It’s Black History Month, a time for Americans to celebrate Black Americans’ contributions to mainstream society and reflect on the country’s history to learn from the past and progress as a society. In the advocacy field, we must also learn how the history of racism, sexism, and heterosexism affects a vulnerable, and disproportionately large, group of survivors. As service providers, it is important for us to recognize that sexual violence played a strong role in the colonization, genocide, and enslavement of people of color in American history and continues to negatively affect Black survivors today. However, despite the unique challenges Black survivors face, they are often underrespresented in the national conversation, which is reflective of previous social justice movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation Movement. When Black survivors are vastly erased and replaced with narratives of heterosexual White women, we continue to perpetuate the exact oppressive systems that subject Black survivors to violence and preserve a culture of silence. Alternatively, once we acknowledge how America’s history continues to impact the Black community, we can begin to center some of these narratives and better serve all survivors.
A Historical Context
Historically, rape and sexual violence have been used as means to dominate and control different races, cultures, and groups of people. The institution of slavery created a new social order: a system based on the dehumanization, violent exploit, and systematic disadvantage of Black people on the basis of race and the control of women’s bodies for White people’s financial and social profit. The American legal system quickly adopted laws and practices to reinforce this new social order of racism and sexism to maintain a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Discrimination laws (e.g.. executive orders, Jim Crow), stereotypes, and disproportionate antiBlack violence — especially against different vulnerable Black communities — continue to disadvantage the Black community, yet is widely ignored by those who aren’t affected. However, it is important and necessary for people, especially service providers, to understand how racism and negative stereotypes impact Black survivors of sexual violence.
During the years of slavery, rape became an important tool of social and White male domination, used to gain power and control over enslaved Africans. Not limited to Black women, rape, along with other forms of violence, was also a form of discipline for anyone, women or men, who dared step out of line. Later, in 1808 after the abolishment of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, rape became a new strategy for White slave owners to reproduce a sustainable labor force. Laws were quickly adjusted to reinforce these means of sexual violence against Black people. The laws institutionalized the dehumanization and power over enslaved African Americans. These laws legally considered them as property, not humans, making violence, both physical and sexual, against them acceptable. Legislation also made biracial children with White slave owner fathers socially considered as only Black and not White in order for them to continue to be exploited as slaves. Additionally, for most of American history, the rape of a Black woman, perpetrated by both White and Black men, simply did not exist as a crime. Further, racist controlling images were developed as propaganda to validate White people’s violence and enslavement of African Americans, which is still perpetuated today.
Centuries-old racist constructs were developed to dehumanize Black people and mark them as deviant. With high rates of white sexual violence against African Americans, archetypes were intended to show Black people as sexually defiant, thus validating White people’s constant violation of Black bodies. Contemporary versions of this ideology remain deeply ingrained in our society today and pervasively influence the ways in which Black people are targeted and then treated after an assault. Black women are subjected to images of the “Jezebel” and “Matriarch,” which inhibit their ability to seek assistance, and ultimately, receive an equal access to education. While our society considers White women to be pure, innocent, and docile, Black women are seen as the complete opposite. Stereotyped as “Jezebels,” Black women are often labeled as promiscuous, prostitutes (where sex work is stigmatized), and always consenting — making them “unrapeable” and responsible for their own assault. These images are elevated and hold a greater negative impact for Black trans women who are also portrayed as sex workers and people who “trick” their partners, thus making them deserving of violence. Black women are also frequently portrayed as “Matriarchs,” or strong, aggressive, and independent. Although strength and independence could be positive qualities, they also suppress Black women survivors when campus communities or administrations believe that they are strong enough to overcome sexual violence, and appropriate resources are made inaccessible.
As time progressed, post-Civil War violence against and legal practices to disenfranchise the Black community were organized in a new fashion. Lynchings were the first of form physical and sexual violence perpetrated against Black communities throughout the South after African Americans gained their freedom from bondage, and continue today as state-sanctioned violence. Black men were the primary targets of lynchings in the South, though some Black women were victims of them as well. Sexual violence played a large role in lynchings, as it was used as a weapon against the victim and to justify the violence against them. Again, sexually deviant archetypes of Black people were used as a tool to profile and attack them. The image of the big Black brute portrays Black men as hypermasculine and hypersexual beasts who act through unrestrained sexuality and violence. Commonly, White women would perpetuate this racist stereotype by falsely accusing Black men of rape and threats of sexual violence, usually resulting in Black men’s death. Today, people continue to organize this image in new ways, such as the characterization of Mike Brown after his death. However, this racist construct virtually eliminates Black men as being victims of sexual violence themselves — especially when their perpetrators are White and/or the police. These archetypes create a greater risk of sexual violence against Black people, as the history behind these images shows us that Black survivors won’t be believed and rapists won’t be held accountable because society constantly devalues Black lives.
It’s not just stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality, but also myths about black masculinity and sexuality, that establish this culture of silence. Black men historically being characterized as violent, sexual predators has in turn silenced Black survivors whose perpetrators are Black as well. Rather than push back on this stereotype and advocate for a more complex understanding of sexuality and sexual violence, the black community silences Black survivors, particularly marginalized Black survivors such as women and LGBTQ individuals. Black people are often called on to speak or defend their entire race to the dominant White society, which pressures survivors to remain silent about abuse perpetrated by Black men. The Black community commonly encourages this silence to negate negative stereotypes about Black men’s sexuality, avoid subjecting another Black man to police brutality or the prison industrial complex, or to maintain a united front against racism. A second wave of silence occurs when Black survivors do come forward and service providers fail to offer culturally competent care and perpetuate racist attitudes and indifference of Black life.
We continue to fail Black survivors when we don’t recognize the impact these anti black images and U.S. history have on access to resources, assistance after an assault, and the criminal justice system. Moving forward, service providers must take into account the historic relationship police have with the Black community, which stereotypes around sexual violence Black survivors must overcome, have a general understanding of Black culture and community, and ultimately recognize the humanity in Black, and other marginalized survivors — not just straight cisgender White women with privilege. Instead, we need to center the most marginalized and disenfranchised identities in order to better serve everyone. This year Black History Month has begun important conversations about how race and anti blackness relate to sexual assault. We must continue to reflect on American history and develop appropriate, culturally competent ways to be inclusive of all survivors throughout the year.