Breaking The Silence About Sexual Violence In Black Communities

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column at Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Manya Whitaker is an assistant professor of education at Colorado College and a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted and Vitae. Follow her on Twitter at @IvyLeagueLady.

Breaking The Culture of Silence

This essay contributes to a continuing series in Conditionally Accepted on sexual violence in higher education. Women of color — Black women in particular — are raised to keep quiet about such things. Much of the sexual violence that Black women experience is at the hands of family members, friends, neighbors and church and community leaders. And if anything is true in a Black household, it is that one should not make private business public. Don’t air dirty laundry.

Sometimes we women of color do not even know that we have been sexually violated. I cannot speak for other communities of color, but in the Black community, we do not talk about sexual violence. Sure, we have conversations with our kids about sex — safe sex practices and/or waiting until marriage — but anything beyond that is picked up on the school bus, at the basketball court, in the hair salon or when we are being seen and not heard at Sunday dinner. It is so ingrained in my cultural norms to be silent about our sexual experiences that the thought to contribute to this series never crossed my mind until I was asked about it in passing.

If no one ever teaches us how to talk about sexual violence, how will we ever cultivate our voices — whether as survivors, bystanders, friends or advocates?

That Day

I was sexually assaulted when I was 15, in the 11th grade. I did not realize it until more than 10 years and four degrees later (ironically, three of which happen to be in psychology). The realization was triggered by a Facebook message from someone to whom I had not spoken since high school. The same someone who saved me from being raped.

The second I saw my friend’s profile picture, it hit me: images of him rushing into the girls’ bathroom on H-hall, grabbing Brandon (a pseudonym) by the back of his shirt, throwing him against the wall and turning to me and saying, “Go to class, Minny.” His nickname for me was Skinny Minny. That part of the flashback made me smile.

When I got out of the bathroom, I ran to class, careful not to drop my books while pulling down my shirt and rehooking my bra.

I made it to class just as the bell rang.

Just Another Day?

The flood of memories rendered me completely immobile for a full five minutes. Two things became clear: I had been sexually assaulted, and I had never realized it until now, after 10 years’ delay.

Remembering this incident did not bring with it the trauma my psychologically trained mind thinks that it should have. I am more horrified that a 15-year-old girl with a 4.5 GPA did not recognize sexual assault when she experienced it, or even in the years that followed. I certainly knew what rape was and that Brandon had a reputation for sexually assaulting girls, and I was very much afraid of having to walk past him and his friends on my way to class. Clearly, I knew that this boy was a threat; I knew that what he was doing to me was wrong. Yet, when it was over, it was as if the school bell pushed that moment into last period and it was now time for fourth-period IB English. Like what I ate for lunch, being sexually assaulted was simply another event in a normal school day.

It should not have been. But for me and so many other women of color, sexual violence is par for the course in our day-to-day lives. Violence of all kinds becomes so normalized to us that we do not recognize it as the deviant, harmful and criminal behavior that it is. For those who do, speaking up is not as simple as telling your best friend (what if she says that I am overreacting and, instead, should be flattered because Brandon is super cute?) or your parent (“what did you do to make him think you’d like that?”).

A 15-year-old girl with her sights set on the Ivy League does not want to stir up trouble, particularly when her own behavioral record is far from spotless. Why bother parents who work long hours with a story about something that almost happened or really didn’t happen at all? Cultural norms sometimes demand silence, but even more concerning, self-preservation mandates that we just forget it. The brain and heart can only handle so much trauma, and for too many women, “almost” being raped just does not measure up.

Women of color have been demoralized, browbeaten and run over so much that we sometimes do not give ourselves the space that we need to fall apart. We are raised with messages of strength; we are the backbone of the family. When so many Black and brown men are unjustly behind bars, we have been left to bear the burdens of life alone. What we go through on a day-to-day basis is unconscionable to people who do not live at the intersection of gender, race, class and religion. But for us, it is just another day.

Tomorrow

I am currently co-editing an anthology of stories and other works by women academics of color about their bravery. My co-editor and I expected to receive tales of triumph in response to our call for abstracts: stories in which a woman exposes a misogynist, how-to manuals for starting mentoring programs, narratives of opening businesses in underresourced areas. And we got a few of those. But mostly, we read story after story of trauma.

Women, including women of color, are sexually assaulted every year, yet in the almost 350 submissions for our anthology about women of color, only three were about sexual violence. I cannot help but wonder how many of those authors have been shamed into silence or have long forgotten a bad experience because it has been buried by more recent trauma. How many women of color consciously chose not to share their stories out of shame or fear? How many did not share because they simply did not have the words to describe a pain they might not yet have processed?

Or maybe they did not share because these are not the stories we are used to telling. We have no problem talking about our teaching or our research. We are happy to describe our community service activities. We might even discuss with you our children and partners. But the pieces of us that shape who we have become are kept buried in a place to which some of us no longer have, or want, access.

Just as we are willing to create opportunities for students in our teaching and to forge new pathways in our research, we must be willing to journey into ourselves so that we can do more than survive; we have to thrive. We must find the words to identify and report sexual violence. We need to embrace the courage we exemplify in all other aspects of life to share our stories with one another. It is a necessity that we accept all of who we are if we are to bring our most authentically powerful selves to work every day in a space where, for many of our students of color, we are their only role model.

Had someone given me the words to articulate what happened to me, perhaps I would have. Had someone showed me how to speak my truth, I could have. We must be willing to speak even when it is easier to be quiet. We never know who is listening.