Earlier this week I wrote about the gang rape of an 11-year-old Latina in tiny Cleveland, Texas, and the alarming reaction of some of its black townspeople. The post has drawn a strong response from the Colorlines community. Before I get to the meat of this followup, a little solidarity housekeeping.
I, an African-American woman, stand in solidarity with the victim. She is me. I am her. I’ve mentioned that she’s Latina for clarity, and because I sense that some in Cleveland have used her race to distance themselves from what happened to her.
I, an African-American woman, also stand in solidarity with black people who are disproportionately criminalized and have suffered all matter of hell due to false accusations. This includes massacres (see Rosewood, Florida, 1923), unfair incarceration (Scottsboro, Alabama, 1931), torture (Chicago, 1970s through the ’90s) railroading (New York City, 1989), and–as Colorlines commenter wardlarkin pointed out–round-ups (Tulia, Texas, 1999). I’m not citing this history to cast doubt on the 11-year-old in Cleveland or any rape victim but to provide context for Cleveland’s defend-our-men-at-any-cost dynamic. Also, if some among the 18 are in fact innocent, they will still be branded for life.
For measured insights on how black men can help one another recognize and dismantle rape culture, I harassed contacted Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis, a sociology professor at the City University of New York who frequently writes and speaks about black masculinity and sexual violence. On his Uptown Notes blog, Lewis, who is black, recently revealed how he was “casually socialized into thinking that there was no gang rape.”
As an adolescent I knew which friends had access to ‘adult materials’ and also which friends or family were having (or so I thought) sex so they could tell me what I wanted to know. It was in this private context that I was taught about ‘running trains.’ For those not familiar, that’s a colloquial reference to multiple men having sex with a single woman in succession. I was taught that if you found a real freak, everybody could participate. When I heard Snoop’s [Doggystyle] album and they sang, ‘It ain’t no fun, if the homies can’t have none,’ that was my reference and the image that came to mind. I was casually socialized into thinking that there was no gang rape, instead there were only gang bangs. Whether it’s Kid Cudi saying ‘me first’ on ‘I Poke Her Face’ or Wale ending his verse referencing ‘a train’ on ‘No Hands,’ our boys continue to learn gang rape is just a casual part of partying and growing up.
This summer, Lewis will teach adolescent boys how to fight sexism and gender-based violence through B.R.O.T.H.E.R.S. (Boys Rising Organizing to Help End Racism and Sexism), part of the Chicago-based anti-rape nonprofit A Long Walk Home. Eight chunks of what he said about the assault in Cleveland, Texas, and how to move forward:
1. ”Whenever a tragedy like this happens, we have to start by acknowledging the value of human life.
2. Then we have to seriously consider the power of stereotypes. On one side you have people suggesting that the 11-year-old was presenting herself as older, which plays directly into the hot-blooded Latina stereotype. They’ve portrayed her as sexually insatiable, which means she’s not a victim but a predator. On the other side, you have the stereotype not only of black males as hypersexualized and violent, but black males as endangered. We see the faces of these young men splattered across the media and the knee-jerk reaction is, ‘They’re attacking black men again! We have to protect them!’ Meanwhile, the young sister who was assaulted becomes invisible.”
3. “People have asked about the victim’s mother. But if we’re going to ask about parenting, our first question should be, ‘Where were the boys’ and young men’s parents?’ Questioning the girl’s parents also assumes that families have the ability to stop bad things from happening. The truth is, bad things happen to kids who are well-parented. The more we make parenting a magic bullet, the less we concentrate on using our resources to heal hurt folks so they don’t hurt others.”
4. “Justice needs to occur in this case, justice that includes therapeutic options. Some of these boys and men taped the [assault] and showed it to other people. This tells me that they lack boundaries around the safety of sex. So we can lock these 18 up and throw away the key, but that won’t change the greater rape culture. We also need to ask why other people saw a video depicting sexual violence against a girl and said OK, why only one person came forward and said ‘This is wrong.’ ”
5. “We focus on how girls should behave–we tell them to walk in groups or change how they act around certain guys. But we need to ask ourselves how we talk to boys and men. We’ve put all of the onus on young girls and none of it on males–the people who most often perpetuate the sexual violence.”
6. “We need to ask black boys and men to examine the various ways that they compromise their own safety, and the safety of their sisters and communities. As black men, we also need alternative ways to see power in our relationships with women. We need to consider how to have power with women, not power over them.”
7. “We need to examine how we define masculinity as well. We’ve latched on to the most superpowered image of white masculinity, what sociologist Michael Kimmel calls the Marketplace Man. The Marketplace Man is a successful businessman, he has power over his home and power over women. But since black men [don’t have] power equal to white men’s, we’ve created a perverted way to [compensate] for it. Women become our currency. If you have no money but you have five women, you’ll be all right.
You also see this in the stereotypes we don’t choose to challenge. If you say, ‘All black men are criminals,’ we’ll fight you on that. But if you say, ‘All black men have big penises,’ well we’re like, ‘Heh, heh…OK.’ Of course that’s not grossly different from how white American men think, but they have financial, educational, political and social capital that we don’t.”
8. “One easy exercise you can try with boys or even among your friends: Ask them to describe a ‘real man.’ You’ll likely get a laundry list like, ‘A real man is strong! A real man has all the money! A real man has the power!’ Next, ask, ‘Of all of those things, which do you have?’ In answering this question, boys realize how unreal it is to be a baller-slash-star-athlete-slash-rocket scientist. They begin to see how anybody can question their manhood because they don’t have all of these qualities. Finally, ask, ‘Of the men you know in your community, name the ones you respect and what you respect about them.’ This exercise helps boys create an alternate view of masculinity. That’s the first step in forming a model for healthy black male sexuality.”