#metoo: Sexual Violence, Race, and Black Girls Matter
LaShawnda Lindsay-Dennis, Linda M. Williams, and Judith Jackson-Pomeroy
Founded in 2006, the “Me Too” movement was ignited to support survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls, and other young women of color from economically marginalized communities. This movement supports survivors by helping them to find pathways to healing. Empirical data documents the numerous challenges that Black girls and young women face growing up in distressed neighborhoods in the context of intersecting socio-political obstacles (Jones 2010; Morris 2012; Miller 2008). These include macro and micro level phenomena such as racism, sexism, economic deprivation, educational inequalities, and community, interpersonal and familial violence including immediate threats to their physical safety. The current paper seeks to identify specific social and cultural factors that shape how Black girls and women cope with sexual violence and explore how these factors may influence their pathways to healing. This paper also discusses how social media hashtags such as #metoo affect advocacy and awareness of the nuances of Black female survivors’ lives.
National reports show that Black girls and young women are more likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon on school property and subjected to forced sexual intercourse and dating violence than their white counterparts (Jones-Deweever 2009). Black girls and young women are more likely than their non-Black and male counterparts to be physically assaulted, sexually victimized, raped, and/or murdered by intimate partners (Morris 2012). There is some evidence that Black women are less likely to report these violations to law enforcement (Greenberg and Ruback 1992) or to “cooperate” with the prosecution of their perpetrators (Williams 2017).
Several studies find a link between the racial/ethnic characteristics of the girls and women who have been raped or sexually assaulted and whether a report to the police will result in an arrest or prosecution (Frohmann 1997; Stacey 2017; Williams 1986). Stacey (2017) found that white women who reported sexual assault had slightly lower rates of attrition (that is, the number of cases that “drop out” of each stage of the criminal justice system) than Black women did. Recently Morabito, Williams, and Pattavina (2019) found that when Black women report rape to the police, an arrest of the alleged perpetrator is more likely. Further analysis, however, suggests that this arrest response may be associated with weapon use, jurisdictional differences, or the race of the alleged perpetrator as opposed to demonstrating a commitment to safety and justice for Black girls and women (Morabito, Williams, and Pattavina 2019).
Black girls and women’s engagement with the U.S. criminal justice system (CJS) is fraught with inequalities. These interactions are also impacted by zero-tolerance school policies and the use of law enforcement officers to address school safety issues (Morris 2012; Crenshaw, Ocen, and Nanda 2015). Compelling images of Black girls and young women who are victimized and criminalized in educational settings have been widely disseminated on social media. Footage has shown Black girls as young as 5 years old having tantrums in the classroom and young women of diverse ages questioning authority—and being handcuffed, arrested, and detained for displaying “inappropriate behavior” or exercising their rights as citizens. Over the past 20 years, both the school suspension and juvenile confinement rates have increased for Black girls. Black girls represent at least 36% of girls in residential confinement and are 5.3 times more likely than girls from any other racial group to be suspended from school (Morris 2012).
Social Media and Awareness
Black girls and young women are also exposed to social injustice, racial trauma, and sexual violence through social media. Over the past five years, the world has witnessed on social media, often in real time, the violation, and often death of Black youth and young adults in public and private spaces. These spectacles of violence have led to the creation of Black Lives Matter (BLM), an activist movement that serves as a “call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society” and brings “validity to Black life” (Chatelain and Asoka 2015). While this movement has confronted some of the issues that place Black girls and young women at risk for victimization in police custody, limited attention has been given to other forms of victimization, especially types that lead to criminalization, such as commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking (Brown and Gourdine 2007).
Social media has revealed the complex and intersecting roles of victimization and criminalization in the lives of Black girls and young women. For example, social media platforms have helped bring attention to the case of Cyntoia Brown, a runaway Black female teen who was forced into sex trafficking by her older male partner. Despite her history of trauma and abuse—a history that led her to run away from home and end up with an abusive male partner/pimp—Brown was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man who paid her for sex. On social media, BLM activists along with celebrities and others trended the hashtag #Clemency4CyntoiaBrown about Brown’s case, drawing attention to sex-trafficking, unfair sentencing and the lack of inclusion of Brown’s herstory of rape and molestation in her trial. Social media activists requested direct calls be made to Tennessee's Governor Halsam who had the power and authority to grant Brown clemency. As a result, clemency has been granted and Brown is scheduled to be released from prison on August 7, 2019. However, supporters of the #metoo movement were virtually silent on Brown’s case, possibly due to how she handled her sexual violence and trauma. In order to help support Black girls and young women who are forced into sexual trafficking, the #metoo movement can help bring more attention to the challenges that they face by including them into the dialogue about sexual violence.
