The Mind Set of Sexual Violence Among African American Women
By: Javonda Nix
“Who knows what the black woman thinks of rape? Who has asked her? Who cares?” – Alice Walker (2004)
Broken. Vulnerable. Scared. Depressed. Women who have been sexually assaulted experience all of these emotions. However, due to societal pressures, black women often feel they are denied the opportunity to feel these human emotions. As a result, black women internalize their feelings, continue to live functional lives, and are labeled as strong, resilient, fearless, and angry. While these labels –with the exception of angry—may seem positive, the impact of those words have discouraged many black women from seeking mental health services after they have been sexually assaulted. Historically, black women have dealt with many different levels of trauma. The distinct legacy of slavery, racism, sexism, and economic oppression continue to shape the lives of black women and their view of sexual violence.
It is that legacy that has continued to silence black women who have been sexually assaulted. Throughout history, black women have been taught to protect, and not to expose, “bad things” within the black community. There is an old mantra that states, “What goes on in this house, stays in this house.” This belief system and practice make it very difficult for black women to report sexual violence within their community. Instead of speaking up about their own sexual assault, traditionally, Black women have felt compelled to come to the aid of black men who were falsely accused of perpetrating sexual violence. When a black woman reports a sexual assault from a member of the black community, she may distrust the criminal justice system and feel a sense of guilt in “sending another black man to prison.” This is often difficult for black women as they are torn between protecting their community and caring for themselves. Therefore, more often than not, she remains silent and does not ask for help.
Black women are silenced because of shame and because they feel they must uphold the image of the black community. Black women continue to display this strong persona while sacrificing their inner peace and the chance for them to begin the healing process. However, this is problematic because it ostracizes black women. When a black woman hears “strong” in relation to sexual assault, she internalizes “You can do this on your own. You do not need help. Move on. Get over it. You are not the first black woman this has happened to.” When a black woman does decide to seek help, they may be hesitant to disclose to rape centers, medical providers, law enforcement, friends, and family members because of the negative stereotypes. One stereotype that has haunted black women for decades is “the Mammy” figure. The “Mammy” stereotype supports how black women will bear any burden in honor of their families, partners, churches, and employers, while sacrificing their physical and mental health. Another stereotype is the “Sapphire.” In the pre-war era, white women were viewed as being delicate damsels while black women who worked together with men were seen as being harder or tougher. Another stereotype is the “Jezebel.” This stereotype allowed society to sexually exploit enslaved women. The belief that black women are “Jezebels” increased the vulnerability of black women to be sexually assaulted and made them less likely to be believed. The final stereotype is the “Matriarch.” This stereotype refers to how black woman are single and the head of the household, which is looked down upon in a patriarchal society. When all of these stereotypes are combined into the psyche of black women for centuries, it is easy to understand why black women are hesitant to disclose sexual assault.
As professionals working with survivors of sexual violence, it is important that our services, treatments, research, and intervention efforts meet the needs of black women. As professionals, we need to ask ourselves, “What can we do to support black women dealing with sexual trauma?” First, we need to listen to black women. Black women have been sexually assaulted for decades and their pain has often been ignored by mainstream society. Even though the #MeToo campaign was founded by a black woman, the “movement” did not begin until white, female celebrities spoke out about sexual assault. Black women were left out of the conversation. After we begin listening to black women, we need to give them space to use their voice. This can be scary for professionals as it may be difficult to control the spotlight. However, black women bring a host of ideas that help black women specifically, but also all survivors of sexual assault. We must be willing to accept input from black women in the area of sexual assault. In response to Alice Walker’s quote, our response—in words and actions—should be, “We care.”