Black Men Need to Talk With Each Other About Rape Culture

Illustration for article titled Black Men Need to Talk With Each Other About Rape Culture
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I first started learning about sexual and domestic violence against women when I began my career as a journalist in New York City, in 2011. They are the hardest stories I’ve ever written. The women, all of them black, often told me they had no one to turn to when the assaults took place. No one would believe them. And by “believe,” they meant to listen or consider if they were being truthful. Some of the women I’ve interviewed have become my closest friends and have shared things with me I will carry to my grave. Over the years, close friends and family unconnected to my work as a reporter have also shared their sexual assault stories. Some of them told me that their rapists were deceased family members and that they believed their loved ones knew what was going on but were unwilling to confront the family member. Usually, it was a cousin or an uncle.

They’ll take the abuse they endured to their own graves—or at least until their abusers go to theirs first.

I’ve never been sexually abused in my life nor have I thought about it. As a man, I felt I never had to. That was something that only happened to women, I thought—until I learned that it wasn’t. I didn’t learn about street harassment against women until 2014, when Feminista Jones started #YouOkSis, a Twitter hashtag that gave black women space to discuss how simply walking down the street could end with men verbally abusing and accosting them for rejecting their calls for attention.

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I was in my early 30s when I first understood how oppressive society is toward women who resist men’s calls for sexual attention. I didn’t have the language in 2014 to understand sexual violence until black women on Twitter started discussing patriarchy, sexism, and rape culture. As a straight, cis-gendered black man, I’ve had a pretty privileged life when it comes to not having to deal with sexual harassment because, by and large, my gender protected me from it.

Or, more to the point, patriarchy protected me.

That is a big pill for many black men to swallow—especially for any argument positing that we are near the top of any power dynamic. But it’s true. I talked about taking pain to the grave earlier to allow space for us to engage in the very uneasy discourse around the sexual assault of women amid Kobe Bryant’s death.

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But just between us men, we need to do the work of talking with each other.

I’m not going to delve much into Kobe Bryant, the rape case against him or try to relitigate it. But I will make one thing very clear before I move on: I believe his accuser. I also am mourning his death because I truly believe he wanted to be a better person after that rape accusation. We must unpack why women, especially black women, feel Kobe’s death reminds them of their own weakened positions of reporting their own rapes.

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Most of the discourse I saw around Kobe focused less on relitigating the merits of his case than it did on how they felt the NBA legend was able to grow into a better person without using his massive influence to discuss consent with men who could have benefitted from his public self-reflection. His apology letter made clear he didn’t understand his accuser did not want sex that night [Editor’s note: or didn’t want to engage in all sex acts, or at some point wanted to stop]. I don’t think most parents teach their children about consent because our society is too puritanical to mandate sex education in schools. We especially don’t teach boys how to ask for consent or to give it. I think we do the opposite. Boys are conditioned to feel that we have access to women’s bodies—whether they grant us permission or not.

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And it doesn’t have to amount to rape, either. I’ll use myself as an example.

When I was 14 years old, in 1994, I was walking my friend to the bus stop and waited with her until the bus arrived. We were small talking as we usually did, but she had no idea what I was planning to do once she boarded the bus. When the bus arrived, we said goodbye to each other and when she reached the top of the bus steps, I ran up and slapped her on the butt. She quickly turned around and shot a look of shock and embarrassment at me. Kids sitting on the bus laughed and stared.

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I honestly don’t know why I did it. I wanted to be cool. I guess?

Well, I didn’t feel cool. I felt bad. And so did she. I walked away with slumped shoulders, guilt running through my body. Her older sister called me to ask why I did it. Of course, I lied and denied everything. But all I remembered was how I made her feel and vowed to never touch another person without their consent again. We were freshmen, so the moment passed—at least for me—and we never talked about it again. We chatted with each other throughout our high school years until we graduated in 1998. I have not seen her since.

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I don’t remember if I told her I was sorry. If I could now, I would. I knew better then and I especially know better now. Unfortunately, though, I think too many boys would not have left the situation with regret. In fact, I believe many boys would have felt encouraged to try again to get the desired response. And it’s not like I had some feminist moment that made me reflect on all of this. I just felt bad instantly and didn’t want to make anyone else feel bad, either.

When I have sons and daughters, I will tell them that story. I will teach every child close to me, if they are mine or not, what consent means.

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During my junior year in high school, some boys on the football team of which I was a captain were accused of gang-raping another female student. The details from the allegations evade me. I remember our coach saying basically, “They say they didn’t do it.” That was the end of it. It satisfied me and the rest of the team didn’t think anything of it. I have no idea if the allegations were true or not. I do know that our coach should have used that moment to talk to us about consent, what rape is and why we should take it seriously.

None of that happened.

