Sexual Assault Awareness Month just came to an end, but its purpose couldn’t have been more relevant in the last days of April. Bill Cosby’s conviction for rape has been met with anger by many outraged at what they see as the unfair persecution of someone who visibly represented black triumph and black excellence. I’m a black woman, and as such have had a front-row seat to the latter brand of outrage ever since the decades-old allegations against Cosby finally became part of the public’s awareness in the past couple of years.
The protest/outrage goes something like this:
- The women are liars, they waited too long to say something, and they’re in pursuit of money and fame.
- This is a plot to bring a successful black man down. Or, as I like to call it, “The Incredibly-Myopic-and-Offensive-To-Our-Brutalized-Ancestors Lynching Defense”
- Rich white men like Harvey Weinstein have gotten away with sexual violence (and racist police officers are getting away with police brutality). Why isn’t the same luxury being afforded to Bill Cosby and R. Kelly?
Writers before me have responded over and over again to the ludicrous suggestion that women, who demonstrably have more to lose, speak up about being survivors of sexual abuse in hopes of achieving money and notoriety. Only 2-8 percent of rapes are falsely reported, the same percentage as for other felonies. And the #MeToo movement has also answered the question of why victims of sexual assault take “so long” to say something about it, to anyone who was asking in good faith. In short: a well-founded fear of retaliation, the very real threat of being blamed for someone else’s decision to violate your body, just being disbelieved all together, and not a small amount of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I’d like to tackle the notion that it’s a racial injustice—akin to the literal murder by hanging of black bodies with absolutely no due process, let alone the best lawyers money can buy—that men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly don’t get the same leeway for predatory, violent behavior that white men do. What does such a stance say about how we’ve defined racial equality? Are black people of different genders, sexual orientations, classes, creeds, and faiths all really marching in pursuit of a world where white male supremacy is matched by black male supremacy?
And if that is the world we want to see, I have to ask as a black woman – what’s in it for us?
Why are we advocating for a type of black liberty that allows for and excuses the sexual assault visited upon black girls as soon as they hit puberty (and even before that)? Why is our idea of black excellence that the Bill Cosbys and R.Kellys of the world should be able to behave badly and with impunity because they’ve amassed personal wealth that allows them to rub shoulders with and feel like the white elite that used to shut them out (and still shuts the rest of us out)?
The theory that equality for those rich, black men at the top will result in equality for black women and black people of other marginalized groups is about realistic as the similar theory in economics. The Bill Cosbys of the world, just like the Donald Trumps, have more than enough advocacy on their behalf, from the high-powered lawyers they can pay handsomely to defend them and the social capital they’ve been born with that means a man’s word—any man’s word—is worth more than a woman’s.
You know who could use our voices? The girls and women who don’t get nearly the same support when they speak out about being the victims of the kind of depraved assault men like Cosby visit on their bodies. A hip-hop legend recently tweeted that Bill Cosby is being “publicly lynched” and “digitally hanged” because—after 50 years of raping more than 40 women—he is finally being made to face justice, and well-thinking people are disavowing him for his actions.
Meanwhile, every 98 seconds, someone in America is sexually assaulted. More than 20 percent of Black women are raped during their lifetimes—a higher share than among women overall.
And only six out of every 1,000 perpetrators of sexual violence will ever end up in prison for their crimes.
With numbers like that, it’s no wonder one woman cautioned the hip hop OG on Twitter that he might be causing pain to black women survivors with his flippant attitude about what Cosby was convicted for. In acknowledging that, he responded dispassionately, “It will never be a topic of ease.”
But the very statement belied his words. It’s clear many of us aren’t uneased enough by the rape of women; at least, not as much as we are uneased by the idea of a black man getting all the way to the top and still not getting away with it.
Learn more about sexual awareness month and how you can support survivors here.
Photo caption: Last week’s Standing Silent Witness protest hosted by Rape Victim Advocates.