A Lawyer’s Perspective: Black Women are Not Protected
Author: Neena S.
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” -Malcom X Though these words were spoken 57 years ago, they still ring true today; no matter how much a black woman achieves, or what she accomplishes, she will always be looked down upon.
Black women since the beginning of their existence have been the single most resilient beings in the black family dynamic. They were given poor conditions, horrible treatment, limited resources, and never-ending responsibilities, and still, despite that, they found a way to make their contributions thrive. In the legal field, I have encountered many black women who have shared their experiences with me. The harsh reality behind telling your story is knowing that despite how far you have come and how much you know, some black men and society will often still make you feel the sting of being unprotected starkly. It begins with a conversation about disparate treatment. For example, a black woman is often severely triggered by a conversation involving sexual assault.
In recent news, front and center for this issue is none other than Robert Kelly (a.k.a R. Kelly). As we are facing the most well-publicized and covered news story that gives voices to black women survivors of sexual assault in the 6-part docu-series entitled “Surviving R. Kelly,” a sideline conversation has begun to emerge worth mentioning here: “if he was white, he would get away with it.” That may be a true statement and may even be the case in some instances. However, that unprotected feeling that every black woman can staunchly feel is this: we care more about the racial identity of sexual predators than the black women sharing their stories.
Frequently, you will hear the word alleged sexual assault in front of young black girls’ claims. However, her white colleague will be believed, given credibility, and be unquestioned for just reporting that something horrible happened like sexual assault. Most times black women are treated as adults far earlier because they are often hyper-sexualized by society. According to Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls' Childhood, participants perceived that “black girls needed less protection, less support, less comfort, and less nurturing compared to their white peers.” These same perceptions are what guides the disparate treatment we see among today’s black girls and the black women they grow into later. The phrase, “aren’t you tired?” often means that black women and girls are tired of being perceived and treated as hypersexual beings and forced to accept assault like behaviors with little to no recourse. We call these girls “fast” and “asking for it” instead of calling out the black men who have severe impulse control issues that have gone unchecked and unspoken about for years. As a survivor of sexual assault, when I heard a young man say, “what about the white guys that get away with sexual assault.” I thought to myself what the motivation could possibly be behind wanting to “get away with sexual assault at all.” Even though this sexual assault was committed against the black woman, I am still baffled and disheartened by this kind of conversation around this same theme. To have to assert how this question is more harmful than helpful to the bigger discussion is taxing and often frightening to me. The need to protect black women is paramount in my mind. Trying to sympathize with black men who commit sexual assault is not a major issue in this battle. That logic is purely dismissive of the bigger issue. We should not aspire to get away with the same sexual assault as white men. Arguing even something close to that diminishes the value and priority of the very black women being assaulted. I was made aware of this mindset behind sexual assault as I observed the reactions to R. Kelly’s news coverage on social media by both black men and black women. Being a survivor of sexual assault myself, I wanted to scream when I first saw this counterpoint. The same women who go through hell trying to raise black men must beg to be prioritized or even respected when we have these triggering conversations about sexual assault. I have also had to explain to others why being unconscious means I do not consent to sexual acts before and that is scary enough. These sexual assault conversations are such a lost conversation pieces in our black community because we are uncomfortable even discussing it, but we must have them because as we ambitious women lead organizations we encounter these real issues constantly. The issue that is most relevant is: “why does this keep happening to black women?” The answer is much more complex.
First, Black women are more vulnerable than any other person in America because their sexual assault claims are often discredited, not taken seriously, or treated as a girl who was “fast” and “asking for it.” In the 2017 Article by The Institute for Women’s Policy Research,
The data shows that:
More than four in ten Black women experience physical violence from an intimate partner during their lifetimes. White women, Latinas, and Asian/Pacific Islander women report lower rates.
Black women also experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse—including humiliation, insults, name-calling, and coercive control—than do women overall.
Sexual violence affects Black women at high rates. More than 20 percent of Black women are raped during their lifetimes—a higher share than among women overall.
Black women face a particularly high risk of being killed at the hands of a man. A 2015 Violence Policy Center study finds that Black women were two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than their White counterparts. More than nine in ten Black female victims knew their killers.
Next, the vulnerability of black women is tied to the fact that they are often disbelieved, so most of them remain silent. Seeing this docuseries come out recently for many celebrities now, has been eye-opening. Movements like the #MeToo movement was one of the first times I felt like I could speak out about my own sexual assault and be heard. It happens in the workplace with a senior partner, it happens in school with boys in a P.E. class, it happens in black families, it happens in black relationships, it happens at the mall, it happens walking up the street from the metro, it happens on HBCU campuses and PWI campuses, it happens in courtrooms, it happens in boardrooms, and beyond that. It happens. The issue is that despite when, where and how it happens, black women are blamed for unwanted sexual advances. Many say that she should have dressed more conservatively or been less friendly. Somehow the black woman is at fault, and the black woman is the one being discredited before she even begins to tell her story.
Lastly, this is happening because of the lack of impulse control and a sense of entitlement to access to black women. Nothing more. Women are expected to keep their emotions and desires in check, men are not. I have gone out to have a chill night with the girls and have been dancing and swaying to the music and enjoying myself. Without any notice, I feel a man tug on my waist, and he encourages me to dance with him. I will admit that I have danced with some guys in the past, but I have often said no to this gesture to which I have then been grabbed more forcefully or cast off as being a bitch for not letting him dance with me. I have also been stalked, harassed, molested, and raped by black men I never thought would harm me. All these instances happen due to lack of impulse control in males and society leaving these kinds of behaviors unchecked. I have heard countless black women tell me their stories about the lack of boundaries, the lack of being believed, and how this leads to the triggering effects of reading and talking about sexual assault stories. What I have not yet heard is the question: what we can do to begin protecting our black women and finally bring together that conclusion that Malcolm X advocated for back in 1962: a black man should be willing to lay down his life to support and protect the black woman. Habitually, this is not the case. This goes for more than just black men, but I especially implore black men to begin asking the question, what can we do to make you feel safe as a black woman and then really listening to the responses you get?
Neena R. Speer is an attorney, author, speaker and truth dealer. She has a solo law firm called the Neena R. Speer Law Firm LLC. She is a Founder and Executive Director of her mentoring nonprofit focused on continuous mentorship for all students at all levels K-12 & college, Step 1-2-3 Mentor for Life Initiative that she started her 3L year of law school. Lastly, she is a four-time published author with her most recent book being Dear Future Lawyer: An Intimate Survival Guide for the Female Minority Law Student. Her passion since she was in eighth grade was to be a criminal defense attorney in her hometown where she grew up: Birmingham, AL. She is living out that dream and speaking for countless organizations including the University of Alabama School of Law, the YMCA, the Black Girl Project, and the National HBCU Pre-Law Summit about her experience as a law student, a black minority in the law field, and her journey past failing her first bar exam.