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‘Surviving R. Kelly’ and the Inherent Violence of Being a Black Woman

‘Surviving R. Kelly’ and the Inherent Violence of Being a Black Woman


Feminista Jones asks, where is the justice for abusers and killers of Black girls and women?

At age 4, I was molested by an 11-year-old boy while at my childcare provider's house. During nap time, he would come to where I laying down, lift my blanket, press his body against mine, and gyrate, hump, and fondle me. He did this several times over the course of several months and I never said a thing to anyone. In fact, I'd blocked this memory out for years and when it came back to me as vivid as a movie, I broke down realizing that I, like so many other Black women I knew, never had a real chance to exist without experiencing some form of violence against my body and my spirit.

When I was an adolescent, an older woman in my life also violated my body. She would come into the bathroom when I showered and peek behind the shower curtain, demanding to see my body. When I would cover myself in a towel, she would pull it off and pluck at my developing breasts, laughing and taking joy in making me obviously uncomfortable. There were other things, but this was my first encounter with an adult woman sexually objectifying my body. I was 10 or 11 years old, and it was around this same time that I began experiencing street harassment from older men and teen boys whenever I would go to and from school or hang out with my friends. I became keenly aware, at this very young age, that my body was a sexualized object, vulnerable to degradation and violation by anyone who felt compelled to treat it as such.

Like many Black women, cis and trans alike, I don't know life without sexual violence. From the time I was four, other people saw fit to use my body for their own gratification in various ways and at various ages. I'd grown emotionally detached from my own body, a response to the repeated trauma (high school, college, adulthood), and I found ways to escape and suppress as a means of survival. I became a public, vocal advocate for Black female survivors of sexual assault because I had a deeply personal connection to their suffering and struggle to move forward and heal -- I was one. I am one. By speaking out and supporting other survivors, I've tried to push the conversations forward and advocate for not only communal change, but institutional improvements too.

Last week, Lifetime Network aired a six-hour docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly, highlighting the stories and experiences of women and girls who were victimized by Kelly over the last three decades. I joined the real-time conversations on social media to amplify the project. It was incredibly difficult to watch, as the survivors shared shocking details of their abusive encounters with him. One by one, their tearful stories came to the screen. What stood out was that there were so many adults around this mess who were fully aware of what was going on, and they did nothing. In fact, several people assisted Kelly in his violation of these girls and women -- some as young as 12 -- and they worked with him to cover up what he was doing because they knew it was wrong. Even those people who witnessed how he interacted with the girls, who were clearly minors, and felt Kelly was wrong turned their heads or walked away, but remained silent. That silence turned into the complicity and encouragement Kelly needed to keep up with his violent behavior for decades.

The most public example -- at least until now -- happened early in his career. I remember the immediate reactions to R. Kelly when he illegally married then 15-year-old R&B singer Aaliyah, and then six years later when he was discovered to have sexually assaulted a 14-year-old on film. I remember the outpouring of public support for Kelly and the simultaneous condemnation of his victims and their parents. The love and financial support Kelly has received over the last 25 years is a damning example of a painful truth: Black girls and women have little human value in our society. That people remain generally more upset at teen girls for being "fast" than they are at the men who prey on them is telling, and indicative of a larger issue.

I've spent many years trying to get to the root of the issue with the hopes of creating a path to healing and ending this violence. I've had to go centuries back to better understand how racism and misogyny have collided to create unique experiences for Black girls and women. "Misogynoir," coined by Moya Bailey and further developed by Trudy, is the particular anti-Black racist misogyny that targets Black femmes, specifically, as we exist at the intersections of race and gender. Centuries of public and private acts of racialized and sexualized violence against Black girls and women has conditioned society, as a whole, to believe that this behavior is acceptable and almost the expected way to handle or manage us. We are treated harsher, offered less support, denied access to empathy and opportunity, and are generally regarded as lesser human beings based both on our race and our gender. This harmful conditioning leaves us uniquely susceptible to foul treatment and until we are accepted as valuable human beings deserving of the same love, support, and resources as everyone else, the painful statistics about our experiences will only get worse.

For Black girls and women, there are entirely too many "survivors" and not nearly enough people being punished for the crimes. In 2017, only an estimated quarter of all the sexual assaults and rapes that occurred in the US were reported to police. For Black girls and women, though, only about 6 percent of victims report. Black girls and women, ages 12 and older, experience higher rates of sexual violence than White, Asian, and Latina girls and women. The Black Women's Blueprint found that between 40 percent and 60 percent of Black girls experience coercive sexual contact by age 18. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that forty-percent of Black women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. The CDC also found that Black women almost three times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than White women. When it comes to gun violence, 57.7 percent of Black female victims of homicide are killed by a gun. And in 2018, when the Human Rights Commission declared the deaths of transgender women a national epidemic, a report highlighted that Black trans women were 69 percent of all transgender people killed from 2013-2018.

On December 30, 2018, two Black men allegedly drove their vehicle close to another vehicle and fired several shots into it, striking and killing 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes in what appears to be a case of mistaken identity. Originally, the suspect was thought to be an older White man, per the description of her mother, and outrage spread across social media. A reward was offered by journalist Shaun King for $35K that eventually swelled to $100K for information leading to the arrest of who was believed to be a White man in a racist attack. However, two young Black men were arrested and confessed to the killing and the energy has shifted.

I honestly can't recall the last time anyone publicly raised this amount of money to find a non-White killer of an innocent Black child. This is not to suggest that people don't care because I know, firsthand, that there are people on the ground in hoods around the country that work tirelessly to end gun violence in our communities. But this situation raises an uncomfortable question about our priorities: was this reward money only raised because her death was believed to be racially motivated and at the hands of a White man? Would this story have garnered the same amount of attention, for as long as it has, if she was originally believed to have been, like the overwhelming majority of Black girls and women, killed by a Black man? Are we only deeply concerned about the violence against Black girls and women when the violence appears to be racially motivated and we can use Black girl suffering as a weapon to fight White supremacy? Where is the energy to fight misogynistic violence when it affects Black femmes?

The #SayHerName campaign challenged us to remember that Black girls and women are victims of police brutality, too, and that when the violence we experience is overlooked or minimized, it reinforces how undervalued we are. That there had to be a separate campaign to educate people about Black women being killed by police is infuriating; if the issue is about racist violence, shouldn't all Black people matter equally? And when it comes to Black trans women being murdered, hardly a peep is heard outside of the LGBTQ community and people are certainly not showing up for them at rallies and courtrooms with even a fraction of the energy and numbers we see turn out when a Black man is killed. People know Sandra Bland and Ayana Stanley-Jones, but how many others can they name? Trans women of color have a life expectancy of about 35. Who is killing them? Hundreds of Black women are killed each year. Who is killing them?

Where is the justice for abusers and killers of Black girls and women?

When people ask why there is so much focus on R. Kelly, specifically, it is because he is a celebrity whose behavior has been so gross and violent and gone on for so long with little consequence. But it's bigger than R. Kelly -- men like him exist in every community and in many families. He is a public example of what really happens on-the-ground and if it means using him as an example to draw attention to a larger issue, then that is what needs to happen. If we have to expose him and other famous artists like him to bring attention to the violence Black femmes experience every day and raise culture-changing consciousness, then that is what we will do.

I refuse to be silent and I won't back down until Black girls and women are valued for the human beings we are and allowed the opportunity to pursue happiness and achieve freedom on our own terms without imminent threats of violence at every turn.

FEMINISTA JONES is a social worker, author, and activist currently living in Philadelphia. Her forthcoming bookReclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets is available January 2019 on Beacon Press.

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