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If You Called to Say Yr Sorry

Call Somebody Else

I Don‟t Use „Em No Morei

When Prototypes Become Stereotypes

That Keep Black Women Silent About Rape

Jyl R. Shaffer
Special Thanks

Although I‟ve been called a Cracker with Soul, I am not a black woman.

I would like to thank three remarkable, strong black women who inspired me to do this research,

answered my sometimes ignorant questions, and told me I can be a black feminist if I want to be:

Lauren Porter

Michelle Maddox

Charlotte Pierce-Baker

I only hope I did them justice.

Also, to my husband who now knows more about black women and rape than any man would

ever like to know.


Introduction

Rape feeds on silence. It gains power when victims blame themselves, when communities

are dumbfounded, and when the system fails to protect. For women who have been labeled

“victim”, the road to “survivor” can vary from challenging to impossible. The culture which

surrounds her plays a vital role in determining if she will rise above the violence she endured.

When a woman is a victim of rape she often looks past herself to her culture to tell her

how to respond. Culture, perhaps more than any other factor, influences victims‟ decisions after

a rape. However, culture is not static. In the midst of crisis, a victim may fall back to stereotypes,

which change slowly and may be more familiar. Falling into these often negative stereotypes can

be detrimental to a victim of rape seeking help.

The prototypes and stereotypes of Black culture can provide both a safe haven for black

women and a space where silence is valued. The prototype of the strong black woman is a

powerful image for young black girls finding their place in a larger society which values them

less because of their skin color and gender. But that same image, some black feminists believe,

can devolve into a stereotype of black women who need to remain silent about rape, to “be

strong”, and to preserve the image of the race while “sacrificing their own souls”.ii

A long-standing idea to not “air dirty laundry” leaves many black rape survivors floating

in the wind, alone and silent. As more research focuses on lives of black women, from slavery to

the present, the discussion of black women‟s unique experience with rape is receiving more

attention. The attention brings a call from the black feminist community for all African

Americans to wrap their arms around their sister/victims and demand justice. Black feminists are

calling on the feminist movement, advocates for sexual assault survivors, and the nation as a
whole to recognize the role culture plays in a victim‟s experience, to look past stereotypes, and to

recognize their own culpability in keeping black women silent about rape.

This paper will review the prototypes of African American culture, how those prototypes

can become stereotypes that keep black women from reporting rape, and a call to action. It is my

belief that when we recognize the cultural barriers black women experience as rape victims, we

will see the barriers all women face. When we see ourselves in black women‟s struggles to

simultaneously be black, female and valuable, we will learn from their strength and become

more holistic peacemakers ourselves.

Experiencing Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is considered one of the most unreported crimes in America.iii While

nearly 75% of victims have some familiarity with their rapist, only 40% report to the police.iv

Black women account for 18-28% of rape victimsv although they represent only 6.4% of the total

U.S. population.vi African American women are significantly more likely than white women to

have heard sexist and racist stereotypes about what kind of women are likely to be raped.vii

While black women may be more likely to hear negative stereotypes about a victim, as a

nation we are more likely to view a black woman as a less credible victim.viii Black women are

often viewed as being inferior, hyper-sexual, and wanting to be victimized; stereotypes that

began with white slave masters in the antebellum South and continues now through hip hop and

other pop culture venues as well as mainstream racism.ix

Black women carry the added burden that while all rape victims are 13 times more likely

to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugsx, black women who fall into those

negative but common coping mechanisms may feel they only reinforce the racist stereotype that

African Americans are drug and alcohol users. Black women also suffer the highest rates of
PTSD resulting from a rapexi, which can lead to difficulties in managing day-to-day tasks such as

childcare and employment.

