Ain't I A Woman? Race, Gender, and the Me Too Movement
White Western normality became constructed on the backs of black deviance, with an imagined black hyper-heterosexual deviance at the heart of the enterprise.
—Patricia Hill Collins
In the winter of 2013 I relocated from the Midwest to the East Coast. I was ecstatic to begin a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship that would allow me to work exclusively on research and writing for my first book. I was at the beginning of my first tenure track job, stressed and trying to balance my career ambitions with the ever present and demanding feeling of loneliness and intellectual isolation that had been a mainstay of my life in a small college town. For my East Coast sojourn I chose to live in an academic residence building designed exclusively for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The first month I spent my time at the research center during the day and in the evening I would gather with new friends at the residence. Five weeks from the date I first moved in, I was raped.
I wasn’t attacked by a stranger while on my way home from church—not that this ever made a difference for black women. The night I was raped I had been partying at one of the many nighttime social events at the residence. The residence had its own full bar and club in the building. This created a great opportunity for individuals to socialize with each other but it also created a false sense of safety. At the end of the night I was near blackout drunk, so much so that I lost my room key and was having difficulty walking on my own. A good girlfriend accompanied me to the security office in hopes that one of the security officers would bring me back to my room, but we were informed that because they were short staffed we would have to take the spare key and go on our own. On our way to my room we encountered a man who also lived at the residence. He was completely sober so when he offered to help my friend get me back to my room none of us thought anything was wrong. He was not a friend, but he also wasn’t a stranger. When we exited the elevator, I fell part way down a flight of stairs and busted my knee open. When we got to my room, my friend unlocked my door and was going to head in with me when the man informed her that he would be happy to help me get into my room on his own so that she could head back to her room on the other side of the building.
When I awoke the next morning I was alone, naked in my room, with a very bloody knee and very hung over. I also had a sick feeling that something was not right. When I discovered the open and empty condom wrapper shoved deep down in my trash bin I knew what happened. Two fragmented minutes was all I could remember; one, my hand pushed up against his sweaty hairy chest in a feeble attempt to push him away from me; two, his voice telling me to turn over. My experience like so many survivors of sexual assault was complicated by my own false sense of responsibility and shame. This shame was born and nurtured by a society that constructs black sexuality as deviant and black women as hypersexual.
This would be crystalized for me when I attempted to go through the system for help. I never wanted to write about my rape, and in fact I have actively avoided sharing this with anyone as much as possible. But in the context of the current Me Too movement with its push for greater recognition and support for victims of sexual assault I believe that my story is a valuable contribution to the continued discussion and justice-seeking currently underway. The Me Too movement went viral in 2017 when white cis straight actress Alyssa Milano retweeted black American activist Tarana Burke’s #metoo. The movement quickly became associated with Hollywood and white cis straight women. This obscured the movement’s original intent to offer a resource and a platform to the most marginalized people who were survivors of sexual assault.
The Me Too movement, first coined in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, a black woman, has largely been co-opted by white cis straight women in Hollywood and even though the celebrity use of the term has created a global platform it has also shifted focus away from some of the most vulnerable populations of people impacted by sexual assault—black women, trans men and women, and especially trans men and women of color. For a variety of intersecting reasons many victims of sexual assault and harassment are hesitant to go to the police. Some of the unique reasons black women don’t report is because they do not want to turn black men over to the police, and in the instances when the perpetrator is not black, they mistrust that the police will take their claims seriously. This mistrust is rooted in the very real and long history of the criminal justice system’s failure to protect black women.
I spent the three weeks after my assault in a haze of destructive behavior. I did not want to share with anyone what happened and I definitely did not want to go to the police. What would I tell them? That I, a full-grown woman, got so drunk that I was in effect incapacitated and then raped? I thought I could shove it deep down and that it would go away. It did not. I had a Ph.D. in Women’s and Gender Studies and I had on numerous occasions counseled students through their experiences with sexual assault, but when it happened to me I was overwhelmed with anger and frustration at what I perceived as my own failings. I was not able to apply emotional generosity to myself. Because my attacker also lived in the residence and in the same part of the building as I did, I ran into him constantly. Every time I felt a mix of anger and fear and at times it was debilitating. About a month after the attack, I finally made the decision to report him. I was still not ready to go to the police and so I decided to tell the internal security division of the residence. I had hoped that he would be kicked out or at the very least relocated to another part of the building and away from me.
None of this happened. Instead I spent an hour in a room with a white female administrator, a male head of the security division, and another male legal representative of the residence. When I detailed what happened I was met with skepticism and several attempts to downplay what happened to me as a “misunderstanding.” When I said that I was blackout drunk and that there was no way I would have, or did, actively consent, I was told that because of my age perhaps he assumed that I knew enough to consent. A majority of what felt to me like an interrogation revolved around what I had been doing leading up to the attack, with searing judgmental questions about why I had gotten so drunk. I was even informed that they had never had any problems with my white male attacker. When I informed them that I had a strong feeling that he had done the same before me and that he would do the same after and as such he should be kicked out of the residence, I was told this would only occur if he were found guilty in a court of law. They questioned my decision to not go to the police as though this was proof that I was lying. The process was awful and ineffective. I was called two weeks later and informed that my attacker had described me as “crazy” and “angry” and explained that he was not aware that having sex with someone who was passed out constituted rape. Even more infuriating was the residence’s decision to give him a warning—that was the totality of his consequence. What struck me to my core was how easy it was for me to be classified as a crazy black woman. My education, my profession, none of this nullified the racist and sexist descriptions of me from my attacker.
