Former BET CEO Debra Lee released her memoir, “I Am Debra Lee,” this week and everyone is talking about the long-term affair she had with her past boss, BET founder, Robert L. Johnson.
During an interview with Robyn Roberts on “Good Morning America,” Lee explained why she included the affair in the book.
"I wanted to tell that story because power dynamics are so important in a relationship, especially if you’re having a relationship with someone you work for. We all know the potential pitfalls," she said.
In an interview with “The Washington Post,” Lee detailed what happened once she decided the relationship had to end. “I was told that many times. It’s like, OK, if you’re going to break up with me, let’s get on the phone and tell people you are leaving right now. And as a working mother, how does one recover from something like that? How does one say, ‘The man I worked for, for 20 years, won’t give me a recommendation and fired me because we were in a relationship and now it’s over.’”
Responses to the news are varied but a lot of it skews negatively. “She knew what it was” … “She slept her way to the top” … “She knew he was married and is playing the victim,” and so on can be found in replies on Twitter. Much of this outrage is driven by misogyny and misogynoir, but what many are failing to do is engage critical thinking about power dynamics in the workplace. Lee’s detractors forget—or don’t care—when girls and young women enter the workforce, they experience sexual harassment and must learn to navigate power dynamics.
When I was a 16-year-old high school student, I started my first real job at a popular fast-food chain. Besides the stress that came along with working in fast food, what I remember beyond that is it was the first time I experienced sexual harassment.
One of the managers was a 21-year-old man. I remember thinking he was cute, but other than that, he was just another young person working for crappy wages just like the rest of us. My boss was young and flirty with most of us girls, so I didn’t see the harm in being flirtatious too. But as time passed, the flirtation escalated. I remember him brushing up against me when he’d have to squeeze by me, placing his hands on my hips, but I also remember the time he groped me. Soon after that, I left to go work at the local movie theater, but hearing about Lee’s experience reminded me of that job.
Now of course, Lee was at a vastly different point in her career than a teenager at her first job, but by sharing her story and feelings about what happened, she is giving women and girls a chance to think about their own situations and perhaps avoid certain mistakes.
Lee was eventually able to end the relationship and went on to lead the network for 13 years. Everything worked out for her in the end, and she remains generous in her conversations about Johnson, despite the harassment she faced.
“I worked for Bob Johnson for 10 years before we had a personal, romantic relationship. He was a mentor and he pushed me, and he was responsible for a lot of my success,” she said. “At times, it felt consensual, because we were out in public, but after #MeToo and Time's Up, I sort of reevaluated the whole thing and said, ‘Was this really my choice?’ There's other kinds of harassment. It's not all a man coming to the door in a robe.”