In early February, Tarana Burke, the original founder of the #MeToo movement, spoke in Pittsburgh. Several members of Blackburn Center’s community were fortunate enough to be in attendance at this standing-room-only event, where Ms. Burke spoke about her life, her work, and how sexual violence impacts all women, but particularly women of color.
In her talk, Ms. Burke made a statement that resonated with the audience. After speaking about a report on rape in Pittsburgh, she noted that while she is not at all familiar with the city, she could guess that the neighborhoods with the highest sexual assaults statistics were majority minority communities. The audience confirmed her suspicions. She then told us that this report also explained that in these neighborhoods had the highest percentage of unresolved sexual assault crimes. Ms. Burke stated, “Sexual violence knows no gender or race, but the response does.”
Anyone can be a victim of sexual violence, regardless of gender, race, age, socio-economic status, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. Yet the literature has borne out a simple truth: the way that women of color are treated is markedly different from how white women are treated when they report a sexual assault. Of course, there are many reasons why victims of sexual violence of any race may choose to not report their assault. Each person should choose her or his own path forward, and should never feel pressure to take any step, such as making a police report. However, for women of color, there are often forces working against those victims who would otherwise want to report their assaults.
For example, the Baltimore Police Department is notorious for its treatment of sexual assault victims. In 2016, the Department of Justice released a report on its racist and sexist practices. It found that the Baltimore Police treated victims of sexual assault — mostly black women — with “undue skepticism” and often dismissed assault, mocked and insulted victims or even harassed victims. For example, one officer asked a victim, “Why are you messing that guy’s life up” when she filed a sexual assault report. An officer in Baltimore’s sex crimes unit — the division assigned to investigate rape cases — stated “In homicide, there are real victims; all our cases are bullsh*t.”
The way that the police and others in the community respond to black victims of sexual assault is due in large part to the ideas of race and sexuality that have heavily influenced our culture. Young black girls are often viewed as older and less innocent than white girls of the same age, which may lead to others viewing them as something other than victims. It also has to do with our history, and the de-humanization of black bodies in our country through slavery and beyond.
There is a lot to unpack when it comes to how we respond to the sexual assaults against women of color, from our culture to our history to stereotypes that many of us have internalized. However, confronting these realities is the first step in changing the reality that many victims of color never see true justice.