Black College Women’s Lives Matter

By Mumbi Kanyogo
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CW: sexual violence, anti-blackness

“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” – Arundhati Roy

The #MeToo Reckoning

In a period of about 8 months, numerous women came forward to publicly document their trauma and expose the abusers who violated them. The #MeToo movement, which began as Tarana Burke’s desire to “radicalize the notion of mass healing” amongst sexual assault survivors 10 years ago, has turned into a global reckoning with the pervasiveness of gender violence and societal complicity.

The #MeToo movement has forced us to contend with how rape culture penetrates both public and private life in ways that transform even our most intimate memories of family and childhood into painful reminders of the power structures that govern our everyday existence. The #MeToo movement shows us that sexual abuse and rape are not faceless crimes. It teaches us that sexual abuse and rape DO have perpetrators and enablers. It names silence as violence, therefore implicating those who prefer to unsee abuse and promote a politics of respectability.

Despite these stories’ importance, the amount of public revelations that have been proffered do not at all account for the fact that 1 in 5 women have been sexually violated in their lifetimes. They do not even dent it. So we must ask ourselves: who is being deliberately silenced? Who are we rendering preferably unheard?

Some Black Lives Matter

On my worst days, the black Duke community has been a source of joy and rejuvenation that has kept me sane in a fast-paced, emotionally draining environment. And on my best days, my black peers have celebrated me and loved me in ways that I am not even able to account for. At Duke University, a predominantly white institution (PWI), blackness has been under threat from racist institutional violence and quotidian microaggressions since our forebears set foot on this campus in 1963. As such, our excellence and happiness have always been our greatest offences against racist histories and realities that are constantly working to displace us.

However, it would be a lie for us to posit that the only threat to black life at PWIs exists as a result of white racism. It would be facetious for us to say “Black Lives Matter” in opposition to racism, and not repeat the same for black women, queer, trans, poor, and disabled people in opposition to the oppressions that invade our lives even within our own community.

And yet we do not say the latter nearly as much as the former.

A Loud Silence

In spring 2016, the Duke Chronicle published a statistical report on sexual violence showing that 42% of black women on campus had been the victims of some sort of sexual violence. In the aftermath of that report, I expected there to be a wave of indignant outrage within our community. Faced with the evidence that so many of our fellow black woman peers had been violated, I was waiting for our community leaders to mobilize – to be angry. Instead, only a handful of women made their outrage known in both online and physical spaces, and when I brought up the statistics with one black man he simply replied, “Don’t you know that women will cry rape when a man so much as hugs them?”

Even though silence about sexual violence has always been pervasive in our community, the type of indifference and lack of concern that was displayed in the wake of that report has continued to astound me to this day. In a moment when we had the opportunity to begin a process of disavowing silence and creating safe spaces for the most vulnerable in our community, the prevailing instinct seemed to be to avoid responsibility and instead protect our abusive peers. That report, and the lack of action in its wake, served to make it abundantly clear that in the appraisal of reputation and power versus the safety of black women, more often than not, black women lose.

All the women are white and all the blacks are men

That gendered erasure served to remind me that our black woman pain, laid out bare and raw on stages and blog posts, has never been enough to convince our community that our bodies matter. In her essay “Age, Race, Class, Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Audre Lorde told us that this type of erasure is derived from a suspicion of difference, a misinterpretation of difference as threat that arises when individuals boldly exist as non-cisgender, heterosexual black people in a community that is always already ravaged by racism. As such, where black women mobilize their political commitments to protect their personhood from both racism and misogyny, the latter is interpreted as a betrayal of black common interests that are always under threat from racism at PWIs.

As black women, our genders and sexualities are treated as negligible and divisible from our experiences of blackness. We are the ones charged with both healing from trauma and then correcting the same violent behaviors that hurt and disrupt our lives. This makes clear that a singular blackness that is detached from other manifestations of systemic violence determines the disposition of black life – the type of blackness we are willing to mobilize for. This disjointed approach to oppression results in the centering of black, cis, heterosexual men’s well-being and a violent erasure that sees black women’s bodies as collateral damage to men’s unnecessary technical gymnastics in negotiating the clearly outlined parameters of ethical sexual behavior.

At the same time sexual assault at PWIs continues to be imagined as a white issue. The archetypal victims are framed as white, cis, straight, able-bodied, Panhellenic women, whilst trans women, black women, women of color, queer women, and disabled survivors are forced to fight for and protect themselves. I cannot forget the difference that is lost when white women speak of “women” in their anti-rape interventions, and it is not lost on me that there is a deep misogynoir in PWI feminist spaces that sees black women’s bodies as ungendered and interpreted as always strong and never vulnerable. This results in a situation where black women are imagined as never needing of community protection, let alone institutional protection.

At this critical moment when it is becoming painfully clear that black community is not safe for all of us, we need to engage in a process of constructive critique that ensures that those who are perpetuating violence, indirectly or directly, take responsibility for their actions or lack thereof. A good example of this type of conversation can be seen in the recent #SayHerName Twitter town hall hosted by BYP100 and Invisible No More, which creates space for us to think about how gendered interpersonal violence in the black community occurs in tandem with state violence against black women and girls. And just as pertinently, this exchange allows us to dream up models of community accountability that divest from the carceral state.  

Breaking down this system will require self-implication; it will require continued self-reflection and critique, as well as sustained community dialogue focused on creating accountability and centering the voices of those who have been ravaged by sexual violence.

We need to undermine the oppressive systems that make it possible for abuse to occur, the abnormal silence that makes it possible for some men to exploit without any fear of consequence. As South African feminist scholar Pumla Dineo Gqola makes clear in her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, this will require serious social sanctions that see us calling out violence just as much as we call it in.

We cannot continue to negotiate our safety using gentle discourse when our loved ones continue to suffer silently. We cannot continue to engage in a politics of respectability when black women continue to exist on the margins, ignored and disrespected by a community that should be fighting for them relentlessly and fearlessly.

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