The man who hovered over my intoxicated body one humid May night in my senior year of college, liquor and lust staining his breath as he laughed that my “no” really meant “yes”, is still on campus. He is the kind of man women whisper to each other about when they think he is not looking, whose transgressions against our bodies are cataloged in hushed tones and quick, ominous shakes of the head.
When I left that man’s room, sweaty and shaken to my core, I didn’t dare call the police or campus security. In the impossible hierarchy of acceptable victimhood, black women who walk willingly into the rooms of men they call “brother” are considered undeserving of protection from any violence that happens therein.
If we report our assaults to police, we risk being retraumatized not only by the inhumane process of reliving a violent experience through sharing its gory details - but also by the violence of the criminal justice system itself , which treats rape victims like suspects . Worse yet, the police themselvescommit assault with impunity ; often, they target black women in particular , knowing our existence at the intersections of racism and misogyny make crimes against us far less likely to be investigated .
To be a “ good rape victim ” is to immediately report your assault to the police (even knowing you will likely never see “justice” ), but to be a good black person is to avoid the police entirely because your life quite literally depends on it . The tightrope walk is impossible.
That’s why black anti-sexual assault activists, like survivor and feminist writer Wagatwe Wanjuki , have long argued that survivors should not be forced to report their assaults to police in order for their stories to be believed.
An ongoing study by Black Women’s Blueprint, a New York-based human rights organization, finds that 60% of black girls and women report having experienced “coercive contact of a sexual nature” by the age of 18. Still, we are deemed categorically hypersexual , incapable of being assaulted because our bodies themselves serve as static, menacing consent.
The overlapping vectors of racist and sexist violence in black women’s lives have long been points of both deep pain and fierce activism . This intersection drove Rosa Parks, the noted civil rights activist, to spend much of her life combating not just segregation, but also the pervasive sexual violence against black women . As is so often the case, resistance and solutions to this grave, systemic injustice come from the affected community itself.
Today, this commitment to envisioning a world free from sexual violence is reflected in organizations like A Long Walk Home , a Chicago-based non-profit that “uses art to educate, inspire, and mobilize young people to end violence against girls and women”. The organization finds its roots in the creative labor of sisters Salamishah and Scheherazade Tillet . After learning of her sibling’s sexual assault, Scheherazade used photography to help her heal. The two co-wrote and directed a multimedia performance called Story of a Rape Survivor (SOARS) , which brought Salamishah’s story and Scheherazade’s art to life; years later, A Long Walk Home was born.
Salamishah came to Dartmouth to give a speech on campus sexual assault in my last spring term in college , mere hours before I found myself in that man’s room. In the days afterward, I returned to her speech, a lullaby of resistance. She is one of the countless black women whose profoundly human, unshakably feminist resolve has shaped approaches to the daunting task of anti-sexual assault work.
Others carry out this vision by working to create a world that challenges the unmitigated terror of the criminal justice system itself. Prisons are themselves warehouses of sexual violence , and women suffering abuse are more likely to be incarcerated than to see even the most paltry threads of “justice”- especially women of color . Intimate violence, at the hands of family, friends, or partners, is an assumed reality for people already made vulnerable by other systems of power.
The activist women of Ferguson , New York, and beyond, who protest against the violence of the US criminal justice system and the white supremacist ideals it enforces, also form part of the patchwork of radical brilliance that survivors - including me - can draw on when our strength threatens to falter.
As attempts to address the funneling of people of color into prison gain traction, we can renew our efforts to develop our anti-sexual assault work outside of a racist institution that stacks our bodies as collateral damage. These movements are distinct, but not separate - and black survivors’ bodies often lie at the crossroads.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015