The statistics surrounding Black women sexual assault survivors are daunting. Six in 10 Black women say they have been coerced into sexual contact by the age of 18. At the same time, studies suggest Black women who file reports of sexual violence are less likely to be believed than white women.
Three Black women powerhouses have gotten together to do something about it.
Tarana Burke (Founder of the me too. International movement), Monifa Bandele (Chief Operating Officer for TIME’S UP Foundation) and Fatima Goss Graves (President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center) have teamed up to form We, As Ourselves-- an organization devoted to address Black women and sexual abuse.
In recent years the me.too International movement found new life as a hashtag and its viral power saw the downfall, and in some cases imprisonment, of prominent entertainment figures. However, even with that added push, Black women weren’t often in the spotlight and We, As Ourselves seeks to remedy that.
“The goal is to amplify the voices of Black survivors to shine a light on the issue of sexual violence in the Black community in ways that we haven't seen over the last few years as the topic of sexual violence has been at the forefront,” said Burke. “We haven't seen enough focus on and conversation about Black survivors. That’s the big picture of what we're trying to do.”
“We have an opportunity for Black survivors to be visible and valued and supported,” said Goss Graves. “We want survivors who tell their stories to receive support and love and to know that if you come forward, it is worth your time. Your story is a gift and will be treated with dignity.”
That is an important point because according to a Brandeis University study cited by the TIME’S UP Foundation, prosecutors filed charges just 34 percent of the time when a Black woman is attacked, compared with a 75 percent rate when the victim is a white woman.
The issue of not being believed undoubtedly factors into the statistic that for every Black woman who reports a rape, there are at least 15 who do not report.
The name of the initiative is an excerpt from author Paula Giddings’s critically acclaimed book When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America.
“I will just say where we were using that name with the permission of Paula Giddings and she was excited to learn about this project. It is rooted in the idea that Black survivors’ stories can be told and shared and honored,” noted Goss Graves.
“We are proclaiming that we support us. This is a very centralized demand. We're saying, not only should we change those narratives to fit what they should be, but we are the architects of those narratives, we should tell our own story. And that's how we begin to really change the notions of who's deserving in the society of care and support,” added Bandele.
Centering Black Women
Each of these three Black women helm organizations that are women focused, but before the formation of this new initiative, how much of the work from their respective organizations was focused on Black women in particular?
“We think of the me.too Intertnational movement is kind of writ little and writ large. There's the hashtag me too that went viral and people tend to couch everything under the hashtag. A lot of Black people, particularly Black women, did not feel included in the wave of media attention that came following the hashtag. But then conversely, when we did get attention in the R. Kelly documentary or the Russell Simmons documentary when a Black man was at the center of a controversy, there was so much pushback and so much rejection of the idea that Black women should come forward and be survivors and tell their stories,” explained Burke. “I've been doing this work for a long time and it's always centered Black women and girls. Even though I'm at the helm of it, some people still don't associate me too.International with Black women.”
For Goss Graves, she leads a nearly 50-year-old organization, the National Women’s Law Center. “I don't know any other way to lead, other than by ensuring that our work centers Black women. The idea that people don't know that Tarana Burke’s work is birthed out of supporting Black survivors is extraordinary, but also, in some ways, pretty typical and we have an opportunity to shift that narrative,” said Goss Graves.
“We actually don't win anything without Black women. There are no freedom struggles that have existed since we've been here that didn't involve the leadership, the strategy, the stories, and the voices of Black women, girls, and families. TIME’S UP’s mandate is to make sure that we're in partnership and allyship with Black women led organizations,” said Bandele whose job as COO is to manage the day-to-day operation of the TIME’S UP Foundation.
What YOU Can Do
By no means is every person committing sex crimes a celebrity and not everyone has a large public platform to call out those who do harm. Many suffer in silence, but there are tools to help recognize sexual trauma and to advocate for and further help survivors.
“There is a lack of research and culturally competent information about how sexual violence impacts our community specifically,” said Burke. “The reality is that trauma shows up in our community in different ways. It can show up as perfection, overachieving, under-achieving. What I try to tell people is to build upon relationships and be in tune to the people around you. Ask questions, be connected and create a safe space for people to come to you and share. Part of the work of what we're trying to do is to share best practices and things that we've learned along the way about how to be the best support survivors.”
“We know that we can't solve what you can't see. We’re coming out with the information, we're coming out with the data, but then we're also opening up this platform so that people can also step into their moment, lean into their truth, and share their story or they can step up and support Black survivors. The launch is just the beginning,” said Bandele.
“This is going to be an ongoing campaign, and this is not just for women in entertainment. We want domestic workers, farm workers, retail workers, and everyone else in conversation with each other to create real solutions.”
Check out "The Love Letter to Black Survivors" video below. We, As Ourselves launches on February 24th. For more information, visit weasourselves.org