Silence Still Equals Death: Sexual Violence & Women of Color


 

 

 

By Sikivu Hutchinson

April is sexual assault awareness month.  It also marks the global observance of Denim Day for sexual assault survivors.  Black and mixed race women have some of the highest sexual assault rates in the U.S. Yet, recently, when young women of color in my class spoke on the disproportionate number of women of color victimized by sexual violence they initially trotted out stereotypes like “mixed race women are more likely to be raped because they are the ‘prettiest’ and “black women get assaulted more because they have ‘big butts.’ This intersection of internalized racism and sexism is most potent when youth grapple with how representations of young women of color in the media normalize sexual violence.

The normalization of sexual violence breeds silence in the classroom.  In the clockwatching ten minutes-before-the-bell-rings clamor of my peer health workshop of 11th and 12th graders there is silence, deafening and thick as quicksand. I have asked them a question about the widespread use of the words “bitch” and “ho” to describe young women of color on campus.  Several boys are holding forth in response. They are the same four opinionated boys who have been the most vocal throughout these sessions, always ready with a quip, a deflection or, sometimes, serious commentary that reveals deep wisdom. They are bursting with perspective on this topic, but the girls in the room are silent. Some twist in their seats, some study the tops of their desks in calculated boredom, transporting themselves outside of the room, slain by the language of dehumanization. Finally a few girls chime in and say they use the terms casually with friends, as in “my bitch or my ho,” supposedly neutralizing their negative connotations akin to the way they use the word “nigga.” Some claim the words are justifiably used to describe “bad girls” who are promiscuous and unruly, not realizing that black women have always been deemed “bad” in the eyes of the dominant culture, as less than feminine, as bodies for violent pornographic exploitation. When I wondered aloud whether white women call themselves bitch and ho as terms of endearment I got uncertain responses. My guess is that they don’t, not because white women are necessarily more enlightened and self-aware than women of color on gender, but because white femininity is the beauty ideal and hence the human ideal. Despite the misogyny that pervades American culture there is inherent value placed on the lives of white women. Every aspect of the image industry affirms their existence, and the spectrum of culturally recognized white femininity extends from proper and pure to “sexually liberated.”

This is exemplified by the tabloid media’s obsession with missing white women and white girls. Plastered on websites like AOL, relentlessly rammed down our collective throats in titillating morsels with whiffs of sexuality and scandal, poster child Caylee Anderson and company are a metaphor for Middle America’s Little Red Riding Hood fetishization of white femininity. Tabloid narratives of imperiled white females highlight the suburban virtues of white Middle America and not so subtlely evoke the social pathologies of the so-called inner city. Indeed, the spectacles of grief, mourning, and community outrage trotted out on CNN and FOX not only program viewers to identify with the injustice that has been done to the victim and her family, but to her community. In the world of 24-7 media these victims become our girls, our daughters, while the “bitches” and “hos” of the inner city symbolize the disorder and ungovernableness of an urban America whose values must be kept at bay.

In many regards this is part of the same “post-feminist” trend that tells women to sit down and shut up, to internalize the values of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and stay in their place. A generation of Bush militarism and corporate reign over media has turned sexualized violence against women into a billion dollar industry, as illustrated by global romance with gangsta rap, violent video games and Internet pornography. Yet the desensitization of young black women to these trends is perhaps the most painful. When I talk to my students about the staggering rates of sexual assault and intimate partner abuse in black communities they are quick to judge themselves and their peers for inciting male violence. Unable to see themselves and their lives as valuable they slam other girls for being “hoochies” and sloganeer violent misogynist lyrics without a second thought. Awareness about the relationship between pervasive violence against black women in the media and male behavior is virtually nonexistent.

This Denim Day Women’s Leadership Project students from Gardena and Washington Prep High schools in South L.A. will conduct training in classroom on gender equity and sexual violence; challenging their peers to critically examine the media, school, and community images that promote sexualized violence against women of color.  Until we change the self-hating mindset of many young black women, silence—as the HIV/AIDS activist saying goes—does equal death, and we will be poised to lose another generation to a media-colonized sense of self-worth.

 

Comments

  1. says

    When I wondered aloud whether white women call themselves bitch and ho as terms of endearment I got uncertain responses. My guess is that they don’t, not because white women are necessarily more enlightened and self-aware than women of color on gender, but because white femininity is the beauty ideal and hence the human ideal.

    I can’t speak for all white folks, but my friends find it amusing when I use the phrase “my bitches!” the same way as “my pals” or “my peeps.” It’s not gender-specific, however, and I’m not aware of any white women using “ho” as anything except an insult.

    • blackskeptics says

      Exactly. Some of my students tried to argue with me about this but backed down when I and their classmates reminded them how rap artists popularized/normalized those terms and made them “sexy/acceptable” to mainstream America.

