'This Movement Is a Place for You': Fatima Goss Graves on Creating Space for Black Survivors With We, As Ourselves

Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of National Women’s Law Center
Fatima Goss Graves, President and CEO of National Women’s Law Center
Image: We, As Ourselves

As Black History Month segued into Women’s History Month this year, a new platform emerged, centered solely on the vulnerable intersection of those two identities: We, As Ourselves was launched to center Black female and femme survivors of sexual violence and compel a culture in which they can be heard and supported.

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As explained in its opening statement:

Black survivors have been a key part of defining moments to call out sexual violence. Yet, as movements to address sexual violence have emerged, Black survivors’ experiences and stories have gone underexamined—and worse, Black survivors have been silenced or received backlash when they speak out.

Now, as Sexual Assault Awareness Month prepares to pass the mic to Mental Health Awareness Month, the two-month-old campaign is once again delivering a timely show of support with its first-ever Black Survivors Week of Action. Launched Monday with a call-to-action on each subsequent weekday, on Tuesday, we were asked to “Reimagine Survivorhood,” and shared our conversation with ‘me too’ founder Tarana Burke, who reimagined her ongoing movement work to co-found We, As Ourselves alongside fellow activists and thought leaders Monifa Bandele, chief operating officer of Time’s Up, and President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center Fatima Goss Graves.

Illustration for article titled 'This Movement Is a Place for You': Fatima Goss Graves on Creating Space for Black Survivors With We, As Ourselves
Image: We, As Ourselves

Wednesday’s theme is “Build Community”—an ideal time to revisit our discussion with Goss Graves, who is also a co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. As was famously brought into collective consciousness by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, We, As Ourselves recognizes that those of us who sit at the intersection of marginalized identities and often adjacent oppressions are accordingly disparately affected by pretty much every major issue, including sexual predation and sexual violence. As first Burke and later Goss Graves explained, the formation of a coalition around these issues was justified by that most simple law of physics: there’s power in numbers.

“I believe in building with other women of color leaders—just full stop,” Goss Graves told The Glow Up. “I actually think that’s how we’re going to win, frankly, across our issues. So I should I should start there, because I think if you’re ever the only person at the table or the only one driving an agenda, then it’s going to be a long time before you’re going win because the way to building more power is really by having a range of different folks who are engaging together.

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“We came together to form We, As Ourselves in part because we understood that there was a real urgency in disrupting the longstanding narratives about Black survivors and the conversation resulting in Black survivors not being seen and heard,” she also explained, later adding. “And so sometimes, you have to do an on-purpose and deliberate approach to ensure that Black survivors are seen—I’d say that same thing is often true to ensuring that the needs and interests of Black women are seen.”

Asked to elaborate on the narratives surrounding Black survivors—many of whom are Black women and femmes—Goss Graves made it plain: “You know, sometimes the problem is just that they’re invisible entirely, right? That they’re missing from narratives around what a survivor looks like, so they’re not thought of at all, despite experiencing high rates of sexual violence.

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“But sometimes, other longstanding tropes about Black women creep into how we think about Black survivors generally,” she continued. “You know, the idea either that, you know, ‘Black women are strong...they can deal with anything,’ and this is just another hard thing that Black women—who are somehow superheroes—must deal with, right? Or, the idea that that Black women in particular can’t be survivors because there’s oversexualized ideas about Black women in the first place.

“Or the idea, especially for Black girls who experience sexual violence, that they really are not girls at all, that they are adults,” Goss Graves added. “This sort of adultification that happens with our Black youth generally takes on a different tinge when we don’t give the same supports or empathy or even see them as girls in the first place.”

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Her words inevitably brought to mind the recent police shooting of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, who, while not identified as a sexual assault survivor, has largely been denied the mantle of childhood in death by those eager to absolve the police of any wrongdoing and cast the teen as the sole culprit in her own killing.

Goss Graves reminded us that, with regard to Black survivors, these “are longstanding stories that are framed by race and and gender bias in this country that inform how it is we think about survivors of sexual violence today.” Pointing out that the explosion of ‘me too’ was an opportunity to challenge that discourse among others, she equally acknowledged that even amid a global movement, “there has been too little attention, I would say, from every corner to the experiences of Black survivors, in particular—and that is what we’re trying to shift.

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Tarana’s work and the work of many Black women who have been doing this work around the country for decades, it hasn’t shifted,” Goss Graves explained. “But I think what we had to pay close attention to is the many Black women who were saying, ‘I don’t see myself in this.’ And the reason they didn’t see themselves is because their stories—despite ‘me too’ going viral, despite the acute attention around sexual violence—they still struggle to get their stories to be told in the same way. And so that is why we have to have an on-purpose effort: to make Black survivors visible, to support them and to disrupt narratives that harm us all.”

As she noted, one of the unique burdens placed upon Black survivors brave enough to speak about sexual violence within their communities is betrayal—as both an experience and often, an accusation of “betraying the race.”

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“You know, the irony is that we we apparently don’t have the language really to describe this sort of betrayal that Black survivors experience when they fail to receive the same sort of support, right?,” said Goss Graves pointedly, later adding: “And so part of the opportunity here is to redefine what that means; redefine what it means to show racial solidarity...that a failure to provide support for Black survivors, that is a core issue of racial justice and it is a core issue of gender justice.”

Illustration for article titled 'This Movement Is a Place for You': Fatima Goss Graves on Creating Space for Black Survivors With We, As Ourselves
Image: We, As Ourselves
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Beyond engaging with Black Survivors Week of Action, We, As Ourselves’ immediate call-to-action is simple: a pledge to show up for Black survivors and continue to educate ourselves on how to support them.

“We can create a space where we can actually do the work of making visible a range of Black survivors, changing the idea that shows up in people’s mind about what makes someone a survivor; what makes someone’s story worthy of hearing, and what makes someone’s experience worthy of doing something important about it,” Goss Graves explained. “Part of the way you get to shifting how we think about this issue is shifting the cultural stories in our heads; the ones that shape our immediate quick reactions, but also shape how the media engages, how pop culture engages, how policymakers engage around issues that acutely affect Blacks survivors.

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“I actually really hope that we prompt important and sometimes tough conversations within Black community. Conversations that, you know, help move not only individuals, but our core institutions to seeing their role in sort of showing up for Black survivors—our churches, our schools, our community leaders who people trust,” Goss Graves continued, further noting: “But I’m also clear that if you don’t do this sort of direct outreach that sends a signal also to Black survivors that we are here for you, that we see you, that this movement is a place for you, but also that our resources are places for you...

“And so, to the extent people are wondering, is there space for me? Will my story be treated with dignity? Is this different? What I would say is, yes,” she assured us, adding: “But I hope that We, As Ourselves, is also a specific and purposeful reminder to Black survivors that we are here.”

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This is the second in a three-part conversation with the founders of We, As Ourselves. Read part one here. Learn more about their call-to-action and Black Survivors Week of Action on the campaign’s website.

Maiysha Kai is managing editor of The Glow Up, host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast and Big Beauty Tuesdays, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. May I borrow some sugar?

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