#MeToo ignores that women of color navigate sexual assault differently

By Gabrielle Noel

As a victim of sexual violence, and as a woman who exists within a rape culture, the #MeToo movement has been an immense relief. 

Society has (finally) created the space for women to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment and we are examining the collective story they form. We realize there have always been social structures in place to normalize sexual harm, to shame us, to keep us silent. We are no longer satisfied with this old paradigm. And yet, #MeToo fails us the same way the Women’s March did -- it lacks intersectionality. It neglects to center the voices of marginalized women, who are ultimately at the most risk.

There is a unique irony in this. After all, the original “Me Too.” was created in 2006 by a black woman named Tarana Burke. While I’m sure she always envisioned her movement expanding, she started it with women of color in mind, and particularly those of low-wealth who existed in communities where rape crisis centers didn’t. As the conversation she started becomes a national one, championed by white female celebrities, it is a tragedy that the survivors she wanted to highlight have become an afterthought. 

Black and brown women, along with other marginalized identities, need to be centered in our sexual assault advocacy 

This is not to suggest that white cis-hetero perspectives should not participate in #MeToo. However, allowing white women to dominate the narrative means that our activism has been incomplete. It allows us to ignore the very different ways that women of color navigate sexual assault and the additional barriers to justice that we face.

Simply put: we are afforded less protection from violence than white women. A Georgetown Law study even confirmed that we perceive black girls to be less innocent, more adult-like, and less deserving of protection, but I think all ethnic identities suffer from this perception in some way. It stems from a hypersexualization of colored bodies that was born during slavery and colonization. African and Indigenous people wore less clothing and were therefore considered inherently sexual by colonizers. Those bodies were left out of sexual assault and rape justice: when it involved women of color, it simply wasn’t a crime. And it is often glossed over when we discuss our history, described as if slaves consented to sexual relationships with their colonizers, rather than were violently raped en masse.

That violent entitlement to black and brown bodies has persisted across generations. It means that when women of color are the victims of sexual violence, there is little collective outrage. Currently, indigenous women have the highest rate of sexual assault in the country. 56 percent of indigenous women have faced sexual violence and they are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other ethnic group in the United States. Eighty percent of the perpetrators of sexual violence against indigenous women are white men, and yet they escape consequence because of a legislative loophole. Tribal courts lack the jurisdiction to prosecute non-natives for sexual assault and rape -- and when exceptions are made, tribal courts can only sentence them with misdemeanors of under a year.

R. Kelly’s continued success is another example of how apathetic we are to sexual violence when it targets women of color 

His career is distinctly marked by a pattern of ephebophilia in which black girls were the victims, and yet he has maintained his position as a cultural icon. Two years ago, he was releasing Christmas music. His song “Ignition (Remix)” was featured in the most recent sequel of Pitch Perfect, although it is explicitly celebrated for its feminism. He is still collecting his coins.

In 2008, Kelly was acquitted of fourteen counts of felony child pornography possession and soliciting a minor because the jury doubted that his victim was, in fact, a minor. They claimed that her body was “too developed” to be thirteen years old, even though fourteen witness testimonies insisted that she was. And of course, the public responded with the same adultification and hypersexualization that participated in his acquittal. They said her body suggested that she knew what she was doing. They claimed that by participating in the sex, she wasn’t a victim. So, we blame young black girls for the sexual coercion they encounter. We use their bodies to prove that they deserve sexual violence. We fail to get them justice.

As a black woman myself, I observe how Kelly is still celebrated today, particularly within black communities. The protection we award men like him has contributed to a unique culture of silence that #MeToo fails to discuss. Black women, historically, have been tasked with the protection of and advocacy for black men. We saw an example of that protectiveness when Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault and Erykah Badu rushed to remind us not to make snap judgments. Political commentator Angela Rye even admitted that she was initially skeptical when the allegations were fresh. While these black female responses make me cringe because I know how difficult it is for victims to come forward, they are also understandable in the context of race and American history.

Black men have historically been perceived as more sexually violent, and faced (way) harsher punishment than white men  

There are numerous documented cases of white women falsely accusing black men of sexual harassment and assault, from fourteen-year old Emmett Till to the Central Park Five. The late 19th century was characterized by a perceived epidemic of sexual violence at the hands of black men, and racist violence in retaliation. One publication at the time reported: “there is no longer a restraint upon the brute passion of the Negro.”

There were massacres that resulted from false rape allegations against black men, but even the justice system was utilized to enact violence. In one case that began in the early 1930’s, nine black boys were denied proper legal representation and then found guilty by an all-white jury. All but the youngest of them were given the death penalty, which was the most common punishment for black men convicted of raping white women in Alabama at the time. And so, we have a history of black people feeling uncomfortable trusting the carceral state, which has only developed new meaning in the context of modern police brutality and mass incarceration.

Black women are less likely to come forward because the justice system does not support us the same way it supports white women

I think that’s why “believe women” rubs people of color the wrong way. That’s why black women are less likely to come forward. We’ve learned that the justice system doesn’t support us anyway, so what’s the point? We’ve learned to place race before gender in protecting our men because the reaction from the carceral state may be disproportionate to the crime. We are skeptical, even, of the solidarity white women are offering us.

And if a national discussion about sexual assault and harassment is the key to ending it, then centering women of color in the #MeToo movement is the only way it can stop in our communities too. In fact, #MeToo needs to also include LGBT+ survivors and low-wealth survivors, and survivors whose identities exist at the various intersections of marginalization. We cannot continue to leave our most vulnerable identities out of our activism. It for them that “Me too.” began and it is with them, that #MeToo will no longer be necessary.

Image source: Etsy/AnitaSmack

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