The prototype of the strong black woman can lead many black women to feel the need to

suppress their emotions after a rape. As one woman put it, “we‟re stronger people. I‟m talking

mentally, spiritually.”xii That strength to endure silently that was required of female slaves (who

were perhaps “the most vulnerable group in the antebellum South”xiii) can nonetheless have

devastating effects. As another woman stated, “we sort of support society in viewing us as not

being important as rape victims.”xiv

African American Cultural Prototypesxv

African American culture is rich with diversity. Beginning with a variety of African

cultures brought together under the confines of slavery, a new culture developed by adopting and

adapting as necessary, all the while creating a distinct African American culture “based on close-

knit kinship relationships.”xvi

African culture tends to be more polychronic and multi-active. Today, the black

community is still more communal, focusing on large extended families and friends. Because of

experiences with racism and still often having to walk between two cultures, many African

Americans tend to have a polychronic outlook.

Generally, Africans have a more external locus of control, focusing on nature, religion

and unforeseen circumstances that dictate life. This has been merged with a decidedly strong

American ethic of internal locus. African Americans often recognize that the outside forces of

racism and a long history of substandard treatment by authority does affect their lives, but are

driven by the internal motivation to move forward and take advantage of the same opportunities
as the white majority. Black women are often taught to be independent, to take care of

themselves and not to need a man to survive.

As new opportunities present themselves, many African Americans are not risk adverse.

They are taking on more education and professional opportunities and see this as an important

part of providing for their family and serving as an example to the larger community. In

situations involving organizations or individuals that have historically been racist, such as law

enforcement or the judicial system, some African Americans may be more risk adverse due to

prior negative experience (firsthand or not).

African Americans are kinetic, embracing body movement and hand gestures to make a

point. This would stem out of African culture where dance was a key component of oral

tradition. African Americans are also more comfortable being physically closer to people. The

expressive dances early Africans brought with them and performed by women were often

documented as one reason white slave owners felt black women were hyper-sexual.xvii However,

these dances were not meant to be overtly sexual but rather expressing deep devotion to culture,

history or religion.

Women‟s roles in African American culture can vary widely. Although usually seen as a

matriarchy, black homes may have a strong male or female leadership or may strive for gender

equality. During slavery, black parents were less concerned with rigid gender roles than they

were that children of both sexes learned to “walk the tightrope between the demands of the

whites and expectations of the blacks without falling too much into either category.”xviii The idea

that black families have always been headed by unmarried women is untrue; as recently as the

1960s nearly 80% of black homes with children were headed by married couples.xix Women play

many roles, but fathers have a valuable place as protector, teacher and elder.
Finally, African Americans have a strong connection to their racial identity, as is typical

of most minority groups. Emphasis is often put, covertly or not, on remembering one‟s role as an

ambassador of the race. Family plays an integral role in conflict management, and many families

may not call on outside sources, such as law enforcement or therapy, choosing to deal with it

themselves, involving only who needs to know.

Culture Barriers that Cause Conflict for Black Women Rape Survivors

The “Strong Black Woman” vs. the “Angry Black Woman”

The image of the strong, independent black woman is a positive prototype for black

women as well as a helpful image to express to the larger, white community. Female slaves often

bore the physical labor burdens just as male slaves did in addition to attending to the daily chores

of a typical family householdxx. Black women were often at the forefront of advocacy on behalf

of African Americans, including the fight to end lynching. Elaine Brown, the only woman ever

to head the Black Panther Party, was adamant that black women in the movement be treated with

respect, something met with shock by her male peers.xxi

However, black women who want to be seen as strong are, consciously or not, often

taught that being strong means being silent. City High, a hip hop group, wrote “What Would

You Do,” telling the story of a black man who attends a party only to recognize one of the

strippers as a former classmate. The male singer asks why she‟s there to which she replies “what

would you do if your son was at home, crying all alone on the bedroom floor „cause he‟s hungry,

and the only way to feed him is to sleep with a man for a little bit of money?” The singer replies

by telling her that she‟s not the only single black mother and even alludes to the idea that she

enjoys the lifestyle. After sharing that she escaped a father who raped her, her response of “every

day I wake up hoping to die” is met with “Get up on (your) feet and stop makin' up tired
excuses.”xxii A black woman who suffers from a rape could fear being seen as weak if she asks

for help.

