In January, Surviving R. Kelly premiered. The six-part docuseries, produced by Dream Hampton, showcased the atrocities the R&B singer has been accused of from 1994 to the present day. One of the most alarming parts of this highly alarming documentary? This statement, from writer and survivor Mikka Kendall:
“We all noticed but no one cared, because we were Black girls.”
The documentary reveals just how many witnesses were present while R. Kelly was in private spaces with underage girls; people who chose not to come forward at any point—a willful complacency that likely caused countless more women to experience abuse. Decades later, few celebrities who have collaborated with Kelly were willing to go on the record about him. Hampton says she approached Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, Dave Chappelle and Questlove, none of whom would talk to her for her documentary. And that’s even after two decades’ worth of stories, lawsuits, settlements and child pornography charges. Instead, calls for separating art from the artist *still* ring loud from his supporters. (Oh, and Kelly himself just tweeted—and then deleted—plans for a 2019 tour.)
Kelly’s alleged actions are alarming, but it would be foolish to think he is the only public figure who might be preying on young Black women. “Even as we are having public convos about R. Kelly, we’re still not having conversations about other men,” says El Jones, Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. She raises the example of Drake and the 2010 video of him that resurfaced recently, showing the rapper in a compromising position with a 17-year-old fan (whom he kisses and questions as to why her “body looks this way”). She notes predatory behaviour is a full spectrum not limited to just one type of appalling behavior. “Even with the video with Drake and what he said to that young girl, there’s an onus put on Black girls because of our curviness and the ways our bodies are,” says Jones. “It shouldn’t have to be exceptional or to this level of shocking for people to be shocked by it.”
The lack of response in assisting the women who say they were abused by R. Kelly is reflective of the neglect Black survivors face daily. “Compared to their white counterparts, it’s the hardest for people to believe Black women about sexual assaults,” says gender-based violence advocate and equity educator Rania El Mugammar, who is based in Toronto. “We have the data and statistics to show that Black women are given the least benefit of doubt.” Indeed, a 2007 study by American academic Roxanne A. Donovan found college students perceived a Black victim of sexual assault to be less believable and more responsible for her assault than a white victim.
Both Jones and El Mugammar trace the origins of sexual violence against Black women and the neglect of Black survivors back to slavery. Jones specifically names white supremacy and patriarchy as root causes. “Historically, sexual assault was so rampant during slavery. It’s been normalized as to what we expect Black female bodies to go through. We’ve repeatedly see these things in the Black community because of white supremacy,” she says. “These are a direct result of being victimized for hundreds of years through white supremacy and hundreds of years of sexual violence done to us because of white supremacy.”
“It doesn’t happen in a bubble,” confirms El Mugammar. “From the Transatlantic slave trade, from Sarah Baartman to Melonie Biddersingh, we know how Black women are viewed, spoken about, disposed of and treated when it comes to accessing services. I see it so often with the survivors that reach out to me. They say they tried to access support and no one believed their stories. They say, ‘I can’t take a shift off work to go to a sexual health clinic.’ We see other intersections of their lives—poverty, mental health—also impacting the way Black survivors access support. Black women and girls will never be the perfect victim.” A recent example: the arrest and conviction of Moka Dawkins, a Black trans woman in Toronto who was found guilty of manslaughter for killing a man with a violent history (including three convictions for domestic violence and one for assault with a weapon). In her testimony, Dawkins said the man attacked her and that she genuinely believed he would kill her.
It is urgent to protect—and fight for—Black women, and for Black women to see they are worth fighting for. “If you are a Black woman, free yourself from what you have been taught or conditioned to believe. You are not at fault and you did not ‘have it coming,’” says El Mugammar. “For everyone else: I invite you to think critically about all the ways you ignore Black women, trivialize abuse and sexual violence. I invite you to go back and say sorry to all the ways you fucked up. I invite you to say ‘I believe you, how can I support you?’”
It is possible to dream and build a world that protects and fights for Black women. It is a responsibility to build that world, and it is a responsibility to always believe Black survivors.