Black Girls Matter: On Sexual Assualt and Intersectionality

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by Briana Wood

Recently, we saw a long deserved victory for community organizers, survivors, and justice in general: sexual assault charges were brought against singer and known abuser Robert Kelly, better known by his stage name, R. Kelly. After decades of abusing Black girls, it appears that we are finally beginning to see the repercussions; Kelly was dropped from his record label earlier this year in light of Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly documentary. However, this action was too long overdue. It comes after years of Kelly preying on young Black girls, a failed trial, and countless horrifying stories from Black women who suffered abuse at his hands. Throughout this, he continued to receive support from his team, fans, and the larger public.

This points to a greater issue of the general disregard for Black girls in discussions of sexual assault; their stories are largely ignored both within and outside the Black community. White, affluent narratives of sexual harassment often take up most of the space in these discussions, silencing low-income women and women of color. This was seen in the #MeToo movement, despite its founder being Tarana Burke, a Black woman. In contrast, campaigns like #MuteRKelly meant to raise awareness about the issues Black women and girls face have taken immense work on the part of Black community organizers to obtain the same national attention.

Additionally, as is seen in many other communities, apologist sentiments concerning accused harassers manifest in the Black community in many ways. Too often, survivors and those that support them are accused of ‘tearing down’ Black figures, especially men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Black girls who are harassed are seen as “fast” and promiscuous, contributing to a larger victim-blaming culture. This matrix of social pressures not only encourages Black girls to remain silent due to fears of being ostracized or not believed, it also effectively allows their stories to be ignored.

Black girls deserve better than the current ways in which we address assault in their communities. A recent Broadly report detailed the systematic issues plaguing NYC school processes of reporting sexual assault, processes that have led to Black girls being unjustly expelled. We need to commit to better serving them by listening to their stories and having structures in place that allow them to safely and effectively report sexual assault. With that, we also need to destroy victim-blaming narratives and stop protecting abusers.

Victim blaming of Black girls goes back hundreds of years to stereotypes deployed against enslaved Black women that deemed them inherently sexual and therefore justified the rampant sexual harassment they experienced. These manifest today in how Black girls are extremely hypersexualized from youth, in a way that both makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment and blamed for it. In the same vein, the protection of abusers often takes priority over the safety of Black girls, especially if the abuser is viewed as culturally significant. This is another disservice to Black girls and their stories.

Not only must we recognize Black survivors of sexual assault, we need to approach the issue with a lens of intersectionality. Intersectionality, coined by Black feminist and Columbia Law professor Kimberle Crenshaw, is a way of examining issues that takes into account the interlocking nature of identity and types of oppression, and it especially applies to Black women who live in the intersection of both anti-Black racism and sexism. When dealing with issues concerning Black girls, it is important to keep this unique identity in mind as it affects so many areas of life.

This means understanding the hypersexualization of Black girls and how they are uniquely vulnerable to sexual harassment. It means understanding the intricacies of gendered racism and how it can manifest in dealings with law enforcement and the justice system. It means developing new frameworks of sexual assault reporting that make it easier for low-income women of color, and including Black trans women who experience high rates of assault in the conversation.

As we close Black History Month, it is not only important to celebrate our past accomplishments and milestones, we must also work to lay the groundwork for a better future. A world where Black girls continue to be disbelieved, disregarded, and ignored regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment is not the legacy we want to leave. Let’s do better.

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