Rape and Race: We Have to Talk About It

Remixing the racial rule of silence.


I witnessed something truly astonishing on Monday night: a public discussion of black women’s experiences of sexual violence at the hands of black men. It was an intergenerational group of black men and women, gay and straight, survivors and perpetrators, all grappling with the legacy of rape and race.

The experience was unusual because black people rarely talk about sisters being raped. We talk about all kinds of things: trivial, critical, humorous, serious, political, painful and frivolous. But as we observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April, I am reminded that there are things we don’t talk about.

We are silent about black women as victims and survivors of sexual assault by black men.

In African American communities rape narratives are not women’s stories. They are men’s stories. Rape is tied to the historical legacy of white terror. Strange fruit hanging from Southern trees has led to a legacy of disbelieving women who report sexual violence and intimidation.

Black women raped by black male perpetrators often remain silent because they are alone. They don’t want to confirm white racial stereotypes; their own families and communities tell them to shut up; they have little reason to think that authorities will take their cases seriously; they fear the devastating ramifications of a manhunt in black communities if they are believed; and in the history of lynching white women have been adversaries, not allies, on the question of rape.

Recovering from rape is burden enough without having to shoulder this vicious legacy.

I do not want to diminish or deny the pain, agony, recovery and triumph of survivors who are not black women. I do not want to claim that all black women survivors have parallel experiences or that all black women experience the same traumas in the aftermath of rape. I only want to claim there is often a different dynamic that operates for black women who have been violated by black men.

As a sexual assault survivor and advocate I know the debilitating effects of silence. That is why I was so moved by Monday night’s gathering in Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY. Together we watched Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ NO! The Rape Documentary. Then Simmons, who is herself a rape and incest survivor, talked with us and answered questions to help us process the grief, anger and confusion that her exquisite film provoked.

But here was the most surprising part of all: the gathering was organized by a community group called Black and Male in America. Under the leadership of writer, activist and Congressional candidate Kevin Powell, this group of men arranged a screening of Simmons’ powerful film. Let me say this again. A group of black men arranged for an honest, difficult, intense, public discussion of intra-racial rape.