My Experience at Charlie Rose Went Beyond Sexism (Esquire Magazine)
This article was originally published in Esquire Magazine on Dec. 4th, 2017 at: http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a13978884/charlie-rose-sexual-harassment-accuser-story/
In 1997, I joined the production team of Charlie Rose’s popular interview show. I was the only black journalist on staff. At the time, there was little to no recognition of what it meant to be black and female in a workplace dominated by white men. Twenty years later, in this watershed moment of examination and reckoning as one powerful white man after another is disgraced following allegations of sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to assault, we’re still not talking about the ramifications for black women—or the broader connection to structural racism in America.
Charlie Rose’s show, a news program celebrating the art of the conversation, seemed like a perfect fit for me. I wasn’t a classically trained journalist or broadcast producer, but at 27 years old I’d published three interview-based books about race in America with a major publishing house. At Hampshire College, the private liberal arts school known for its alternative curriculum, I had found my way to the Studs Terkel model of journalism: conversations as a way to tell stories.
Six months into my position at Charlie Rose, Charlie promoted me from writer to producer. The environment, though, felt increasingly toxic and degrading. Nearly everyone on staff was publicly berated almost once a week, taking us to task on our journalism skills or sensibility about what does and doesn’t make a good show. We witnessed his lecherous behavior toward female staff and guests. Charlie openly objectified the women on the show, talked about their sex appeal with male guests, and derided more than one female staffer about who she was sleeping with in front of the entire staff.
His language around race felt consistently coded. Charlie demanded I book the black guests he wanted but previously had been unable to get—black guests of a perceived level of respectability and intelligence (Sidney Poitier)—while dismissing the black guests I pitched, (Vivica Fox, for example). He accused me of pushing my own agenda several times, memorably when I pitched a panel on hip-hop. (I did not hear my white colleagues receive criticism that they were pushing any sort of agenda when they pitched potential guests and segments.)
If I pushed back on anything race-related, I was silenced or punished. In one particular interaction, Charlie asked me to produce a panel on the Steven Spielberg film, Amistad. He wanted Spielberg and the stars of the film to talk about the movie in a straightforward way, which I found problematic and contrived. Instead, I suggested a different approach: to discuss the exploitation of slave history, black bodies, and black culture through a white lens—and whether that can be done successfully, or at all. The opposing idea made Charlie so irate that he cancelled the whole segment and didn’t assign me anything else for days.
In the nearly two years I worked for the show, a mere fraction of the guests were black—more than one of whom told me in confidence after their appearance that they’d found Charlie’s tone condescending and dismissive. This was the infrastructure of the show: All the valuable, sought-after guests were white—a common occurrence across media platforms. And while many of us on staff were subject to Charlie’s unsolicited shoulder massages and physical intimidation, as he towered above us at a height over six feet tall, the women Charlie preferred and preyed upon—at least that I witnessed—were white. It was an environment that all but erased me, while simultaneously exploiting me as a black woman.
I felt like an exotic anomaly he could move around the chessboard at his whim—and I was supposed be grateful for it.
This, of course, is how black women have felt for centuries in all manner of industry, but in newsrooms and media companies in particular. These are micro-fiefdoms where white men make the decisions, shape the narrative, and double down on their delusions of unassailability. At the core of these delusions is the self-indulged freedom to pursue the epitome of envy. For white men, that means not just being the richest, most powerful person in the room—but also preying upon and ultimately capturing the most desirable woman in the room, too.
In America, the most desirable woman in the room—the most sacred, coveted, enshrined woman—has always been the white woman. As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I know that we women of color are victims as much, if not more, than white women; we are also less likely to come forward with our stories of abuse because there’s so much more at stake. The most famous example is Anita Hill, who put sexual harassment in the workplace on the map—but whose reputation suffered while her perpetrator, Clarence Thomas, was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice. Even as Thomas is black, his use of the term “high-tech lynching” fit squarely into the white supremacist narrative, and he knew it.
We know sexual harassment and assault is about power, not desire. Yet in Charlie Rose’s statement, he said that he felt he was “pursuing shared feelings” with his female colleagues who accused him of harassment. These lines are easily crossed; one man’s definition of desire is too often conflated with his own abuse of his power.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting it would have been preferable for Charlie to have preyed upon me, too—but rather, his sexualization of white women was a manifestation of gendered power dynamics in the same way that his not sexualizing me was an expression of racialized power dynamics.
Meanwhile, powerful white men, however outfacing liberal or progressive they may appear, are the architects of structural racism and white supremacy in America. We are stunned when these men are beloved figures in popular culture, like Charlie, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, and Kevin Spacey; we are horrified when they are politicians such as Roy Moore and, well, the President of the United States. But they are all cut from the same cloth of foundational white, male privilege. I am not the first black woman to point this out; iconic feminist bell hooks and scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, among others, have written and talked about white male patriarchy and intersectional feminism for decades. But we have to do a better job moving the conversation outside of academic silos.
Powerful white men, however outfacing liberal or progressive they may appear, are the architects of structural racism and white supremacy in America.
I have been asked why I didn’t just leave the show—which is emblematic of the still and enduring disconnect of what it means for black women in predominantly white spaces who have the audacity to want to do more than survive. I wanted to succeed, to be good at my work. I was a young, ambitious black woman who landed an opportunity at was considered a venerable New York City institution. Sadly, my white, male boss's constant denigration and dismissal of my ability to adequately produce stories about black culture echoes the denigration and dismissal by another white man—also an alleged sexual predator. And he’s the one leading the country.
Let's not allow this moment of reckoning to pass. When we are listening to the stories of predominantly white women through the media, we must address the deeply rooted relationship between race and gender in the white supremacist framework of this country.
Esquire.com reached out to Charlie Rose for comment via his attorney and did not receive a response