There is no doubt that the prototype of strong black women has sustained the African

American community for generations, but it has also been converted to the stereotype of the

“angry black woman”, an easily exploitable image both for the white majority and within the

black community. The “‟Strong Black Woman‟ and the „Angry Black Woman‟ are conjoined

twins when it comes to expectations from and assumptions about Black women,”xxiii and those

expectations can leave black women feeling that any expression of grief or fear is a sign of

weakness and should be stopped.

Angry black women are portrayed as out of control, vicious toward men (especially black

men) or “on the warpath”. They use violence in response to anything, from injustice to minor

annoyances. The popular Tyler Perry Madea movie series has made over $150 million dollars,

yet many black feminists contend it reinforces the stereotype of the mean, overbearing, violent

black woman. In Madea’s Family Reunion, Madea (played by Perry, a black man) gives the

following advice to a young black woman who is being physically and emotionally abused by

her fiancé, “Cook a big pot of grits, bring him into the kitchen, then toss the grits on him. Then

after you toss them, swat him with a frying pan.”xxiv Self defense is one thing; Madea‟s advice

(which the woman implements) is actually assault with a deadly weapon. However, in this

situation, the strong black woman (who might use her strength to call the police or to leave the

relationship with the help of family and friends) is encouraged to become the angry black woman

(who is violent). Perry is not shy about saying his core audience is black church-going

women.”xxv
Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems has said of the image problem black women face, “on one side,

we battle against images of the scantily-clad, nubile black woman, butt-gyrating in front of the

camera, dancing to the sound of misogynistic rap lyrics. On the other side, there‟s the image of

the loud, boisterous, mean, fat (often, middle-age) black woman who‟s too crude and

overbearing for any black man with any sense to desire.”xxvi Too often black women have to

survive in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don‟t reality. Rape survivors who are seeking a

culturally-based framework for understanding their experience may not have a clear choice, and

may remain far too long in the haze of victimization.

Black women who strongly identify with the strong black woman or the angry black

woman may feel they should suppress emotion in order to remain true to their identity. Only

weak black women would have allowed themselves to be taken advantage of or, conversely,

seeking therapy or other advocacy is what weak (or perhaps white) women do. In Surviving the

Silence, author Charlotte Pierce-Baker contends, “for black women where rape is concerned,

race has preceded issues of gender. We are taught that we are first black then women. Black

women have survived by keeping quiet.”xxvii

Black women wanting to report rape, seek justice, or simply be allowed to grieve their

loss may be stopped with a cultural norm that, while often a source of both internal and

communal strength, may hold them to a role that is too rigid to allow for their needs not just as

black women but as women, period. If they were to seek counseling, they will likely face a white

counselor (only 1.8% of psychologists are blackxxviii) whom they may perceive, rightly or not, as

unable to understand the unique experience of black women.xxix


“Don‟t Air Dirty Laundry”

More than any other cultural barrier, black feminist writers and advocates have focused

on the prototype-turned-stereotype of not “airing dirty laundry” as a strong cultural barrier for

black women disclosing rape. Pierce-Baker believes that black women‟s silence has been, “not

solely out of shame but out of a need to preserve the race and its image.”xxx Enduring centuries

of racism, the African American community has moved forward in the face of trauma and

violence largely because of remaining a strong and supportive.

This negative stereotype stems from a very positive prototype: the value of having a

strong extended family that holds each other accountable. For many cultures having to integrate

into our white, Western European model of justice - standing in front of a judge who does not

know you and leaving your family out of sentencing or justice - is a difficult, uncomfortable

process. Polychronic cultures often look at punishment and accountability as being an issue the

entire community must participate in, not just the person committing the crime. African slaves

had no rights under American law and white slave owners did not care to get involved in the

daily conflict slaves had with one another, unless it could cause damage to their property (human

or otherwise). Slaves often had their own systems for managing undesirable behavior that

reflected African values, calling on their white masters only when absolutely necessary.

