The bur­den of black women

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

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 gen­der­based 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.

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