Hats off to Perquita Burgess, the Black former temp worker at FOX News, for standing up to big media to reclaim her dignity. You may recall Bill O’Reilly was fired a day after her new sexual harassment allegations became public. O’Reilly still walks away with a $25 million payout and the chance to make millions more in appearances. Burgess, unlike the five women FOX paid to settle claims against O’Reilly, won’t see a dime. She said on “The View” last week she is satisfied knowing O’Reilly won’t do it to another woman, at least not at FOX.
Burgess’ attorney Lisa Bloom says the fact her clients weren’t seeking financial restitution made them more credible and ultimately brought down O’Reilly. Lesson learned? Time will tell. More than 25 years since Professor Anita Hill accused her former boss, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment at his Senate confirmation hearings, and employers are still getting it wrong. The onus is always on the accuser. And when she’s at the lower end of the pay scale, or a Black woman of any rank, she is likely to endure the abuse longer and least likely to be compensated for it, let alone in the millions of dollars.
Already reeling from the demise of its Chairman Roger Ailes over sexual harassment allegations and legal action brought by former FOX anchor Gretchen Carlson, and similar claims by former FOX personality Megyn Kelly, the New York Times reported the network settled five claims against its star O’Reilly for more than $13 million.
Burgess’ case was never about money, but it raises serious questions about why, in so-called modern times, feminism’s hard-won established norms for how women are to be treated consistently fall short to safeguard Black women.
“Nobody cares about what happens to our dignity and our well-being. When I say nobody, I mean the society around us is not offended,” said Sandra Finley, president and CEO of the League of Black Women, a research and advocacy organization for Black professional women with leadership ambitions. “You can be a temp working at a company that (you) hoped would lead to a career, or you can be (U.S. Rep.) Maxine Waters. It doesn’t matter. You can’t have enough status, can’t have enough accomplishment and be safe as a Black woman, or be presumed that you will be safe.”
Finley was referring to the backlash after a clip of Waters criticizing President Trump ran on “The O’Reilly Factor,” and its host commented he couldn’t hear her “for the James Brown wig.”
“These are the same people who consistently offended First Lady Michelle Obama,” said Finley, adding that for Black women, “There is no social advocacy for the dignity of her person.”
As soon as she said it, I knew what had been missing in my life: A champion.
As a Black woman, I’ve witnessed and experienced the degradation and verbal assaults, in and outside the workplace. I don’t expect those who would attack Michelle Obama but back O’Reilly or Trump to be my champions. But it hurts when social advocacy for my protection is missing from the places you’d expect to find it: in the workplace, your own community, the family, or at home. Even now, perceptions of Black women are unduly influenced by pop culture rather than the tender feelings the men who would offend have for their own sisters, daughters and mothers. It’s where the term “ignorance is bliss” comes from.
In the workplace, a lot more women suffer through sexual harassment than report it. Burgess’ allegations date back to 2010. She told “The View” she didn’t report it then because she didn’t want to jeopardize opportunities for other temp workers from the agency. That she left a social media trail, proclaiming on her Twitter feed a few years ago “Bill O’Reilly likes black women… let’s leave it at that,” not only boosts her credibility, Bloom said, but shows the abuse affected her for years.
But don’t go lumping Burgess in with Kelly and Carlson. To quote author Bebe Moore Campbell, “Your blues ain’t like mine.” FOX settled last fall with Carlson for $20 million, and Megyn Kelly has gone on to replace Tamron Hall on the “Today” show.
Burgess, who described the abuse last week on “The View,” said she felt “triumphant” over O’Reilly’s firing. She painted a picture of O’Reilly as almost childlike in his persistence and throw-a-rock-then-hide-your-hand tactics. Grunting at her as he walked passed her desk when nobody was around, and looking her up and down. Then came the bigger insult. He walked passed her desk and said “Hey, Hot Chocolate,” Burgess told the panel. “And he didn’t look at me when he said it … not only was it sexual, but I took it as a very plantational remark…such a blatant person with such a high profile, making me feel uncomfortable, but not even acknowledging me.”
Host Whoopi Goldberg said Burgess “may have been the nail in O’Reilly’s coffin.” I say the 60-some advertisers that abandoned “The O’Reilly Factor” time slot brought the blueprint, the wood and a rivet gun; no nail needed. His fate was sealed. As much as some would like to archive O’Reilly’s ouster under “done in by a sister,” sorry, there’s just not enough evidence.
There is evidence, though, to show that a Black woman’s position doesn’t matter when it comes to this type of abuse or disrespect for her person, in general. O’Reilly’s ratings soared following his infamous brouhaha with Waters over the wig comment. Waters hit back but Finley points out that although Waters holds a position of power, she still had to be shaken by the confrontation.
“Maxine Waters had to stop dealing with the nation’s business to deal with one man’s foolishness, one man’s viciousness, in his face,” said Finley. “She had to pivot from the serious work of being our congresswoman. This is what this is going to be about? Really? For black women, high or low, it doesn’t matter. It’s open season.”
Burgess called it “workplace violence.” Last year, the League of Black Women petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice under a lame-duck administration to look into the impact sexualized verbal assaults have on victims and how they escalate over time, potentially becoming physical, to no avail. At its annual symposium May 24–26 in Atlanta, the League plans to hold a session that looks at the economic impact on Black women having to function the way we do in the workplace.
In the absence of a natural norm that is inclusive of all women, Finley offers this advice:
“Don’t assume they have all the power. Waters owned her power. Some say it’s easy for her, but it’s not. Her service and experience is always at horrible risk. She models what we have to do. If you wait for the cavalry to come, it’s not coming.”
If it’s the fear of losing that’s holding you back, “you’re already losing,” she continued. “Understand that the normal society and feminism are not coming to our rescue. Womanism says you stand up for yourself and get these people to back off you, or this will continue without challenge. If you do anything less than this, you are underserving yourself.”
T. Shawn Taylor is a writer and entrepreneur based in Chicago.