However, there is sentiment (based in reality or not) that the white, racist majority would

gladly take any act of criminal behavior as reinforcement of racist stereotypes about African

Americans. This has led many black feminists to believe that the community spends its energy

“fronting and posturing for white people, not airing dirty laundry, which frequently comes down

to not facing or dealing with reality.”xxxi Rape, like other issues within the African American
community, can be seen as something “to be handled within the family and that‟s as far as it

should go.”xxxii

Younger generations of black women who did not experience the kind of blatant racism

of their parents or grandparents may be less likely to feel they needed to hide a rape in order to

protect their race. In my interviews with black women in their 30s, all said they would never

think about their race (or the race of their rapist) in deciding whether to report. However, each

woman did discuss that they would (or did) think about how it would affect their reputation

(either professionally or within their college environment where rape occurred) and their

family‟s reputation within their communities. They also thought about how they would be seen

within the legal system as black female victims. When I changed the question from “would you

make a decision to remain quiet in order to avoid reinforcing the negative image of African

Americans” to “would you think about how reporting the rape would affect other people over

your own needs and wishes” the women said yes.xxxiii

While some black women may recognize that they remain silent “in order to protect my

brother from the white male patriarchy”xxxiv, many black feminists believe their sisters are stifled

by a culture that says black women need to think first about the needs of everyone but

themselves. Being selfless is not a bad quality, but rape victims who remain silent contend with

ongoing emotional and physical trauma, and the community is left with men who will continue

to rape without consequence.

Ewuare Osayande, a black male feminist, contends that the rap industry‟s treatment of

black women has led to “our dirty laundry being dispersed worldwide.”xxxv For nearly two

decades the mainstay of a rap video has been scantily-clad young black women. It is important to

note that overwhelmingly these videos are staffed almost exclusively by black women. Rap
videos are seen by many black feminists as reinforcing stereotypes about black women and

creating a “hostile environment where black women are more vulnerable.”xxxvi One black woman

I interviewed said it was acceptable to discuss the issue of rap and misogyny on the pages of

Vibe or Essence (two African American magazines), but to put the story on the cover of Time

would be airing dirty laundry.

Karrine Steffans, who wrote the best seller Confessions of a Video Vixen, created

controversy when she wrote her memoirs of childhood abuse, rape, domestic violence and,

ultimately, a drug and alcohol addiction fueled by years of trading sex to become one of the most

powerful black women in the rap video industry. Karrine talked candidly about her sex-for-

money/power/drugs relationship with some of the rap industry‟s most important men, and the

industry (along with many African Americans) turned on her. Common, a rap musician, who was

not named in the book, said in an interview with VH1 that she was a traitor.xxxvii

Karrine wrote “hip hop culture is destroying in the process the most beautiful thing about

us as a culture: our girls and young women.”xxxviii Karrine, who is vocal about being a strong

black woman, is highly controversial. She is often quoted taking blame for the sexual abuse and

misogyny she experienced saying “I wanted it.”xxxix She‟s now making a living on her image as a

sexually promiscuous woman; her new book The Vixen Manual: How to Find, Seduce and Keep

the Man You Want, reinforces negative images of black women as hyper-sexual. Feminists are

careful not to tout her as an icon of breaking the conventions not to speak out against the black

community. Some have wondered if she felt she could only speak out if she maintained her

image as a “ho”, thus limiting her credibility.

Whether it‟s protecting the black community, their family, children or their own

reputation, black women are struggling. Rape victims already struggle with guilt, shame, and
fear. Overcoming this added burden may prove to be too daunting a task for some black rape

survivors, particularly if they do not have a variety of support systems in place to help.

A Call to Action

Women of all races experience rape, feel the fear of victimization, and struggle through

complex, often overwhelming emotions in the aftermath of a rape. Black women have their own

unique barriers to overcome in addition to those created by gender. As a nation we have a call to

action from black feminists (and their allies of all races) to create supportive environments for

black women to receive the support and justice they deserve.

The advice I offer in this call to action is as applicable to crisis advocates as it is to

mediators. How often are mediators hired to help resolve a conflict around property dispersion

only to realize the real root of the problem is deeply emotional and rooted in personal, not

professional, conflict? The cultural barriers survivors experience are not unique to them; they are

felt by many African Americans in a variety of conflict situations. I believe mediators who grasp

the intersection of trauma, conflict, and culture will be better mediators and better peacemakers.