      • says

        I was surprised today to find out that the “99 problems but this bitch ain’t one →” sign held up by Mike Lee to disparage one of the Phelps sisters at the Reason Rally comes right out of a Jay-Z song from 2004. (Lee, AKA Religious Antagonist, is a real-life troll who seems to have the backing of at least one FTB blogger.) I hadn’t heard that song of Jay-Z’s before, but no wonder no one blinked at a man running around the Reason Rally calling women bitches–he was just referencing a popular song. It is like Dan Aykroyd making slut an acceptable term to call one’s female peers through his news personality on Saturday Night Live.

        • says

          The origin of that “99 Problems” line is actually a 1993 Ice-T song of the same name. Jay-Z used the chorus, partly as an homage to Ice-T and partly a double entendre with “bitch” referring to a police K9 unit dog. So … it’s Ice-T’s fault :-)

          • says

            Hah! So it is. The Ice-T rap, for comparison, is here [YouTube] and uncensored (NSFW).

            As for Jay-Z narrowly missing being sniffed out for drugs by a K-9 police companion, you can actually tell how he morphs that word from referencing women to referencing a real bitch (a female dog) at one point in the song.

      • says

        There’s the SlutWalk movement and Bitch Magazine. So yes, there are white women who use equivalent terms either jokingly with each other, or as way to reclaim stereotypes. And no, internalized misogyny is by no means limited to black girls.

    • says

      I’m female and white and also use “bitch” affectionately with my very close friends. I will also use it without hesitation on women who are awful people, like Phyllis Schlafly, in the way that many people use the word “asshole” to describe (mostly) men with similarly unpleasant personalities.

      I do have a problem with calling women in general bitches, or calling a group of friends “my bitches”, or even saying something like “you’re my bitch now”. In general because the implication is forced submission as opposed to an unpleasant or rude person.

      It may be arbitrary, but that’s where my line currently is. I feel pretty much the same way about the c* word, but I don’t say “ho” all that much either. I’m a Gen-Xer so maybe I was too old when rap went mainstream to be amused by it. It just always seemed nasty and/or racist to me.

  2. mouthyb says

    I call myself a bitch, but I don’t casually use that word on other women, if it matters.

    Trying to convince people in a classroom to pay attention to culture is both super-rewarding and super-frustrating. I’m glad you’re doing it.

  3. Andre Smith says

    This sounds like one helluva reach. Blaming the media and current culture is way too damned easy. At some point, does this BS not come back to horrible parenting and a lack of presence inside the home itself? These same kids you’re talking about, I wonder how many of them have parent that drop “bitch, ho, and nigga” multiple in the same day in direct view of their kids during those formative years. Sure media plays apart, BUT you have run into the problem of self responsibility and either one matures and considers such behaviors as “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. I think too many times having grown up in an environment parents often are simply not at home to address these issues and properly rear children. I would argue this is more correlated with economics, how many parent can completely raise and have these kids of discussions with their kids if they are always at work. Then of course you have the other problem of absentee parenting and black mothers who use their children as pawns, and you can reasonably bet the time/if time is spent with the father in most cases he’s not speaking very highly of their mother which I think has more immediate impact. If mom or dad says it, it must be okay. Of course I come from a single parent home, father at that no mother present, black, growing up in the Bronx NY from (83-00). And I won’t say my dad is a saint, and yeah I heard this kind of language all the time. But he also taught me words carry weight and responsibility and they should not be used lightly, and that to me is the larger problem. The words themselves are meaningless because it’s about the actions & behaviors associated with them in the first place. Do white women refer to each other as such? One need only cruise around facebook, youtube, and the South to which I am here currently, predominately white….I’ve seen it enough times, so I know it’s not a race issue. It’s a parenting issue in my view.

    • blackskeptics says

      The bad parent argument is reductive, ahistorical and fails to consider the complex realities of young black girls’ lives across class lines. So what influences the media? The cultural, economic and social history of race and gender. The social construction of black women as hos/bitches emerges from a long legacy of black women’s bodies being used for sexual and reproductive exploitation under the slave economy. 17th century colonial law institutionalizing racial slavery was specifically articulated through the control of black female sexuality — only black women’s bodies could “produce” new slaves and only black women’s reproduction was controlled to bolster plantation wealth and slaveowners’ market power. Within the cultural ideology of the plantation black women were natural jezebels, temptresses and amoral heathens in contrast to the pure ideal of the hyper-feminine civilized white woman. That legacy is borne out in the pervasiveness of black womens’ dehumanization as “unrapeable” (sexual assault of black women, by white and black men, was an oxymoron under the plantation regime and was only validated as a crime in the South in the mid-20th century) “crack hos” (i.e. Ken and John’s slur of Whitney Houston), nappy-headed hos (i.e. Don Imus’ slur of the Rutgers basketball team) and “bitches ain’t nothing but hos & tricks” (i.e., Dre Dre’s much emulated and much “admired” slur, as well as scores of others, of black women).For further reading see Paula Giddings “When and Where I Enter”, Dorothy Roberts “Killing the Black Body” and Danielle McGuire’s “At the Dark End of the Street: Rape and Resistance”

  4. mynameischeese says

    Confession: I used “bitch” and “ho” to describe men. But that was in my younger, angrier days.

