"Where were [her parents] when this girl was seen wandering at all hours with no supervision and pretending to be much older?"
—Kisha Williams, Cleveland, Texas, resident, in "Girl's Sex Assault Rocks Cleveland," Houston Chronicle
I'm pretty sure that when James C. McKinley, a reporter for the New York Times, filed "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town" with his editors, he had no idea that his failed attempt at nuance would have such a massive fallout. Despite the heinous nature of this crime — an 11-year-old Mexican-American girl was allegedly raped by 18 African-American boys and young men ranging in age from 14 to 27 in two different locations — McKinley chose to include quotes from Cleveland, Texas, residents — mostly black — who believed that the preteen had lured the men and was a consenting participant.
He wrote, "[Residents] 'said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.' " A neighbor tells the paper, " 'Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?' "
Normally, an article like this would have soon been forgotten, but when well-known feminist activist Shelby Knox called out McKinley and the Times in a Change.org petition, stating that the article was "appalling" and "alluded that the victim was asking for it," McKinley found himself at the center of a firestorm. While the Times has yet to apologize, its public editor wrote in a blog that he understood why people were outraged and he was told that the newspaper would be working on an update to the story. He wrote that he hoped the paper would "delve more deeply into the subject" next time, but he wasn't sure if that would happen.
Only time will tell.
And so in this national debate about the media's responsibility to report sexual assaults fairly and accurately, something needs to be pointed out: If there hadn't been any ignorant comments made in the first place, McKinley could not have used them. So yes, the Times deserved to be scrutinized for bad judgment, but so do the people who were eager to go on record with their ridiculous insinuations.
Blaming the Victim
How can adults actually believe that an 11-year-old is able to consent to sex with a 27-year-old — let alone 17 other young boys and men? How can grown folks, who should know better, place so much responsibility on the most vulnerable and least powerful in our society?
What's even more disturbing is that the communal response in Cleveland isn't an isolated incident — we have a rich history of dismissing victims as being either "fast" or "hos." Minus a few exceptions, this nonsense also continues to go unchecked. And while this particular young girl in Texas was Latina, we have reacted in similar ways when the victim was African American.
Then there's LaToya Bell, a young woman who, when asked her thoughts about the convictions of 14 men and boys for raping an 11-year-old in her Milwaukee neighborhood, told the Associated Press, "Four to five years? [Those boys] (are) getting time for nothing. That girl, she knew what she was doing."
Aishah Shahidah Simmons, the producer and director of No! The Rape Documentary, finds these attitudes about black female sexuality sickening. "Why does rape become the penalty for being fast? And why are we willing to turn our girls over to the wolves to teach them a lesson?"
Yes, why are we so willing?
Black Girls and Women: Sacrificial Lambs
Simmons believes that history provides some of the answers. "We have a legacy of black men being painted as rapists. From the murder of Emmett Till and the Scottsboro trials, black men have been unjustly lynched or jailed for doing something as innocent as winking at a white woman," she explains. "And so to counter all of this, we feel that we have to prove the myth wrong by saying 'No, black men don't rape,' but sometimes they do, and because we want to protect them, we choose to say nothing and blame the woman."
So if we reject the stereotypes about black men being brutal black bucks who want to savagely rape white women, it means that we accept the jezebel stereotypes about black women. "Black women [have been seen] as oversexed and promiscuous, [which] makes many people extremely insensitive to black female victims," says Imani Perry, an associate professor of African-American studies at Princeton University.
And while, in 2011, African Americans no longer worry about public lynchings, we are consumed with fear about the prison industrial complex and an unfair American legal system. In the minds of some black folks, speaking out about rape means handing over our men to the oppressive "system." Therefore we make a conscious (or unconscious) decision to sacrifice women's well-being for the freedom of men.
What's even more depressing is that many rape victims carry the burden to protect their own attackers, which can lead to low reporting of attacks. "I see this a lot with women who come to us for help," says Scheherazade Tillet, executive director of A Long Walk Home, an organization that uses art therapy and performance arts to educate people about rape and bring about social change. "Not only do they blame themselves for the attack or wonder what they did to bring it about themselves, but they don't want to be responsible for sending another black man to prison by going to the police."
And so essentially, women and girls end up paying for racism by being taught to accept sexism for the sake of the greater good.
We Need to Break the Silence
"I am not responsible for racism," says Simmons. "Yes, black men have been pathologized, but that doesn't mean we should remain silent about sexism."
So how can we move forward? The limited statistics available about black women and rape (PDF) are not encouraging: For every black woman who reports a rape, there are at least 15 who don't; approximately 40 percent of black women report coercive sexual contact by the age of 18; and almost half of rapes happen to women who live in the third-lowest income distribution. And no, I am not saying that rape and the devaluing of women is something exclusive to black folks — it happens in all racial communities. But at some point, as black people, we have to admit the undeniable: We have a serious problem.
"We have to create a new culture where healthy masculinity and femininity can co-exist — a masculine feminist, if you will," says Pinto.
Perry agrees and adds, "We need a survivor-centered approach to the problem of sexual violence. What factors make black children, women and imprisoned men so vulnerable to sexual violence? If we look at all the social forces that make black people more vulnerable to sexual violence, we can pursue solutions that benefit not just the black community but the society at large and beyond."
So if McKinley's journalistic misstep has any real benefit, it is that he "uncovered" an ugly truth that we have been in denial about for entirely too long. Teaching our youth that masculinity is directly linked to domination and that a girl's role is to lie down and "take it for the team" has had disastrous consequences. And if race continues to trump gender, young black girls and women not only will continue to suffer at the hands of their attackers but will also fall prey to our own unforgivable depravity.
Kellee Terrell is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Terrell is also the news editor for thebody.com, a website about HIV/AIDS. Follow her on Twitter.