We will never address the issues on display in Virginia if we continue to treat women and African Americans as separate groups and racial and gender inequalities as separate issues.
As legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote, “Twenty-seven years after Anita Hill testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her . . . we can’t acknowledge the central tragedy of 1991 — the false tension between feminist and antiracist movements.”
Indeed, the Thomas confirmation hearings and decades of intersectional scholarship and activism make clear that feminism and anti-racism are not at odds but instead inextricably linked — to each other and all movements for social, political and economic justice. An intersectional perspective also underscores the ways in which the combined effects of the refusal to acknowledge these connections alongside the framing of the conundrum as one facing the Democratic Party lead us to ignore black women’s central role as Democratic Party activists, voters and candidates, and what Crenshaw aptly characterized as their “unique vulnerability” to sexual violence.
Sexual violence serves to both psychologically and physically intimidate its victims. Located at the bottom of a social order defined by misogyny and white supremacy, black women have been particularly vulnerable to violent intimidation. This sexual exploitation of black women is rooted in slavery, an institution that allowed white men in positions of authority to sexually assault enslaved black women with near impunity.
Because enslaved black women were legally defined as property rather than as people, they had few, if any, legal protections against such sexual violence. After emancipation, stereotypes about black women as promiscuous and sexually available Jezebels proliferated and sexual assault continued to be used as a form of racial terrorism to reassert white domination over the social, political and economic independence of newly freed African Americans.
Although black women who have challenged such images and practices have faced threats, they have nonetheless fought back against sexual violence as a form of social dominance, with local and national groups rallying to protect black women from sexual violence during the Reconstruction, Jim Crow and civil rights eras.
Vanessa Tyson, who has accused Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) of sexual assault, is part of this tradition of black women who have asserted control over their bodies and used their powerful narratives to insist on their humanity. She and her supporters are connected to the long tradition of resistance, of calling attention to the lack of equal justice and of creating organizational infrastructures to protect black women.
Unfortunately, Tyson is also connected to the equally long tradition of attempting to humiliate women who tell their stories, as well as to the tradition of attempting to silence them by suggesting that they ought to suck it up and sacrifice their humanity in service to some greater good — a greater good often conterminous with male ambition, success and comfort.
In this context, it is unsurprising that sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in the United States. Women do not report assaults for a host of reasons: shame, the belief that their accusations will be denied or ignored, a need to preserve their relationship with their assailant and fear of retaliation.
Victims often blame themselves for their assaults, and these feelings are often reinforced by those around them. And while this underreporting is true across all racial groups, black women are far less likely than their white counterparts to report sexual assault, even as they are more likely to experience it. Men who assault black women are less likely to be arrested and convicted, violence against black women is given short shrift by mainstream news outlets, and violence against black transgender women and non-binary people is often ignored.
But although the legacies of these and other patriarchal practices and respectability politics persist, contemporary mobilization — rooted in the feminism of the Global South and informed by intersectional frameworks — provides hopeful alternatives. In addition, social media provide platforms for black women’s visibility, a space in which they can control the stories they tell about sexual violence and a medium through which they can issue calls for justice. These outlets provide a range of nuanced understandings of race and gender politics.
Intersectionality matters. It mattered in 1991, and it matters now. It’s time for the media and the public to fully recognize the humanity of black women.