With the social unrest that erupted last summer sparked by the death of George Floyd, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, many individuals and companies united in a collective call for change. More media coverage was given to police reform, the mass incarceration of Black men, the disparities in healthcare for Black people and people of color, the existence of the wealth gap, and the lack of representation in leadership.
Less attention has been paid to the pervasive issue of Black survivors of sexual trauma, and how they are less likely to be believed and to report the crimes. One in five Black women are rape survivors. For every 15 Black women who are victims of sexual violence, only one reports her assault. This is in large part tied to stereotypes, biases and systemic racism, just as the above issues are.
As Black History Month comes to a close, ‘me too.’ International, the National Women’s Law Center, and TIME’S UP Foundation launched We, As Ourselves, a campaign that centers the voices and experiences of Black survivors and aims to create the cultural conditions for Black survivors to be heard and supported.
There is a history of sexual violence against Black people in this country, rooting back to the existence of slavery, when raping Black people was not considered a crime. After emancipation, Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial segregation, perpetuated stereotypes of Black people as not being equal to white people, with crimes of sexual assault against Black people going largely unpunished. Recy Taylor’s story is just one example of this: She was a Black woman walking home from church in 1944 when she was abducted and raped by six white men. She reported the assault, and, despite the overwhelming evidence, her case was dismissed in mere minutes by an all-white, all-male jury.
Still today, the voices of Black survivors of sexual violence are less likely to be heard. One study found that prosecutors filed charges in 75% of the cases in which a white woman was attacked, but when the victim was a Black woman, prosecutors filed charges just 34% of the time.
“[Black sexual assault survivors’] stories are more likely to be dismissed, and they haven't seen the same level of treatment, energy and activism—even in a period where there has been a really focused conversation on survivors,” says Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “Some of that is because of a really long history of race and gender stereotypes that ground our idea about who a survivor is.”
The #MeToo movement sparked a societal reckoning as thousands of women’s voices about the sexual violence they’d experienced at the hands of powerful men put a spotlight on gender equities and power dynamics. No longer silent, this collective of voices resulted in real-world consequences that spread around the world, with heads of companies being fired and public figures being held accountable. A big focus was on high-profile men in Hollywood and the mostly-white female celebrities who told their stories.
“Tarana Burke's me too. movement and framework was really grounded in her experience working with Black survivors, but over the last couple of years we’ve heard some Black survivors say, ‘I don't see myself in that,’ or ‘I worry this movement is not for me,’” says Goss Graves. “Similarly, in an uprising conversation around racial injustice that is probably the most vibrant one I've seen in my lifetime, there wasn't a lot of room around conversations about sexual violence. So how do we understand, in the words of Audre Lorde, that there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not lead single lives.”
Not only may Black sexual assault survivors be less likely to be believed, the intersection of racial and gender stereotypes impacts the treatment they receive in our systems of criminal justice, our workplaces and the media. Adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, according to a study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. There have been instances of Black survivors who have been incarcerated for defending themselves. Black survivors who weigh their emotional and physical safety against their desire for justice may see the risk of going forward as being too high, resulting in many survivors’ stories remaining untold.
“Part of the challenge that we have is our systems for addressing sexual violence. We do not treat Black survivors with dignity,” says Goss Graves.
How can we overcome systemic racism so that survivors are witnessed and treated with dignity? We can not pledge “with liberty and justice for all” when only some voices are heard. Half of all Black transgender women are survivors of sexual violence and more than half of Native American women will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. Sexual violence has always been about power; who has it and who doesn’t. One may argue that the sheer number of marginalized people experiencing sexual violence illustrates who our country values, and we need the right systems in place protect those most vulnerable to sexual violence; regardless of gender identity, race, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.
Our social justice movements should address sexual violence at the same time that these movements address income inequality, lack of representation in positions of power, health disparities and other inequities.
“One of the things that we are purposefully trying to do at We, As Ourselves is amplify the voices of Black survivors and shine a light on the sexual violence that they experience,” says Goss Graves. “We hope to really reshape both the understanding of who is a survivor and also shape our ideas about what should happen. We really think we can change the notions of who in this country is deserving of support.”
Article originally published in Forbes.