There is no substitute for being still and listening. It is easy to read a book and say you

now “understand” the complex emotions of rape survivors. Books are valuable. But actively

seeking opportunities to listen to a black women speak about their culture, the prototypes and the

stereotypes, is an invaluable resource. Those of us working in the advocacy and feminist

movements must step back and ask black women what we should do next.

It is important to recognize that “race, class, gender, sexuality and other identity variables

do not exist independently.”xl I should not treat clients differently based on race, but I would fail

my clients if I had a one-size-fits-all formula that ignores culture. As a mediator I have to step

back and listen so I can recognize when issues such as gender or race are controlling the conflict
in front of me. If I treat my clients in mediation as if I am colorblind, I miss the deeply complex

values that are motivating people in conflict.

It is also vital that I use the knowledge I gain with respect for the parties I‟m serving. Just

because I now better understand how black women experience rape does not mean I can seduce a

victim to prosecute because I can speak her language. I now have an even greater burden to

respect her right to self-determine what she does with her trauma. In mediation I cannot use

knowledge of cultural norms to make my advice more appealing or to otherwise influence the

parties towards outcomes they may or may not want. Building cultural sensitivity is building the

skills necessary to listen more and talk less.

Finally, I must recognize my own culpability in reinforcing the barriers black women are

experiencing. My iPod has songs by artists whose videos have demeaned black women. I have

laughed when I watched Madea movies, and I have ignored my role as a white woman in

enjoying a slightly elevated place in our society because, although I am a woman, I am a white

woman, and my elevation was created at the expense of my black sisters. As a mediator, being

culturally aware means knowing when my baggage is filling up the room.

It has been easy to become paralyzed by analysis on this topic. It is the polychronic

researcher‟s dream: sexism leads to racism which reinforces sexism and leading to classism and

so on. The black feminist‟s clarion call in No! A Rape Documentary sums up the calling we have

as mediators and advocates: “Can we stand up to rape with a sense of community founded on

justice, not on violence?”xli Whether in our role of mediator, friend, neighbor, or fellow human,

we all need to find our place in answering this call. We all need to wrap our arms around our

sister/victims and demand justice.


