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Girlhood Interrupted: On R. Kelly and How Black Girls Are Viewed in Our Society

In January, the documentary Surviving R. Kelly aired on Lifetime. It presented a searing look at how the singer and songwriter has allegedly sexually abused dozens of teenage girls over the course of his career. In its final episode, the docuseries examined how Kelly is alleged to be holding several women captive through a combination of emotional and physical abuse.

Surviving R. Kelly exposes an uncomfortable truth about American society. Although celebrities are often able to exploit their fame to get away with criminal behavior — including preying on teenage girls — the brazenness of R. Kelly’s actions demonstrate how his victims (primarily Black girls) are generally viewed in the United States.

According to Rebecca Epstein, executive director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, research shows that, “…black girls face even greater skepticism by the figures that wield such authority over their lives than other victims of sexual violence.” Along with Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia González, Epstein co-authored a 2017 study on how Black girls are viewed by adults as more sexually mature than white girls. As a result, when Black girls are sexually assaulted, they are less likely to be believed.

The study, titled Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, found that compared to white girls of the same age, participants believed that Black girls:

  • need less nurturing;

  • need less protection;

  • need to be supported less;

  • need to be comforted less;

  • are more independent;

  • know more about adult topics; and

  • know more about sex.

As a result, Epstein says, “Black girls face unique forms of bias that need to be addressed and that requires different consideration than the racism faced by boys. Hypersexualization is the epitome of that difference.”

In the case of R. Kelly, this view of Black girls as less innocent and more sexually mature likely contributed to how the star has gotten away with his abuse for so long. R. Kelly’s career started in 1989. Over the years, his predatory behavior was widely reported on, with little consequences for the singer/songwriter. In 1994, then 27 year old Kelly married 15 year old singer Aaliyah. The Chicago Sun-Times first published an article about R. Kelly sexually assaulting teenage girls on December 21, 2000. Kelly was charged with twelve counts of possession of child pornography in 2003, and was acquitted of the charges in 2008 after a very public trial. In 2017, he was accused of holding women hostage in a sex cult. Yet throughout this time, celebrities continued to work with him — and he continued to make music, tour, and sell albums.

Many of R. Kelly’s fans are Black girls and women themselves. In fact, Kelly would allegedly pick his victims from concerts, or through exploiting fans who wanted him to help them become stars. According to Chance the Rapper, who was interviewed for the series, “We’re programmed to really be hypersensitive to Black male oppression. But Black women are exponentially [a] higher oppressed and violated group of people just in comparison to the whole world. Maybe I didn’t care because I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were Black women.” Writer Jamilah Lemieux, who interviewed Chance, agrees. “I don’t believe that anyone would have allowed R. Kelly, a Black man, to allegedly abuse white girls in that way. I hate to even make that comparison….[b]ut everything about this story reminds me of how much it takes for a Black girl to be believed or to be taken seriously.”

Reporter Jim DeRogatis wrote the first article about R. Kelly’s exploitation of young Black girls, and has doggedly pursued R. Kelly ever since. He stated, “The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young Black women. Nobody.”

This story and this research is depressing. But we have the power to change how our society perceives Black girls and women. Our advocacy cannot and should not exclude Black girls and women. To be effective in ending gender-based violence, we must include ALL girls and women.

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