sorry sweetheart I only date Asian chicks" to "who's your spicy little friend?" men's comments sometimes suggest that they think they're ordering takeout in a little black dress. As a biracial woman, I hear how exotic I look at least twice a week, almost as often as I am asked where I am from, because my eyes just have that special "oriental" look about them. In fact, since starting college, I have endured unwelcome advances from passersby on the street, men sitting nearby on airplanes, in coffee shops, and at restaurants. In addition to being unwelcome, their comments consistently include the words "exotic" or "oriental," along with questions about where I am from and, if the speaker is a How I Met Your Mother fan, how half-Asian chicks are the hottest. Race is a key component of how these men attempt to sexually objectify me, making the two forms of harassment inextricably intertwined and lending a distinctly sexual undertone to the racist language they employ.
In the past year alone, workplace sexual harassment and gender discrimination have garnered a great deal of media attention, but very little of that attention focused on women of color. News outlets have covered a number of wealthy white women's sexual harassment complaints against senior male executives, including Gretchen Carlson's sexual harassment claim against Fox News, and the complaints filed by associates and partners at Chadbourne & Park. But these cases are not representative of the average American woman's experience with workplace sexual harassment, nor are they demonstrative of the unique ways in which women of color experience sexual harassment. While there has also been minor media coverage of sexual harassment of young women of color by their supervisors, it has been limited to smaller publications and has received virtually no television news coverage. This heavy emphasis on the experiences of white women is typical of our legal system's approach to sexual harassment and sex discrimination claims.
[This article has the following sections:
Defining Sexual Harassment
The Historical Sexualization of Women of Color
That Directly Impacts How They Might Experience Workplace Sexual Harassment.
Intersectionality and the Sexual Harassment of Women of Color
Microaggressions as Harassment
. . . Women of color's experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace are incredibly varied, but for many of us, sexual harassment frequently includes a racial component rooted in hypersexualized stereotypes. While modern anti-discrimination law and sexual harassment law have made significant strides toward addressing certain types of discrimination, the different standards of evaluation for race discrimination and sex discrimination claims make pursuit of an intersectional claim difficult and perhaps even impossible. The barriers to pursuing these claims, however, have not altered the reality of the unique forms of discrimination women of color face because of their race and sex, nor the importance of redressing that harm.
Sex discrimination law and sex stereotyping theories of discrimination provide a promising framework for addressing this particular brand of discrimination. The stereotyping theory of discrimination combined with identity performance discrimination theory has the potential to make a significant impact on how we understand workplace discrimination and address the reality of how women of color are harassed and discriminated against because of both their race and sex. Even with this blueprint in place, litigators face an uphill battle as a result of the historic siloing of race and sex discrimination claims.
In light of the reality of how women of color experience discrimination, often through microaggressions in addition to more explicitly hostile acts of discrimination, and of the very real impact that microaggressions can have on the terms and conditions of employment, it is essential that we change how we evaluate intersectional claims of discrimination. By treating race discrimination and sex discrimination as if they are entirely separate from one another and centering the experiences of white women and men of color in developing our anti-discrimination laws, we miss opportunities to address forms of harassment and discrimination that are most frequently deployed against women of color.