Culturally Situated Responses to Sexual Trauma
We situate our analysis of #metoo and the experiences of Black girls and women within a structural, cultural and historical context which shows that victimization does not occur in a vacuum (Jones 2010; Morris 2012; Miller 2008; Unnever and Gabbidon 2011). Research suggests that most U.S. citizens, regardless of race, feel that the criminal justice system in the US is biased against Black people (Unnever and Gabbidon 2011). According to the Pew Research Center (2013), 70% of Black Americans feel that members of their racial group are treated unfairly by the CJS. Socio-historical experiences of racism, sexism, and oppression affect how Black girls and women view the CJS and influence their decisions to report sexual assault. Evidence suggests that many Black girls and young women have a sense of mistrust toward law enforcement, a heightened sense of legal cynicism, and an overall negative outlook on the criminal justice system as it operates in the US (Brown and Gourdine 2007; Hurst 2007; Hurst, McDermott, and Thomas 2005; Miller 2008). Socialization in Black families includes preparing youth to survive and sometimes thrive in a society stratified by race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, and sexuality (Boykin and Ellison 1995; Brown and Krishnakimar 2007).
Since the intersections of race and gender socialization form the nexus of our understanding of #metoo, we might understand Black girls socialization regarding their roles as kin-keepers, developing racial pride, being strong and coping with their double minority status (Chavous and Cogburn 2007; Lindsay-Dennis 2009; Jones and Shorter-Gooden 2003) as an effort to “armor” Black girls against race and gender discrimination (Bell and Nkomo,1996).
Armoring is a form of socialization whereby a girl child acquires the cultural attitudes, preferences and socially legitimate behaviors for two cultural contexts. [As Rodgers (1991) notes], armoring is also a “political strategy for self-protection” whereby a girl “develops a psychological resistance to defy racism and sexism.” (quoted in Bell and Nkomo 1996, 285-6)
The goal of the armoring process is to help Black girls make sense of their realities and prepare them to fulfill three psychosocial developmental tasks: (1) develop coherent meanings from triadic socialization experiences (mainstream, Black, and minority); (2) developing bicultural competence (i.e., shifting—the wide array of ways that Black girls and women react to and respond to racial and gender bias) while sustaining connection to family/fictive kin; (3) employing strategies of resistance for self-liberation to counteract racial victimization and gender devaluation (Stevens 1997).
Black women are often socialized to be strong, a highly valued quality that signifies an ability to withstand adverse situations caused by remnants of slavery, segregation, and persistent racial and gender discrimination (Banks-Wallace and Parks 2001; Beauboeuf-Lafantat 2005; Bell and Nkomo, 1998). Qualities associated with strength include self-reliance, independence, and caretaking (Bell and Nkomo 1998; Collins 2000; Hill 2002; Jones and Shorter-Gooden 2003; Ladner 1971). Learning to be strong may mean that one must also withhold and suppress emotions. Suppressing emotions has many psychological, educational, and social costs for some Black girls (Lindsay-Dennis and Cummings 2014). Many urban Black girls experience victimization with little social and emotional support. In order to manage and conceal their distress, these Black girls may develop a façade of strength and toughness, which is often viewed as aggressive and uncooperative by law enforcement (Morris 2012). This is in accord with the findings of Williams et al. (2017), who note that Black women and teens reporting sexual assault are more likely to be perceived as non-cooperative with the police and prosecutors.
How do these differential socialization experiences relate to Black girls and young women’s victimization and survival? While Unnever and Gabbidon (2011) propose that the experiences of Black girls and young women (as differentiated from the experiences of boys and young men) result in better coping mechanisms and more cultural tools to navigate the criminal justice system, many Black girls and young women lack the social and cultural capital (i.e. traditional feminine behaviors and emotional responses) to be seen and treated as victims of violent crimes rather than non-compliant offenders (Jones 2010). Black girls who display “defiant” or “bad” attitudes are often judged without taking into account their victimization histories (Pugh-Lily, Neville and Poulin 2001; Harris 1999). When Black women and girls delay or never report experiences of sexual violence to the authorities, many are aware of the harsh ways in which the criminal justice system will respond to Black male suspects and perpetrators. Black male perpetrators often receive more punitive sentences than white male perpetrators for similar crimes. In addition, they may be cognizant that, for a case to move forward, they must be perceived to be the “ideal victim of sexual assault”—someone who fits the stereotype of hegemonic femininity (Frohman 1997).
To understand the decision making process that Black girls and women use to negotiate the nuances of their lives and come forward with a report of sexual assault in the #metoo era requires a more comprehensive understanding of their socio-cultural experiences. We must fully consider and understand the process of racializing, gendering, or othering that they encounter. We must respect their decision to report or not report. Finally, we must create safe spaces that encourage Black women and girls to explain, in their own voices, their experience of sexual assault. These spaces should welcome the stories of Black girls and women from diverse economic and social backgrounds who, as a consequence of structural conditions and historical experience, may deal with their trauma in socially and culturally unacceptable ways.
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