When #MeToo founder Tarana Burke’s image and story were unceremoniously omitted from a recent Time magazine cover story “Silence Breakers,” which celebrated the courageous work, mostly of White women fighting against sexual harassment, rape and molestation; it signaled an immediate connection for criminal justice activist Ronda Smith with a study released in June by Georgetown Law Center, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.”
The research showed that Black girls as young as 5 were believed to “need less protection, little support, fewer resources after or during crises, and were inherently less innocent,” Smith said. Such mirrored the reactions to Burke and other Black females speaking out about sexual violence against them on social media.
“It is as if Black women turn 5 and become invisible; their humanity and femininity, as well as their vulnerability is diminished to a point that even when they shout from the rooftops about their abuse and abusers, no one hears,” Smith told the AFRO.
The activist has spent more than a decade investigating instances of criminal sexual abuse against Black and Native American women on reservations. Her current research examines the incarceration rates of Black and Native women following self-defense killings.
“Many Black women have been ostracized into keeping quiet for fear of ‘ruining a good brother’s life’ or being blamed for the abuse because of her clothing or deportment,” she added.
According to the Alliance to End Sexual Violence, for every Black woman who reports her rape, at least 15 Black women maintain silence. Additionally, approximately 40 percent of Black women report coercive sexual contact by age 18.
The success of the #MeToo campaign proved a watershed in opening dialogue, including issues surrounding intersectionality, the space where issues facing women are framed by White women, whose concerns and objectives may be decidedly distinct from those of women of color. Burke, who created the platform a decade ago, told the New York Times that the idea of a White, female celebrity (Alyssa Milano) using the hashtag and the message was initially alarming.
“Initially I panicked. I felt a sense of dread because something that was part of my life’s work was going to be co-opted and taken from me and used for a purpose that I hadn’t originally intended,” she said.
In short order, however, both Milano and celebrated feminist Gloria Steinem began touting the historical case of Black women’s sexual violation.
“It was three Black women [who first] filed successful sexual harassment lawsuits: two against the U.S. government, filed by Paulette Barnes and Diane Williams, and one against a bank, filed by Mechelle Vinson. Vinson’s case, accusing her former supervisor of repeated harassment and rape, eventually led to the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1986 decision that sexual harassment was a violation of the Civil Rights Act,” Steinem told an audience gathered for the Massachusetts Women’s Conference in Boston on Dec. 8. “All three of these women were Black. And these Black women now symbolize the fact that [sexual harassment] is certainly more likely to happen to people with less power in society than to people with more power.”
Smith said that something in the lens through which Black women are viewed has to shift to encourage Black girls and women to speak up and the Black community to support them when they do.
“It’s like Eldridge Cleaver writing the introduction to ‘Soul on Ice’ where he describes raping random Black girls for sport in order to perfect his techniques and move on to White women. Cleaver understood that no Black girl would report him, no police officer would search for him, and no one would believe she was innocent,” Smith told the AFRO. “It goes right back to the lack of protection, the sheer vulnerability the Georgetown study documented. We have to be responsible for building trust and safeguards for our girls and women.”