The burden of black women

Op-ed: I ask myself: How often are black women seen as less than human, incapable of telling the truth?

It is not by mistake that the Netflix series that has captivated much of America, "Luke Cage," is about a black man with skin like Teflon — impervious to bullets and assault. How enthralling is it to dream of a world where no harm could touch you, a world where my body's history is written only by me and those I love. It goes without saying this world does not exist for black women.

At 6, I was raped. At 24, my partner attempted to kill me — I remember running away, her brandishing a butcher knife behind me. These acts I survived. Yet what nearly broke me was the unending disbelief I was asked to shoulder as a black, queer woman for speaking out about the crimes I endured.

The truth is, we are rooted in a culture that barters the wholesale silence of black women to protect their tormentors. Last year, we witnessed a veritable media and activist blackout of Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma police officer sentenced to 263 years in prison for sexually assaulting at least eight black women. It is said that he was able to commit so many assaults because he knew his victims would not be afforded the luxury of belief, because they were black, had criminal histories and lived in low income areas. One survivor was asked why she didn't speak out, and she said, "how do you report the police to the police?"

A year later, and I cannot shake the bleak wisdom of her words. Who will stand for black women and not require their silence as payment? We all know the stories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray — black men felled by racist imaginations. The difference? We know their names. We don't know the names of Daniel Holtzclaw's victims, or the countless other black survivors whose stories haven't made the nightly news.

In the recently released Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department, a detective in the Sex Offenses Unit was reported to state, "all our cases are bullsh--." Upon further prodding, he amended that to allow that maybe 10 percent had merit. The same report found that BPD routinely threatens victims of sexual assault with lie detector tests, requests testing of fewer than one in five rape kids, and routinely fails to pursue investigations of sexual assault beyond opening a case.

The DOJ report makes no mention of the impact of race and racial discrimination on the reporting of sexual assault, however. It is as if sexual assault occurs absent of race, gender identity, sexual orientation and class. The numbers, however, tell us a different story. A separate Department of Justice study estimates that for every black woman who reports a sexual assault, there are 15 black women who do not report. Black women are also three times less likely to report than their white counterparts. The sheer volume of stories going untold is breathtaking.

I ask myself: How often are black women seen as less than human, incapable of telling the truth? Even when we are wounded, our pain is not tended to, but rather we are asked to swallow our own blood to keep the peace in our families, to protect men, institutions or simply to keep our own bodies safe. It is no mistake that Zora Neale Hurston called black women "the mules of the world."

It is time we engaged in the difficult work of talking about the intersections of rape culture and racism, and what it takes to affirm black survivors in a world that does not want to see us — because unlike Luke Cage, we are not bulletproof. We need to talk about what it means to hold perpetrators accountable in a judicial system that clearly brutalizes black people and how to build new visions of restorative justice. Pretending that the same system that killed Freddie Gray isn't the same system that violates survivors of rape, only benefits those who profit from patriarchy and racism.

The Department of Justice is drafting a consent decree that will mandate a set of actions that the Baltimore Police Department must take to rectify decades of systemic abuse. But if it focuses solely on race, it will be meaningless. To continue to pursue policy changes that pretend gender-based violence is somehow separate from racism, transphobia, homophobia and classism isn't just foolhardy, it's dangerous — especially for the 90 percent of sexual assault victims dismissed by city police.

What I am trying to say is that I want a world where all survivors are believed.

Saida Agostini is chief operating officer of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture; her email is saida.agostini@gmail.com.

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