The CFC

16 Nov 2012

[TW: Sexual Assault, Harassment, Rape]

In June 2008, popular R&B singer R. Kelly went to trial for allegedly videotaping himself having sex with a teenager. The infamous tape that initiated the suit showed a man urinating on a young girl. On the first day of the trial, a popular urban-music radio station played a twelve-hour, no-commercial block of Kelly’s music as a sign of solidarity with the singer. Although the case had taken six years to come to trial, Kelly was acquitted in a few weeks. In December 2009, the African American talk show host Tavis Smiley agreed to publish R. Kelly’s memoir through his publishing house, SmileyBooks. In a press release from Kelly’s publicist, Smiley is quoted as saying, ‘‘We are thrilled to be the conduit through which R. Kelly will tell his own story. He has earned the right to tell his own story his own way.’’ The radio station’s demonstration of solidarity with Kelly even before he was acquitted and Smiley’s o√ering him an opportunity to tell his story on his terms despite lingering questions about his role in the sex act are decisions that marginalize the young black woman whom Kelly allegedly abused. They can be read as choices to discount her experience of sexual violation as false or trivial. For many, the seeming consent of the teen on the videotape implied that no harm had been done.

There are several other high-profile moments in the late twentieth century when African American men, accused of sexual assault of a black woman, garnered significant public support among African Americans. In 1991, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, a black woman and former coworker. The three-day questioning of Hill and Thomas was arguably the most spectacular modern confirmation hearing of a Supreme Court justice. During his testimony, Thomas angrily referred to the often explicit questioning as a ‘‘high-tech lynching.’’ After he invoked the specter of lynching, Thomas’s approval ratings among black Americans jumped to nearly 50 percent. As a conservative justice whose judicial decisions have uniformly run counter to the political agenda articulated by modern civil rights organizations, Thomas has never again enjoyed such high favorability ratings with black Americans. But in the context of his dispute with Hill, it was Thomas, draped in the history of America’s racial violence against black men, who received significant black community support. Hill, meanwhile, was regularly maligned as a race-traitor who allowed her story of sexual harassment to be used by powerful white opponents to harm the credibility of an African American man. Many wondered what she had done to provoke or encourage the harassment.

In 1992, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was found guilty of the rape of an African American woman, Desiree Washington. Tyson served three years of a six-year sentence. When he was released from prison, he was hailed as a returning hero by many African American political and social leaders, including the Nation of Islam and the Reverend Al Sharpton. Many questioned Tyson’s guilt: because Washington had willingly joined him in his hotel room, her actions, they suggested, invited sexual contact.

Together these moments hint at the continuing power of a common stereotype of black women as particularly promiscuous and sexually immoral. They also reveal complicated African American responses to this misrecognition of black women. In each case the state intervened to punish the alleged sexual abuser of a black woman even while some members of the African American community denounced the woman as ‘‘fast’’ and rallied behind the man who allegedly perpetrated the crimes. In other words, while the myth of black women’s hypersexuality may have been historically created and perpetuated by white social, political, and economic institutions, its contemporary manifestations are often seen just as clearly in the internal politics of African American communities.

— Melissa Harris-Perry Sister Citizen; Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America  (via spartanbitch)

(Source: womanistgamergirl)

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