Following the shocking events that exposed former Hollywood powerhouse Harvey Weinstein's dark history of repeated sexual harassment and assault, the mainstream #MeToo movement was birthed, co-opted from a call to action first launched by Black activist Tarana Burke in 2006. But long before the voices of A-listers like Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan called for women to come forward with their stories, Black women were quietly supporting each other within some of the most predatory spaces of our community. This nuanced sisterhood and its complicated repercussions are depicted in HBO Max's new documentary On the Record, now available for streaming. The project follows the chilling sexual harassment and assault allegations made against music icon Russell Simmons, starting with the testimony of Drew Dixon.
Dixon got her start working in the music industry after landing a job at Def Jam Recordings. As the years passed, she moved up in the ranks at the record label. Her sharp eye for talent and ear for sound brought in the talents of future heavy hitters like Tupac Shakur, Mary J. Blige, and Dr. Dre, and Dixon soon became a notable music executive at the company. However, even as a key influencer within the hip hop world, Dixon was walking on eggshells daily because of the label's normalized culture of toxic masculinity.
In On the Record, Dixon details the alleged recurring instances of sexual abuse at Def Jam at the hands of Simmons. First, she says, came the innuendo-laced conversations, which quickly became outright discussions of his desire to sleep with her. Then Simmons would get physical, pulling Dixon into his lap, trying to kiss her, and even barging into her office to flash his genitals. Early encounters were uncomfortable, Dixon clarified in the documentary, but never violent; while she felt personally violated by the behavior, she didn't believe that her boss would do anything worse.
"I thought that he was this tragic, ADD puppy dog that I had to keep retraining, that he wasn't violent." she explained in the film. "I guess I thought it was part of the culture and that I just needed to manage around it."
But according to her, Simmons didn't stop. In 1995, Dixon says that she was lured to his home under the false premise of sharing a demo. When she entered the bedroom, the music mogul allegedly forced himself upon her and proceeded to rape her. Feeling powerless, Dixon quietly continued working at the record label, believing that she could push the trauma of her attack. But the PTSD of having to work under her abuser proved too much, and she left the company shortly after. It took Dixon decades to gather the resolve to finally share her story; she says she just didn't want to be responsible for the downfall of a Black man.
Dixon's plight — and that of many of the other Black women who shared their stories in On the Record — is a clear example of the ramifications of triple consciousness. Originally coined as "double consciousness" by sociologist and civil rights icon W.E.B. DuBois in an 1897 article for what is now The Atlantic (and later expanded upon in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk), the terminology refers to the innate otherness that Black people feel while navigating American society.
"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others," wrote DuBois of the ever-relevant phenomenon. "One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro...he simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face."
Triple consciousness builds on that notion but adds a third important element of identity that DuBois failed to recognize (willingly or otherwise) in the 19th century: gender. In a world where sexism and anti-Blackness are almost always in step with one another, Black women face an especially harsh reality. Misogynoir, a term created in 2008 by queer Black activist scholar Moya Bailey to describe the intersectional terrors of misogny and racism, manifests in a number of disturbing ways: the glaring wage gap, the staggeringly high mortality rates of pregnant Black women, the limited roles for Black actresses in Hollywood even in 2020.
But it also shows up as the rape culture that allows for Black women and girls to be abused — and a tendency to downplay or even ignore that violence for the sake of "protecting the race."
“We were all known as nurturers in the community from where I grew up in the Bronx,” said Sheri Sher, a woman who claimed to have been assaulted by Simmons, in conversation with Fortune. “Women were known as the nurturers, and so for decades of seeing the black man being beat down, arrested for nothing, and through that whole phase of living in the Bronx, of what I witnessed, to come out and [say] you got assaulted…it was more like a ‘How dare you do this to us? We already being beat down.’”
“As a feminist, I don’t subscribe to the idea that I need to protect those who harm us. I believe they need to be called out,” added Sil Lai Abrams, a fellow survivor of Simmons's alleged abuse. “On the flip side, I’m fiercely protective of my people and cognizant of the way in which we are perceived, and not wanting to…add to that by coming forward.”
Black men aren't asked to put their Blackness before their masculinity; they are recognized as men who are Black. But the same is rarely expected for Black women, who are often pressured to prioritize our race over our gender. It's normal for the Black community to rally against white supremacy, uniting to form a rallying cry for justice for victims of blatant racism like Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Unfortunately, that same energy isn't always reciprocated when Black women are the ones being brutalized, especially when the perpetrators of said violence are Black men.
When a Black woman accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, she was publicly humiliated. When Black women made allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby, they were accused of trying to destroy Black America's dad right when he was rumored to be taking over NBC. When Black women and girls said that R. Kelly had kept them away from their families and forced them into vile sexual situations, they were called "gold diggers" looking for a come-up on the back of a Black legend. Cosby is currently serving a prison sentence for his crimes, and Kelly is awaiting trial in a Chicago jail (thanks to the Surviving R. Kelly documentaries), but Thomas is currently seated on the highest court in the land.
So naturally, when the #MeToo movement really took off, many Black women felt detached from its purpose, having spent years suffering in silence in order to protect the culture. But it was actually the initiative's public war against Weinstein and other accused men in Hollywood that was the catalyst for Dixon to go on record about her experience with Simmons. And as she shared her story, other women felt empowered to do the same; more than a dozen women came forward detailing their own harrowing interactions with the music mogul.
Simmons has vehemently denied the allegations and reportedly even tried to influence Oprah Winfrey out of involvement with On the Record (she ultimately bowed out of the project due to "concerns with the film" but made it clear that she believes the women who shared their stories), but that's not stopping his accusers from moving forward. The documentary, created by filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, is the women's opportunity to take back control of the narrative — and over their lives.
"If you're a rape survivor, you are the crime scene," said Dixon near the documentary's conclusion. "The crime is perpetrated and re-perpetrated every day that you carry it with you...and until I said it out loud and lived to tell the tale, I couldn't fully start to put the pieces back together. I would have been shattered forever if this #MeToo moment hadn't happened. It saved my life."
On the Record is now available for streaming on HBO Max.