The recent White House focus on combating rape on college campuses and criticisms of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative have raised some serious questions about how we are addressing sexual assault as a broader issue affecting the lives of women across class, race, and education boundaries–specifically black women and girls from poor and working class communities.
According to the Black Women’s Blueprint:
Within Black communities, across ethnicity, the number or sexual assaults and those that go unreported is considerably higher. Silence prevails and the invisibility is almost complete within our Black communities and in greater society about Black women’s lives, about the level of victimization, the systematic exclusion of our specific gendered experiences in the broader agenda for civil and human rights. In 2007, approximately 40% of black women report coercive contact of a sexual nature by age 18 (National Black Women’s Health Project). A more recent and on-going survey by Black Women’s Blueprint reveals that number is closer to 60%. For every Black woman that reports a rape, at least 15 do not report (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009).
Moreover, research shows an undeniable, complex and often cyclical connection between violence against women and poverty. Violence can jeopardize women’s economic well-being, often leading to homelessness, unemployment, interrupted education, and other daily stressors and struggles. In turn, the poverty in which many women live increases their risk for being victims of rape/sexual assault The same research reflects, an often neglected dimension is that poverty can make women and children more dependent on others for survival and therefore, less able to control their safety or to consent to sex. Indeed, women with household incomes under $7,500 are twice as likely as the general population to be raped or the victim of other assaults.
The numbers are even more daunting for black trans women and girls.
Campus sexual assault has gained national visibility in the last few years as survivors organized to demand that universities comply with federal Title IX regulations. This federal law requires that colleges and universities take measures to prevent sexual assault and accommodate survivors on their campuses. The awesome work of ED ACT NOW has put a spotlight on the ways in which student survivors of sexual assault are shamed, silenced, and treated as collateral while universities attempt to dodge negative press. The demand for institutions of higher education to take campus rape seriously reverberates because these institutions have come to represent the epitome of prestige, respectability, and safety for Americans. While work against campus sexual assault is much needed in and of itself and serves as a great opportunity for discourse about rape culture more broadly, girls without the backing of one of these institutions–who are more likely to be poor and of color–are not protected.
Meanwhile, necessary critiques of the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative have focused on the economic and educational barriers that black girls face, much like the initiative itself does with black boys. The gender analysis of this one-sided mentorship initiative has been strong, and sexual assault has been mentioned as one of the problems affecting black women and girls. Black people in both support and opposition of the initiative express the need for the black community to unite across gender lines for the eradication of issues plaguing our young people. But we haven’t seen this model when addressing rape and sexual assault.
Which brings me to the question: What does a “hood”-based approach to sexual assault look like? How do we create programs, initiatives, and/or policies that are not based on educational privilege, the inherent inclusion of law enforcement, or putting the onus on the victim? How are we breaking down patriarchy and exploring consent? How are we holding perpetrators accountable and supporting survivors?
This envisioning requires a grasp on how we are currently processing these themes in our daily lives. It has been widely (mis)understood that black communities, especially poor black communities, have adopted a code of silence around intimate partner and sexual violence. But that isn’t completely true. There are frameworks in place to understand consent and a right to bodily autonomy, but they do not exist outside of historical and social contexts. Solutions to sexual violence in the hood have to acknowledge this unique position.
First, we have to take advantage of non-traditional methods of sparking conversation around difficult subjects. It’s true that “reality” television marketed to black audiences and rooted in hip hop culture are not positioned to represent black people holistically or responsibly. But every week, these shows start conversations about consent and unhealthy relationships that we have no other entry point for. The “leak” of Mimi’s sex tape has many women being open about their fear of being recorded without their consent. There were more than a few side-eyes (and petition signatures) directed at Rick Ross for his infamous date-rape lyric. Sometimes, it’s easier to have honest dialogues about consent when we are providing commentary on the seemingly distant lives of our favorite reality stars and artists. Teaching men in the hood not to rape is easier when we can give concrete examples (fictional or real) of what consent does and does not look like. This is called cultural competency and a great way to engage people, especially young people, on issues of sexual assault.
We also need to remember that we live in a society that places little to no value on black bodies of any gender. This is also true of poor bodies. It would be naive to ignore the ways in which this devaluing has been internalized by those who exist in the “hood.” In a culture saturated with “search and seizure” and the constant dissection and consumption of black female bodies, it makes sense that bodily ownership may take a back seat to survival. Eradicating victim-blaming and shaming has always been a priority in combating rape culture, but in the hood it involves the unlearning of some very deep conditioning that suggests that we aren’t worth protecting. So the foundation of any education and advocacy efforts to end sexual assault in the hood would have to involve the re-building of a collective consciousness that every body deserves autonomy and respect.
And finally, there is the accountability piece. As it stands, given the over-policing and criminalization of black people, the relationship between law enforcement and poor black communities is a delicate one. Yet when it comes to sexual violence against black women, the justice system seems to become a much more forgiving place. It is also important to note that rape and sexual assault are terms heavily associated with the law in hood spaces. You need only look at the history of black men being falsely accused and convicted of raping white women to understand why that may be. But given the low conviction rates of sexual assault against black women, there isn’t much reason to think that poor black and brown people are being held accountable for violating the bodies of black women and girls. However, any initiative to address sexual violence cannot rely solely on law enforcement to hold perpetrators accountable. More teachers, parents, counselors, case workers, pastors, managers, and other authority figures need to believe survivors when they share their experiences and provide the support that survivors need. This can be as basic as keeping survivors away from their perpetrators. A community-based approach that is compassionate and just without overrelying on an unfair criminal justice system is necessary.
President Obama hopes My Brother’s Keeper will help young men of color become responsible adult men who work and contribute positively to the economy. But economic status has little to do with how we internalize male dominance, patriarchy, sexism and other pathologies that support rape culture, both in and outside of the hood. I’m envisioning a hood that defines “responsible” as respecting boundaries and consent.
Sesali is hood dreamin’.