TW/CN: This post discusses sexual abuse.
2018 was hailed as the ‘Year of the Woman’, and there was much celebration of women’s achievements across the world. Notably 2018 saw the rise of women visibly speaking out about the injustices and evils they have and continue to face – particularly sexual abuse. The #MeToo movement, founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke – an African-American civil rights campaigner – gained greater traction in light of the Harvey Weinstein case and the sexual abuse of women became headline news. This continued with the conviction of Bill Cosby and Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court despite Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s harrowing testimony of sexual assault. Women were continuing to publicly speak up against rich and powerful men and were bringing the harsh reality of toxic masculinity, male entitlement and abuse of power into people’s living rooms.
While all of this was going on, another movement was also gaining traction. The #MuteRKelly movement. A campaign started in the US to have R. Kelly’s music ‘muted’ in protest against the long-running allegations of abuse that he has never really been held accountable for. And, with that, 2019 opened with Lifetime airing their docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly, in which his accusers, along with people close to him spoke out and the the extent of his activities over the last 20 years were exposed. Celebrities took to social media to denounce R. Kelly and express regret for working with him while turning a blind eye to his actions. Reports suggest the authorities are investigating him again. Yet what struck me the most, and what I found the most disappointing, was the reactions from certain sections of the Black community to this docuseries and R. Kelly’s actions. Some Black people – men, in particular, called the docuseries a “distraction.” Some claimed that, like with Bill Cosby, “they” were just trying to bring a successful Black man down, and the rest of us were just lapping it up and enabling them. Some pointed to famous white men – like Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen and Donald Trump – who’ve had similar allegations made against them but (apparently) have never had documentaries made about them (that is categorically untrue but, you know, who cares about facts when the Pied Piper of R&B is accused of sexual abuse?).
During the week that the docuseries was on air, Black people who are actually in their right mind spent much time and energy online refuting these ridiculous arguments and explaining why making them is so damaging. Having read much of this and having had similar arguments where Bill Cosby is concerned, I felt these arguments could be summed up in three key points. So here’s my three reasons why we need to stop caping for these abusers:
- It is asinine to use our struggle against racism to protect Black abusers.
It is so tiring and boring listening to these so-called ‘woke’ Black people spouting conspiracy theories about ‘The Establishment’ trying to bring successful Black men down when those Black men are accused of sexual abuse and, in the case of Bill Cosby, are convicted of it. “Bill Cosby was about to buy NBC, but they just couldn’t stand to see a Black man gain control of the media”, “They just don’t want Black people to prosper and rise up against them.” Blah, blah, blah. Oh please. There is no doubt that we as Black people have and continue to struggle under the machinations of racism – especially in the United States of Amerikkka – but to use that as an excuse to ignore the very serious problem of sexual abuse does nothing more than to cheapen our struggle.
By pointing to men like Woody Allen and Trump and saying “Look at these white men! Why aren’t they in jail? Why aren’t documentaries being made about them?”, what you are saying is that the type of racial equality you seek is the type where Black men are allowed to get away with the same heinous crimes as white men. Yes, we know the justice system is institutionally racist and therefore white men (especially if they are wealthy) are more likely to walk away from charges that will see Black men locked up in a heartbeat (see white men selling cannabis as a prime example), but sexual abuse is not the basis to use to make that argument. This is not the hill we want to die on.
- You are condoning sexual abuse.
This is essentially a continuation of my first point. The fact is, the arguments mentioned above essentially condone sexual abuse on the grounds of racial persecution. Yes, yes they do. If you are saying, or are about to say, “No, I’m not saying sexual abuse is ok BUT -“ then just stop right there. If you were really against sexual abuse then no ‘buts’ would be needed. The timing of these allegations – 20 or 30 years later – wouldn’t matter. Bill Cosby buying NBC wouldn’t matter. R. Kelly’s success as a musician wouldn’t matter. What would matter to you are the victims, and the patriarchal norms that allowed this to happen. You wouldn’t be suggesting that they should be given a pass because race is more important to you in this instance. You would believe these women, applaud their bravery, and think about how we can address this as a community and a culture. You’d be able to separate the Cosby from the Huxtable, the man from the music, and you’d think about how we can send men like them the message that great art does not trump serial abuse.
- We are failing Black women.
The vast majority of R. Kelly’s victims were young Black women. There is an argument that, had his victims been white teenagers, he would probably have been convicted when he was first tried or at least “cancelled” by the culture. Why? Because Black women are simply not believed, even by other Black people. Young Black girls are labelled as “fast” and sexualised from an early age; the innocence that is afforded to white girls is not afforded to us. Victim-blaming is therefore the knee-jerk reaction, and that in turn leads to a culture of silence under the cover of which this abuse continues to occur. Until we find a way to break this cycle, we will continue to fail Black women. And so my question to all those Black people caping for R. Kelly (and Cosby) on the grounds of race is: if you love and care for Black people so much, why don’t you care about these women? Why don’t you stand up for Cosby and Kelly’s victims with the same energy as you do for them? These women are Black people too, after all. Or is it because another factor is at play here? Is it because Black men’s interests are more important than those of Black women? Misogynoir is truly alive and kicking in our community.
Like most of us, I grew up watching Bill Cosby and listening to R. Kelly. They were as much a part of my childhood development as my times tables. But the truth is, they shouldn’t have been. They shouldn’t have been allowed to continue as long as they did. This is a real opportunity for us to send a message and we should take it. Great art does not trump serial abuse. Black women matter.