As Patricia Hill Collins (2004) has demonstrated, images defining black women as aggressive and sexually primitive come out of slavery. These images pervade our social institutions and media and are “designed to defeminize and demonize” (Collins 2004, 123). This is evidenced by the case of Recy Taylor, a black woman who in 1944 was kidnapped while walking home from church and brutally gang raped by six white men. No charges were ever brought against the men. Historian Danielle McGuire writes, “The rape of black women by white men continued, often unpunished throughout the Jim Crow era” (McGuire 2010, xviii). This violence did not happen in a vacuum—it was nurtured by a society that cast black women as disposable. Respectability did not protect black women during the Civil Rights era and it does not do so now. Although black women endured systemic acts of sexual violence during the long Civil Rights era the public narrative of the movement centered on legislation surrounding access and opportunity. Similarly the Me Too and Times Up movements have marginalized and in some instances completely ignored violence against black women and trans women of color.
The film and entertainment industry plays a huge role in proliferating negative stereotypes about black female sexuality as deviant and hypersexual. The impact of these representations is profoundly dangerous because it desensitizes the larger public to violence against black women. The Me Too movement’s spotlight on the entertainment industry had the potential to highlight the ways it replicates harmful constructs—but the lack of attention to how non white, non straight, non binary individuals experience sexual assault reaffirms sexist and racist ideas that only white woman need protecting. When black women are sexually assaulted they are rarely supported by the very systems that are supposed to protect them. For victims who are both black and poor, and especially for black and poor sex workers, the experience is even worse. The case of convicted serial rapist and murderer Anthony Sowell is a sad example. Sowell, a black man, killed and raped dozens of black women over an eighteen year period. He was convicted of murdering three women but since his conviction he has been “linked to 30 unsolved crimes” (Swenson 2018). One reason Sowell was able to get away with his horrific crimes for so long was because his victims were all poor black women, most of whom were sex workers.
The case of singer R. Kelly is another example of the lack of justice for black women. In 2002 an anonymous source mailed a videotape to music journalist Jim DeRogatis that showed R. Kelly urinating on a girl aged fourteen. DeRogatis turned over this tape to the police and this led to R. Kelly’s first indictment on charges of criminal sexual assault of a minor (Charles 2019). R. Kelly was found not guilty after both he and the girl claimed that they were not the ones in the video. On August 31, 1994, R. Kelly married singer Aaliyah when she was only 15. The marriage was quickly annulled, but the fact remained that the singer married an underage girl. When the six-part Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” premiered on January 3, 2019, it provided a thorough account of his systemic abuse of young black girls and women. It can be argued that had R. Kelly’s victims been white he would have been brought to justice sooner. He has amassed millions as one of the top selling R&B artists of all time and throughout his career he was also a serial predator. His behavior was sanctioned, overlooked, and enabled by a record industry more concerned with bottom line profits than with his abuse. Ardent fan support and the silence of fellow musicians and entertainers have merely increased his star power.
The power of the media industry to propel a movement forward is a great opportunity—with one retweet white actress Alyssa Milano brought #metoo into the world spotlight, but it also obscured the decades long work of Tarana Burke the black activist who started the movement. Moving forward the Me Too movement must recognize that the most marginalized people will continue to be the most vulnerable until larger systems of inequality and oppression are dismantled. Those with the power of celebrity should work to be allies and understand that this sometimes means taking a back seat. Currently there are a number of government policy reversals and executive orders underway that will have a huge impact on sexual assault cases, especially on college and university campuses. As The New Yorker states, “Under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education has rescinded more than twenty Obama era policy guidelines on anti-discrimination laws including ones that protected transgender students”(Gersen 2019). In addition, President Trump has signed an executive order on “free speech” to protect conservative voices on college campuses. Schools found to be in violation of this executive order will lose federal aid. The Title IX revisions combined with Trump’s Free Speech edict could put even more pressure on university administrators to treat sexual assault cases with a degree of skepticism towards the accuser. The Me Too movement has the potential to be a platform for all survivors of sexual assault to come forward and fight for justice. However, the movement’s radical potential to change prevailing and problematic discourse on sexual assault can only happen if it decenters whiteness, heterosexuality, and binary gender constructs.
Charles, Sam. 2019. “The Timeline of the R. Kelly Child Pornography Case.” Chicago Sun Times, January 7, 2019. https://chicago.suntimes.com/news/r-kelly-child-pornography-case-timeline/.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2004. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism. New York: Routledge.
Gersen, Jeannie Suk. 2019. “Assessing Betsy Devos’s Proposed Rules on Title IX and Sexual Assault.” The New Yorker, February 1, 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/assessing-betsy-devos-proposed-rules-on-title-ix-and-sexual-assault.
McGuire, Danielle L. 2010. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance a New History of the Civil Rights Movement, From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Random House.
Swenson, Kyle. 2018. “He Claims He’s America’s Deadliest Serial Killer with 90 Victims. Police Believe Him.” The Washington Post. November 20, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/11/20/he-claims-hes-americas-deadliest-serial-killer-with-victims-police-believe-him/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a6e3f1186ef5.