Who Will Protect Us From Our Protectors?
The past month has justice for Black communities into the spotlight. First there was Black Lives Matter’s high-profile protest against police presence at the Toronto Pride Parade, and the ensuing racist backlash. Then, the tragic murders of Black community members including Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Abdirahman Abdi, and Korryn Gaines at the hands of police.
Racist police brutality against Black and other marginalized communities continues because Black folks are dehumanized: Black men and boys are seen as automatically-threatening predators, and Black women and trans people as disposable.
One of the ways this racism manifests is the way we talk about (or don’t talk about) sexual violence perpetrated against Black women and trans people. While Canadian statistics don’t gather victimization data by race, we know that Black communities are among the most underserved and marginalized groups in Canada, making Black women and trans folks among the most vulnerable to violence. And we know that women of colour are also often among the least likely to report sexual violence to police, even if they are disproportionately affected by violence.
How can we ensure that stories of Black survivors of sexual violence are heard? We spoke with activists Margaret Alexander and Riya Jama to learn more.
Margaret Alexander has been an activist and educator in the anti-violence movement for over 20 years. She has worked in both women’s shelters and rape crisis services, developing programming that provided support and advocacy to female identified people who had experienced violence, as well as delivering anti-oppression training to frontline shelter workers all over the province. She is currently a professor at George Brown College in the Assaulted Women and Children’s Counsellor/Advocate Program.
Riya Jama is diasporic visual artist, photographer, and graphic designer.
Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence and rape in enacted against Black women? What changes would you like to see?
Margaret: “Canada perpetuates this idea that racism doesn’t exist here. So when they’re talking about survivors who’ve experienced sexual assault… I find that, they don’t actually mention what color they are or their ethnicity… The media sets up this good victim/bad victim sort of thing… There’s a whole bunch of things that they leave out [and] they erase any of the structural or protection issues. It reads as an individual situation where this ‘bad’ guy raped this ‘good’ woman, or this ‘not good’ woman allowed themselves to be raped. And queer people and trans folks are completely invisible – thereby ‘unrape-able.’”
Riya: “When I read an article like that I automatically know what they’re leaving out. And God forbid you are a survivor who’s never shared their story and you see a situation like that situation… Why would I want to share my story if I’m going to continuously be erased, continuously have my own lived experiences be completely invalidated?”
Margaret: “When sexual violence occurs to Indigenous women* or Black women* it gets constructed into something else besides racism but it is racism… That’s how sexual violence happens for brown and Black bodies. It happens through the lens of racism.” (*self-identified women and people perceived to be female)
“We’re all implicated in this so-called “rape culture.” We’re all a part of this, we all perpetuate this, [in] all kinds of ways. So when we just tell a story about a bad guy and this poor woman that they hurt, we continually let ourselves off the hook for being responsible as a community — as a society. The media has to act to recognize itself as education and education as always subjective. It is never objective and the media is never objective… We need to not let journalists and editors off the hook [through] this idea that they’re just reporting ‘facts.’”
On consent culture and the racism experienced by Black communities:
Margaret: “There’s a whole bunch of dominance that gets enacted in our culture that that people don’t consent to and one of them is being touched… [For] almost twenty years I had locks… I would have people that touch my hair. That wouldn’t be called sexual violence, [but] that’s certainly colonial racist violence. Because it was mostly white-skinned people who would touch my hair or ask me if they could touch my hair or follow me around… But that to me also makes me think of consent culture and I think that kind of experience that racialized people, especially racialized cisgender people or people who are perceived as cisgender women, experience. It’s like people can touch us, they can make comments, ask us questions like, “Do you wash your hair” or those kinds of questions [that] get asked a lot and I think that’s dominance. It’s exactly what we are talking about.”
Riya: “Consent is so important in so many ways and it’s not always to do with sexual[ity]… Another thing that I love doing is giving hugs. But I’m also hyper-aware as a survivor of the concept of consent. And I would love to give you a hug, but make sure I consent. That is my body. And I’m inviting you to press yourself against my body. So I’ve been struggling with trying to get people around me to respect my agency. Because I am part of a physical minority, and no respect exists for my Black body.”
Margaret: “People minimize that sort of thing and they think it’s innocent. And you know, they’re kind of like, “Oh you’re being too sensitive,” or whatever. But [that’s] the continuum of why people are objectified and then assaulted. Because you can. You can assault an object, right? You don’t have to humanize. It’s difficult to dehumanize and to assault someone that’s human.”
Interviewer: How would you like to see, or have seen Black communities creating consent culture?
Margaret: “Many communities are taking their power back and addressing issues of violence within the community without feeling like they have to involve the systems, the cops or the media or whatever… Like the Internet is an enormous tool that’s allowed us to tell our own stories and not be reliant on dominant media to tell the story for us. …It’s kind of freeing when you get to tell your own story, and be in control of who knows the story, and when your story is told, and how it is told, in the context it’s put in. And then you hear other people’s stories that are similar to yours and you join up. Those things are really, really important and they’re happening in communities all the time.”
Riya: “Right now, personally, I’m working within my community, the Somali community, and we’re working to have these conversations initiated. Because it is important for them to happen…
“Things like YouTube are so important. Things like Twitter are so important. Facebook even is so important because you are sharing your story. And you’re sharing in the way you want it to be shared… I feel like just like how there’s this quiet revolution happening with people of color and media and how we’re taking back our voices and creating spaces.”
Interviewer: So often survivors are portrayed as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about sexual violence against survivors that do not fit this description or narrative?
Margaret: “You know, as much violence as we experience in our intimate partnerships, we also experience that violence from the state in great numbers. And for Indigenous people, Black and brown women* that also includes child protection, and so the last thing you want to do is go to those institutions for help. You know not only are you at risk of a violent assault from a cop or having your kids stolen by the state but there’s also this idea that [for] women, Black women* and First Nations women* — Black women* in particular — reporting violence that we experience in intimate or familial relationships is sort of like turning in our Black brothers… Because you know that over a white person, they’re going to be put in jail quicker and longer… So I think that our safety gets compromised on many levels.”
Riya: “It’s not like this system has empathy for [us]. Our stories are never heard because there’s a degree of violence when we do share our stories.”
Interviewer: There has been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What conversations are you glad to see happening and what do we still need to address, specifically on the topic of reporting sexual violence against Black women?
Riya: “I have yet to see the benefits [of these conversations in the media]. Because all I have seen was the violent backlash… I have noticed there is this universal support system that cultivates the protection of the abusers… And there’s a silencing that’s happening with the victims… This whole system of creating spaces where abusers can thrive and exist and can come out unscathed, hav[ing] no harm done to them. Meanwhile the victim is in their corner completely destroyed, completely victimized all over again. I don’t know if I want mainstream media to tell my story… They’re not going to honour my voice.”
Margaret: “They’ll take your words [to] create a sound bite and put things out of context, then they’ll focus on the things that are important to sell their paper, not [that are] important to help you as a survivor. That’s not their job. They’re not there to help you survive. They’re there to sell their papers. I think journalists have biases — just like everyone else in society — and that there is no such thing as ‘objective’ voices in the media.
“The media also perpetuates a myth that safety is to be found in institutions and/or that violence is from strangers – but we know that many women* experience more danger in their homes. So in this case when we talk about people who are perpetrating — our abusers — we’re actually talking about our friends and our families and our lovers and these people who actually are part of our community. And somehow we need to work with our community to change our community and then we can act.”
This blog is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.