End Notes

i
Shange, Ntozake. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf (New York:
Scribner, 1975) 53.
ii
Pierce-Baker, Charlotte. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (New York: Norton, 1998) 84.
iii
“Rape Statistics” Retrieved on-line 30 March 2010. http://www.rainn.org/statistics.
iv
Ibid.
v
Schulz, Priscilla. “The Socio-Cultural Context of African American and White American Women‟s Rape”.
Journal of Social Issues, V. 48 (1), 77-91. 1992. Retrieved on-line 29 March 2010.
http://www.musc.edu/vawprevention/research/sociocultural.shtml.
vi
“We the People: Blacks in the United States”. Retrieved on-line 29 March 2010.
http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/censr-25.pdf.
vii
Wyatt, Gail Elizabeth. “The Socio-Cultural Context of African American and White American Women‟s Rape”.
Journal of Social Issues, V. 48 (1), 77-91. 1992. Retrieved on-line 29 March 2010. Reviewed by Priscilla
Schulz http://www.musc.edu/vawprevention/research/sociocultural.shtml.
viii
Henry, Wilma J. “The Effects of Sexual Assault on the Identity Development of Black College Women”
Michigan Journal of Counseling 22 Sept. 2009. Retrieved on-line 29 March 2010. http://bit.ly/b1H0o1.
ix
Osayanda, Ewuare. “Spittin‟ Acid at the Sistahs: Rap(e) And the Assault of Black Women” Retrieved on-line
25 March 2010. http://www.seeingblack.com/2005/x042905/spittin_acid.shtml.
x
“Rape Statistics” Retrieved on-line 30 March 2010. http://www.rainn.org/statistics.
xi
Henry, Wilma J. “The Effects of Sexual Assault on the Identity Development of Black College Women.”
Michigan Journal of Counseling 22 Sept. 2009. Retrieved on-line 29 March 2010. http://bit.ly/b1H0o1.
xii
Pierce-Baker, Charlotte. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (New York: Norton, 1998) 149.
xiii
Gray White, Deborah. Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. (New York: Norton 1999) 3.
xiv
Pierce-Baker, Charlotte. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (New York: Norton, 1998) 91.
xv
Cain, Catherine; Creson, Char, PhD.; King, Angela; Maddox, Michelle; Pierce- Baker, Charlotte;
Porter, Lauren; Reese, Larry; Sutton, Tommye, Personal Interview, 15 March 2010-1 April 2010.
xvi
Gray White, Deborah. Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. (New York: Norton 1999) 25.
xvii
Ibid 32.
xviii
Ibid 93.
xix
Betsch Cole, Johnnetta and Bevery Guy-Sheftall. Gender Talk: The Women’s Struggle for
Women’s Equality in African American Communities. (New York: Ballantine, 2003) xxvii.
xx
Gray White, Deborah. Ain’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. (New York: Norton 1999) 66.
xxi
NO! A Rape Documentary, dr. Aishah Shahidah Simmons, DVD, AfroLez Productions, 2006.
xxii
City High, “What Would You Do” Interscope Records, 2001.
xxiii
RVCBard, “Forget that Black Women Are More Than Just Strong” 8 January 2010. Retrieved on-line
30 March 2010 http://bit.ly/5QYSI0.
xxiv
Madea’s Family Reunion, dir. Tyler Perry, per. Tyler Perry, DVD, Lions Gate, 2006.
xxv
Weems, Rev. Dr. Renita J. “Madea Ain‟t Funny” 30 May 2007. Retrieved on-line 1 April 2010
http://www.somethingwithin.com/blog/?p=24.
xxvi
Ibid.
xxvii
Pierce-Baker, Charlotte. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (New York: Norton, 1998) 84.
xxviii
Weems, Rev. Dr. Renita J. “Madea Ain‟t Funny” 30 May 2007. Retrieved on-line 1 April 2010
http://www.somethingwithin.com/blog/?p=24.
xxix
Pierce-Baker, Charlotte. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (New York: Norton, 1998) 161.
xxx
Pierce-Baker, Charlotte. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (New York: Norton, 1998) 84.
xxxi
Betsch Cole, Johnnetta and Bevery Guy-Sheftall. Gender Talk: The Women’s Struggle for
Women’s Equality in African American Communities. (New York: Ballantine, 2003) xxiii.
xxxii
Pierce-Baker, Charlotte. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (New York: Norton, 1998) 194.
xxxiii
Cain, Catherine; Creson, Char, PhD.; King, Angela; Maddox, Michelle; Pierce- Baker, Charlotte;
Porter, Lauren; Reese, Larry; Sutton, Tommye, Personal Interview, 15 March 2010-1 April 2010.
xxxiv
NO! A Rape Documentary, dr. Aishah Shahidah Simmons, DVD, AfroLez Productions, 2006.
xxxv
Osayanda, Ewuare. “Spittin‟ Acid at the Sistahs: Rap(e) And the Assault of Black Women” Retrieved on-line
25 March 2010. http://www.seeingblack.com/2005/x042905/spittin_acid.shtml.
Endnotes
xxxvi
NO! A Rape Documentary, dr. Aishah Shahidah Simmons, DVD, AfroLez Productions, 2006.
xxxvii
VH1 News Presents: Hip Hop Videos: Sexploitatin on the Sex, VH1, 2005.
xxxviii
Steffans, Karrine Confessions of a Video Vixen (New York: Harper Collins, 2005) xiv.
xxxix
VH1 News Presents: Hip Hop Videos: Sexploitatin on the Sex, VH1, 2005
xl
Gray White, Deborah. Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. (New York: Norton 1999) 4.
xli
NO! A Rape Documentary, dr. Aishah Shahidah Simmons, DVD, AfroLez Productions, 2006.
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Schulz, Priscilla. “The Socio-Cultural Context of African American and White American

Women‟s Rape”. Journal of Social Issues, V. 48 (1), 77-91. 1992. Retrieved on-line

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Shange, Ntozake. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

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