Starting last week, Lifetime Network has been showing a six-episode docu-series titled “Surviving R. Kelly” that gives more details about what many of us have been saying for years: Robert Kelly is a serial rapist. For many Black women, the last few days have seen a blur of unintentional (and intentional) denials of our reality and triggering social media posts.
The de-prioritization of Black women’s and girls’ experiences isn’t new to us.
My mind cannot help but drift to the lack of outrage for 17-year-old Nia Wilson, who was attacked by 27-year-old John Cowell last year and died at the scene.
Cowell’s identity as a white man when paired with Wilson’s Black female identity engaged many Black men in a conversation on white supremacy. But as R. Kelly continued to abuse girls and women, those same Black men remained silent.
Around that same timeline, the world was fetishizing Jare, a six-year-old Nigerian girl recently referred to as “the most beautiful girl in the world.” The comments addressed her skin, eyes and hair. But, ironically, the same folks held no regard for her economic, social or cultural safety in times of need.
Meanwhile, the story of Cyntoia Brown, a 16-year-old engaged in the sex trade who defended her life against a client, was publicized in a way that erased her complexity and autonomy as a human being working to survive.
These events reflect the problem with how the US values its women and girls. Some are worthy of breaking news alerts, while others are ignored completely. When have we ever heard of the nation coming together to address the pain of Black girls?
None of us had heard of Jholie Moussa until after the 16-year-old’s body was discovered, two weeks after she went missing. While nearly all of Iowa — and much of the nation — united to search for Mollie Tibbets, a white teenager who had a similar fate, Jholie’s parents said the police treated her like a runaway. The designation of “runaway” leaves one more likely to be handled through the criminal justice system than the missing persons unit. The message is clear: The dominant society in the US does not value Black women and girls.
That lack of value enables us to be mistreated by well-known rapists like Kelly without outrage, even in our own community.
Historically, we have seen that crimes against Black women are seldom considered tragedies. We are surrounded by reminders. Consider the three-year anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death and the fact that it was ruled as a suicide; the lack of national awareness of 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson, who was killed when a still-unnamed gunmen opened fire in a crowd; and the apathy toward MeShon Cooper, who was missing for an entire week before she was found murdered by Ronald Lee Kidwell, a suspected white supremacist who had been previously charged with attacking and sexually assaulting another Black woman.
Consider, too, the impact of police violence on Black women and girls, and the way in which it is dismissed. Let’s revisit 2015 when Eric Casebolt was seen on video manhandling a 15-year-old Black girl at a pool party — and then pulling a gun on her friends who tried to come to her aid despite her cooperation — he was given a brief administrative leave and the story faded away from view.
Looking back to the 19th century, we see how Black women’s bodies were disposable, while their features were fair game for exploitation. During slavery, Black women were treated as livestock–they were only as valued as their ability to work and reproduce. Even now, Black women are generally seen as valuable by virtue of their ability to nurture others, although we face severe scrutiny when it comes to our reproductive choices.
In 1810, Sara Baartman was stolen from her home in South Africa and subjected to everything from being displayed in the British circus, to domestic servitude at the hands of her employers. She was ogled and ridiculed for her large hips and buttocks; decades later, white women were wearing Victoria Bustle Styles, garments that gave the illusion of the same features. They were allowed to participate in the fashion and maintain an image of purity while Baartman’s natural features led to her confinement and eventual death in 1815 from sexually transmitted diseases. She stayed in captivity even post-mortem. Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974, and weren’t repatriated and buried until 2002. The world felt entitled to her body in life and in death.
Centuries later, Black women are still ridiculed for our hips, butts and lips, punished for our hair and blacklisted for our complexions. At the same time, these features are appropriated by women of other races for a profit. That same sense of entitlement makes Black culture community property but Black humanity optional.
Technology has become the latest tool to avoid attaching humanity to Blackness. As Black women are severely underrepresented in the modeling industry, agencies have found it easier to use computer-generated Black women than to hire real ones. This reflects historical ideas that Blackness is community property. Our qualities are up for grabs, but personhood is unnecessary.
This is especially true for Black women. Our society finds immense success selling beauty product lines, clothes and music with Black women’s faces but shows little concern for contemporary struggles the population faces. Mountains of research indicate that Black women face many of the highest physical and mental health risks as a result of the systemic failures of racist institutions, as the weight of existing paired with the accumulation of everyday racism sits on our backs. This reality is both ignored and denied.
Blackness creates a cloak of anonymity. The disparities in how Black victims of physical and sexual violence have been treated and talked about illustrates this.
This difference in treatment has a long historical precedent. Recall how swiftly Emmett Till was murdered based on the lies of Carolyn Bryant Donham. But a Black woman like Recy Taylor, who was raped by six white men, was still fighting for justice six decades later.
Anti-incarceration organizer Mariame Kaba has noted Black people are still fighting to claim their humanity in a society that deems them “inhuman” and “disposable,” and therefore not deserving of victimhood. Furthermore, Kaba argues, Black women have been stigmatized not only for their sex but also their race, and do not have the benefit their white counterparts often have of being considered “redeemable” when they transgress social norms. Living at the intersection of race and gender leaves Black women especially vulnerable to invisibility — and that invisibility is multiplied for Black trans women.
Consider that arrests are only made in 47 percent of cases with Black homicide victims as compared to 63 percent homicides with white victims. Black women have the highest rates of homicide due to intimate partner violence. Meanwhile, Black women are regularly targeted by the criminal punishment system when we defend our lives in the face of sexual and domestic violence.
In Hollywood, as the #MeToo movement rightfully takes down white sexual assaulters, men like Russell Simmons and R. Kelly, who prey on Black women, appear to face few consequences.
To take a clear stance in support of Black women, our society must start by providing a platform for us and believing our stories. It’s a challenging feat to overcome the widespread bias for personal and public figures, such as R. Kelly, who helped many to create their favorite nostalgic moments. But fandom shouldn’t come at the cost of the denial of Black women’s experiences of pain and suffering.
In addition to acknowledging and responding to Black women’s suffering, we must remember that the individuals who abuse Black women also victimize other men and children. An attack on Black women is an attack on the Black community as a whole. What if instead, we saw reducing attacks on Black women as a key part of strengthening the Black community?
This nation must not continue to commodify the beauty of young Black girls and idolize Black female public figures while ignoring the plights of Black women and girls. As more stories surface of Black survivors and casualties of violence, it’s clear we have much work to do in order to recognize that Black women’s lives matter.
For Black women to get the national justice we deserve, all the people in this country have to simultaneously work in their own communities and call out these perpetrators on the carpet — even when one is your favorite uncle.