Black, Brown, low-wage are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment

It’s not just about White women or celebrities

(Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash)

Sexual harassment allegations in recent weeks have forced the resignations of two Minnesota State legislators, and a Minnesota U.S. Senator is facing an ethics investigation.

Paula Brantner, a senior advisor at Workplace Fairness, told that sexual harassment often can be defined in one of two ways:

  • Quid pro quo — a person with authority says they can ensure a decision regarding the person’s job if they meet a sexual demand: For example, a male supervisor says he will help the female employee get a promotion if they go out on a date.
  • Hostile work environment — this can be unwanted and can be either severe or pervasive, and could turn into sexual assault, says Brantner.

The National Woman’s Law Center says that sexual harassment doesn’t have to be sexual in nature, but just has to be related to a person’s sex in some way. Either gender can be sexually harassed.

Proving sexual harassment is hard, states Caroline Palmer, the public and legal affairs manager for Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA). During a November 30 brown bag event at University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, she discussed what constitutes sexual harassment, how to address it, and what can be done to improve current policies.

“Where do you report something that happened to you? It is not easy to do. It takes a lot of effort on the part of the victim in order to come forward. The burden [of proof] is very high,” Palmer said.

It’s even harder for Blacks and other women of color, she noted, citing several key points such as they don’t have the same support system as White women, the historical bias against women of color, the “awful stereotypes,” and what happened to Anita Hill.

Hill became nationally known in 1991 after she testified in Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings that the now-U.S. Supreme Court justice sexually harassed her when he was her boss at two federal agencies.

Anita Hill, attorney and academic speaks out in an interview on sexual harassment in the workplace on April 25, 2017 (Photo: MSNBC/MGNOnline)

“She suffered greatly for coming forward against Clarence Thomas,” Palmer recalled. “It was an awful sight to see what she was put through. That was two decades ago, and I don’t know if it [took place] the same way today if anything changed.”

Immigrants documented or undocumented also are wary of reporting sexual harassment, said Palmer. “If you report [it], you might get deported. Your family members might get deported.  They are held hostage on their job…and taken advantage of.” This is the same for low-wage workers and those working in hospitality and janitorial positions — more than one in 10 workers report that they have been harassed on the job, Palmer stressed.

Caroline Palmer (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Palmer admitted that the two Minnesota state legislators’ resignations were a “stunner” because she and MNCASA officials have worked with them on sexual harassment and sexual assault issues: “We knew them quite well,” she said. “Everybody is scratching their heads on what are we going to do next.”

“It is extremely serious,” said State Senator Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis) of these resignations in a phone interview last week. He believes that rewriting and reviewing current policies might be required. “We are looking at figuring out a way for people who have been victims of [sexual harassment] or think they have been victims of it to find a confidential way they can report it, be investigated, and dealt with it if someone has been harassed.”

The MSR talked with a Black woman corporate executive last week who spoke on the condition that her name and former employer wouldn’t be identified. “The CEO sexually harassed me for more than three years,” she said. “When he stopped sexually harassing me, he began attacking me publicly. He once withheld a pay increase although he rated my job performance high/above average, meriting a salary increase, until I spoke to the chairman of the board about it,” stated the woman. Going to human resources often isn’t the answer, she added, because they work for the company.

She watched with keen interest the latest sexual harassment allegations against elected officials, entertainers, entertainment moguls and others. “There is no question that celebrity [status] drove these stories. Now sexual harassment is ‘news’ because women of means in some cases are speaking out against their alleged perpetrators who are of means.

“It begs the question, however, how about the hundreds of thousands of women who have lost their careers, not just their jobs, because of the power of men in the workplace, women who often have no celebrity,” our executive source continued.

Sexual harassment “is the highest form of bullying in the workplace among men and women,” she said. “It is especially horrific if you have to live with it, live on it. Many corporations and business organizations have used profits and taxpayer dollars to save the careers of high profile men for decades by paying off the accusers or fighting the accusations in court, costing thousands in legal fees, sometimes without any kind of investigation.

“This has resulted in allowing the men to continue in their often very lucrative high-paying jobs while the accusers are sometimes left with no career, or in a lower paying job,” she said.  “Many of these women are left with emotional scars and distress, sometimes negative financial impact. Then there’s the lasting shame that often comes with having been rendered powerless.”

Palmer agreed: “It’s hard to prove. You need a lot of money and time and support. It may end up you losing the job.”

Palmer afterwards told the MSR, “I think it takes a toll on Black women. Some people call [her] the angry Black woman, which is so unfair. But that might be another reason why someone is [cautious] about coming forward. They find it hard to be taken seriously because of all the stereotypes.”

With sexual harassment seemingly in the headlines every day, “I think we’re close” to reaching a fatigue level, said Palmer. “We somehow have to get over that.”


To report sexual harassment, go to, or call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hotline, 1-800-669-4000; the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau at 1-800-827-5335 or the National Women’s Law Center at 1-202-588-5180.

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