During Black History Month, we celebrate the accomplishments of the Black community and give thanks for the sacrifices our predecessors made to seek justice and resist ages of oppression. It is a time to rejoice, but also, to reflect on the ways that Black people continue to be persecuted. And it’s impossible to discuss these violations against Black people without talking about sexual violence.
About one in five Black women have been raped at some point in their lives, according to the most recent data from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. Meanwhile, nearly four out of every ten Black men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner.*
If we are to fight sexual violence, we must be intersectional in our efforts. One narrative cannot dominate the conversation about sexual violence, especially when certain demographics have been disproportionately harmed. We do a disservice to Black survivors when we fail to address the unique challenges they face in the midst of sexual violence, as well as their everyday lives. Consider some of the factors that coalesce to prevent Black women, men, and non-binary folks from reporting and healing from sexual violence:
Sexual violence can be devastating for survivors emotionally, physically, and even financially, regardless of race. The White House in 2014 issued a report estimating the economic costs of rape, with figures ranging from $87,000 to $240,776. (For a look at the costs of rape broken down even further, read the New York Times piece “What One Rape Cost Our Family.”)
But not everyone can afford such care, however necessary. The financial toll of rape may be even more debilitating for Black survivors. According to a 2015 report from Wider Opportunities for Women, Black women earn just 69% of men’s wages, compared with 82% of white women working full-time. (Latina women earn a paltry 61%). Reporting sexual violence is no easy feat, and does not guarantee justice. It can come at a huge cost for some Black survivors — one that may be prohibitively expensive.
Access is another obstacle, with few resources allocated for low-income people. Even if Black survivors are able to access care, the resources available may not be specific to their needs.
Racist depictions of Black people are nothing new, with roots in the slavery era. In a piece for Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, sociology professor David Pilgrim discusses one of the most repulsive depictions of Black women that persists to this day: the oversexed, lustful Jezebel. The Jezebel archetype strips Black women of their agency, hypersexualizing them without their consent. To add insult to injury, this caricature perpetuates the dangerous notion that Black women are inviting sexual assault. (It should go without saying that sexual assault is never welcome, because it does not involve consent by definition.) When such disgusting images are used to denigrate Black women, there is little incentive for survivors to come forward.
Black men aren’t immune from negative stereotypes either, having long been portrayed as brutish and lascivious, as this primer from the University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center explains. Such malicious depictions of Black men make it harder for those who are victims of sexual violence to be taken seriously. For Black survivors of all genders, reporting rape may seem futile when they’re told they can never be victims.
These stereotypes cause further harm to Black survivors and their communities, perpetuating a cycle of violence and shame. Black survivors who have been assaulted by other Black people may feel a responsibility to protect members of their community, fearing that speaking out will affirm negative stereotypes.
Need for self-care
Self-care is a crucial part of healing for survivors. However we choose to soothe ourselves and recharge is our right to pursue. But Black women and femmes in particular may be forced to put self-care on the back burner. (It’s worth noting, however, that Black women in caregiving roles have been depicted throughout history as some form of the racist mammy caricature.)
As Essence Gant explains in this BuzzFeed article, Black women regularly wear multiple hats in their daily lives:
Even in all its magic, being black and a woman is exhausting. Whether it’s organizing social movements, devoting our lives to public service, or live streaming systematic violence our community regularly deals with, black women face extraordinary challenges every day […] Sometimes it feels lonely and overwhelming, which is why self-care must be a part of our daily regimen.
We expect so much from Black women, but let them down when they need support most. Black women are often the backbones of their communities, sometimes helping everyone but themselves. Experiencing the trauma of sexual assault is all the more draining. Whether through protesting the unjust treatment of Black people or other expressions of solidarity, allies need to take the burden off of Black women to let them practice much-needed self-care.
Distrust of law enforcement
Given the strained history between the Black community and police, Black survivors may be wary of seeking help from law enforcement. Recent high-profile cases of police violence against Black bodies have shed light on the negative encounters Black people have long experienced with police. It’s understandable that some Black survivors may hesitate to report their assaults, feeling safer avoiding law enforcement altogether. Further, police may not have the appropriate resources or training to help Black survivors in a sensitive manner.
We must also keep in mind that Black women have largely been ignored in the conversation about police violence against Black bodies, an omission that activists such as the scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw are making known. To understand why we need to #SayHerName when discussing police violence, watch Crenshaw’s TED Talk on intersectionality — the term she coined to describe overlapping identities.
Shame is a powerful force that pushes Black survivors into the shadows. Writing for The Body Is Not An Apology, Aabye-Gayle Francis-Favilla discusses how shame silences those whose voices need to be heard:
[M]y silence is not unique — especially among women of color. Remaining anonymous as a victim of sexual assault is common. And, black women are even less likely than their white counterparts to report that they’ve been raped.
When shame takes hold of survivors, they can be made to feel like they don’t matter, when they deserve nothing less than unwavering love and support. Black survivors feel that shame, coupled with a legacy of racism that deepens their suffering and makes it so hard to access care.
Where we go from here
The challenges will always be greater for Black survivors, no matter who they are or where they come from. We must also remember that these hurdles will be especially taxing for Black people who are LGBTQ, live in rural areas with few resources, are low-income, lack support networks, or are otherwise disenfranchised.
But there is hope. Black people have long been at the forefront of anti-sexual violence efforts, from Rosa Parks to Angela Davis. While the work of dismantling rape culture is far from over, there are incredible figures leading the cause.
If you’re a Black survivor feeling worn down or burned out, know this: You are loved. You are worthy of respect. You are not alone. If you are a Black survivor seeking additional resources or relevant information, check out the following:
*Comparable data was not available for Black men and women in terms of rape. The only reportable estimate of rape was for White non-Hispanic men, at 1.7%, or 1.3 million men in this group.