  5. mynameischeese says

    “A generation of Bush militarism and corporate reign over media has turned sexualized violence against women into a billion dollar industry, as illustrated by global romance with gangsta rap, violent video games and Internet pornography. Yet the desensitization of young black women to these trends is perhaps the most painful.”

    I was listening to a conversation between some people about how a lot of porn relies on sexism and racism. It seems to me that this sexism and racism would impact black women more than your average, middle class white woman. But the response of one of the people was, “But you have racism and sexism in Hollywood, too.” This strikes me as a “two wrongs make a right” type of argument. It seems obvious to me that racism and sexism in Hollywood films must have some kind of effect on people. There’s no way that it’s “just entertainment.” And if it does affect people, this affect must be exagerated in porn.

    I’ve read up a little bit about desensitisation in regards to depictions of violence in the media, but I’ve never seen it broken down by race and gender (I’m assuming that if there’s a scientific way to look at the effects, that a study will probably show that black women experience the consequences of these depictions more than white women for instance). Have you any suggestions for further reading?

  6. says

    Oh, I forgot to add this:

    When I talk to my students about the staggering rates of sexual assault and intimate partner abuse in black communities they are quick to judge themselves and their peers for inciting male violence. Unable to see themselves and their lives as valuable they slam other girls for being “hoochies” and sloganeer violent misogynist lyrics without a second thought. Awareness about the relationship between pervasive violence against black women in the media and male behavior is virtually nonexistent.

    This is just incredibly heartbreaking to hear.

    It’s partly because I know that victim-blaming is incredibly common among all people and it always pains me to see it. And it’s partly because there’s this higher standard placed on victims to be the ones who take responsibility for their actions, as opposed to the perpetrators. But it’s also because the tendency to victim blame gets amplified when the victim isn’t a “nice, normal, white” person with no discernible “faults”. That it’s so easy for many of us to identify with the perpetrators and turn these amplified standards even on ourselves is extremely, extremely depressing.

    • crayzz says

      A really depressing trend I’ve noticed is that as the pervasiveness of a problem increases, the victim blaming increases.

      If you get mugged in the middle of the night, you should of known better. Don’t you know criminals come out at night? And it kind of is your fault you got raped. I mean, everyone knows that women get raped sometimes, so you shouldn’t have been attracting attention to yourself with that slutty dress. And if it’s a black women that’s been raped, the dial goes to 11, because she really must have been asking for it.
      /sarcasm

  7. MatthewL says

    As an OWM (older white male) I have a bit of a different perspective. In my youth “bitch” was used as a put down for uppity women. As an appreciator of uppity women I couldn’t help but think of it as more of a compliment. (Kind of the way “bastard” is a backhanded compliment for a guy who’s bested you in a negotiation.) Of course to use it as such was, and still is, a delicate matter. I recall once meeting a “bitch on wheels” attorney and thinking I would sure want her on my team.

    • amodeo65 says

      I almost put my white liberal foot up my right liberal ass when responding to this post. I found myself awfully uncomfortable while reading. Was I reacting to the strident tone of the article? Was it that the message sounded oddly familiar?
      I think it was a bit of both, actually. On one hand I found the tone of the post to be hostile, inflammatory (more about this later). On the other hand, I kept thinking “I’ve heard this before”. Coupled with this thought was also, “fuck, you think white women don’t suffer, too?”(Ouch. As I look at that last sentence,I can’t believe I thought it.)I kept reading bits of the article and stopping to digest before going to the next bit, and I had the above running through my mind.
      I know about feminism. I know something about racism. Both of which insist you thinking about what you are thinking. Knee jerk reactions mean that something is happening emotionally. I don’t like to leave emotions unexamined.Following is not so much a response to your post as a response to my reactions to it. I think if we truly want to be who we say we are, we have to examine ourselves. I like to think of myself as a feminist and an anti-racist (?? Is there a positive way to express this?)I hope it informs you:
      I remember reading strident articles and seeing movies with tough messages (Anybody seen “Not a Love Story”. That was hard to sit through)years ago,created by white women.The tone never bothered me then. In fact, I take it with young, upstart, pups and their mysongist, older brothers.
      We all know white women suffer AND WE ALL KNOW that women of colour suffer MORE OFTEN. Any of us who think otherwise, or think it is none of our concern, are in denial. We, white women know that individually we may be called a bitch, but we are still considered “better” than women of colour on the whole. I also know that in my culture, being a called a bitch means you don’t submit to anybody (a label I wear proudly). You may react nastily when called one, but it means you’ve pissed somebody off. I don’t know what being called a bitch means to other people in other cultures. I know some of the conditions that some women of colour live in and I doubt names have no power over them.
      Just because white women have gained alot of power, doesn’t mean we all have. The fight is not over until every last woman in the world can live where she wants, how she wants, and not have to suffer for it.
      Thanks for making me think.
      Oh yeah. Blame it on the parents? Give me a break.

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