Do I claim to represent all men? No, I don’t. But I do believe that my experience of not having to learn about consent mirrors that of most men in America? Yep. That is what survivors who are mourning Kobe’s death want us to do. Think about consent. Talk about consent. Teach our daughters what consent is and how to grant it. Teach our boys and ourselves to ask for it.

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My colleagues Damon Young, Maiysha Kai, and Anne Branigin have written passionately about the Snoop Dogg-led backlash against Gayle King in ways my words cannot capture. So, I won’t address that here. Instead, I want to simply ask black men to stop asking Gayle King and Oprah Winfrey to investigate white men accused of rape as if that action absolves black men from treating black women like the “queens” they claim to honor them as. (By the way, I hate referring to black women as “queens” because it rings too hotep-y for me)

We can’t call black women queens when we’re getting what we want from them, only to call them bitches when they don’t tow a line we feel is beneficial to us. Nor do I have any desire to level the playing field with white men by being able to get away with rape just like them.

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And if there is any suggestion I have for Gayle King, it’s that she and other journalists should reserve their questions about Kobe’s rape case for men. King did not do anything wrong by asking Lisa Leslie that question. But I do wonder why black women have to carry the cross of accountability for black men who have, by and large, been neither emotionally mature or intellectually honest enough to find ways to engage the discourse of sexual assault around Kobe’s death without hurling misogynistic diatribes.

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While Snoop Dogg did finally apologize, it was disheartening that it took his mother to help him see the wrong in his behavior. (Notice how black women keep doing the labor of carrying our misogynistic bullshit?) A lot of black men with media platforms either gave weak reactions to Snoop’s language, argued the false equivalence of “two wrongs don’t make a right” (again, Gayle was not wrong for asking the question) or flat-out supported him. These brothas have their own intellectual dishonesty and faux devotion to black women to reckon with. We also have to engage the feminist and womanist theory of Kimberly N. Foster; the hosts of podcasts Tea with Queen and J and Marsha’s Plate; Feminista Jones; and others to appreciate these myriad emotions black women are expressing around Kobe’s death.

Genuine critiques over King’s line of questioning isn’t so much a journalistic question as it is a gender one.

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Some men claim former National Security Adviser Susan Rice was equally wrong for quote-tweeting Snoop, saying that she has an army and he will lose. What Rice did was balance the gender dynamic in the favor of Gayle and Oprah because most black men were too busy joining and condoning the onslaught of sexism and verbal violence to check their fragile masculinity. She leveled the playing field and men didn’t like it. Interesting how women dare to protect each other against misogyny and men cry foul.

Oh, the irony. How predictable.

Too many of us were too busy co-signing Snoop’s behavior. Or, in the case of some TV personalities, likely too nervous to go in too hard on him, lest they fray their relationships with the rapper and be cut off from future interviews and industry events.

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Bros before hoes, right?

It’s not easy, but black men really need to discuss rape culture and consent. There is no “right time” to ask or talk about it. If there is, when is it? A year after Kobe’s memorial? Six years? Never?

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Kobe Bryant was a girl dad. I really believe that. I wonder how Kobe would feel if he knew black men crying foul over Gayle King’s line of questioning were calling women bitches and hoes in his name? Black men, we are better than that. In fact, I know we are. I never knew Kobe, but I want to believe that he honestly tried to correct his life after the alleged rape. I want to believe he did some deep soul searching and that he would have made better choices that night. In honor of his death, I want to pay my respects to Kobe by speaking about consent and asking men to follow suit.

I am sure all the black men who are great girl dads would want their sons to grow up to become great girl dads, too. We should pay tribute to Kobe’s life by talking about consent so that our boys do not make the same mistakes Kobe did; ones that likely led to him ultimately becoming the girl dad many of us grew to appreciate.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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DISCUSSION

feministonfire
FeministOnFire

I remember terrifying fear, at the age of six when we got cloakrooms and recess, of the ‘games’ that boys somehow knew how to play. Being the only girl in my family/friend group, I thought I knew most games. But I’d never heard of Hit It, Go Get It involving boys hitting girls’ behinds when they were least expecting it. I helped indoctrinate us to being wary all the time. But the true terror came from the electric undercurrent of fear that came when the teacher left the room for a break while we had ‘quiet time’. The meanest boy and his henchmen of popular and athletic boys would choose one girl to force into the cloakroom (cubbies with a curtain covering them) for each of them to take turns to grind against. Each girl was bullied and pushed into going in and came out in shock and crying. They were threatened with a recess or the walk-home beat down if they told the teacher. I didn’t understand what they were doing but when I was told, I’m ashamed that I didn’t tell the teachers. I can’t explain my thinking then but those boys somehow knew to use the physical to subdue and the psychological to intimidate. Rape culture education has to start earlier than anyone thinks to effect a change; we were six!