WCSU

When Black Women's Stories Of Sexual Abuse Are Excluded From The National Narrative

Dec 4, 2017
Originally published on December 3, 2017 3:31 pm

The recent cultural reckoning over sexual assault and harassment has highlighted the dangers women face in workplaces throughout Hollywood, media organizations and in public office. The growing number of accusations has put a spotlight on high-profile men's abuse of power, many times with white men being accused by white women. But what about stories from women of color?

Karen Attiah, The Washington Post's global opinions editor, tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro the current conversation surrounding sexual harassment largely excludes women of color who are victims.

Attiah points to the numerous accusations against musical artist R. Kelly. The claims against the 50-year-old R&B singer span a number of years and range from illegal underage relationships, child pornography and most recently, holding women against their will.

"When these accusations against these powerful white men ... came to light, it really again reminded me that we haven't been talking about some of these figures who are in our popular culture that have been accused of preying on women for decades," Attiah says.

She says a number of factors contribute to the apparent lack of national discussion about the R. Kelly accusations: His music has become a mainstay in black culture, many women accusing him aren't high-profile or powerful celebrities - and many of those women are black.

"Part of it, unfortunately, has to do with whether or not we see black women and girls as worthy of care and worthy of protection," Attiah says. "Unfortunately, it's hard not to think that if his victims were wealthy white women, that we would be including R. Kelly in these conversations that we're having right now about sexual abuse and exploitation."


Interview Highlights

On conversations about accusations against R. Kelly within the black community

I mean, I hear of course both men and women who say you know what, "He's gotta go, this guy is a monster, we can't allow this to be happening." And then I also just find this sense of, "Well, we need to wait for all the facts." And so it's kind of unfortunate to hear that from the black community. So it's hard to kind of demand that the mainstream media and community stand up for the victims when it seems like the black community, our community, is not always willing to do that, ourselves.

On what happens when women of color do speak up about sexual harassment

You know, it's really interesting because I think of Lupita Nyong'o's New York Times article where she talks about her encounter with Harvey Weinstein, and it was one of the more moving and very well-written accounts of what it was like to have to deal with a man who was powerful yet charming yet fearsome. And it struck me that ... it was her account that Weinstein or his team forcefully pushed back on. Not only is there a sense of we're excluded from the narrative, but even when prominent members of our community are in the narrative, that we're the ones whose stories are pushed back upon. We're the ones who are lying.

On including more women in the #MeToo movement

I think one thing about the #MeToo movement, a lot of it has been seemingly confined to, I would say, white collar professional jobs. So, if we're wanting to include more women, we need to also be talking about the abuses that go on in sectors like restaurant workers, domestic help ... Because again, what ties all of this together, regardless of income, regardless of status, regardless of color, really, is about the abuse of power. So, women of color who already have harder barriers in those professional circles, I think we absolutely do need to pay more attention to their stories, and part of that will be for us to start listening and to start taking women of color seriously.

NPR Digital News Intern Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The recent cultural reckoning over sexual assault and harassment has involved mostly white women accusing mostly white men. The Washington Post's global opinions editor, Karen Attiah, has some theories about why the conversation has largely left out women of color. She joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

KAREN ATTIAH: Hi, Lulu. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this moment began with white, upper-middle-class women, I think I can say. And they are still the victims who we are hearing the most from. What other stories that we're missing in your view?

ATTIAH: Sure. So I think, of course, the Harvey Weinstein story that really set off this #MeToo movement about harassment and sexual abuse in the workplace - and when these accusations against these powerful, white men, as you said, came to light, it really again reminded me that we haven't been talking about some of these figures who are in our popular culture that have been accused of preying on women for decades. And the figure that came to mind was R. Kelly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. R. Kelly, the R&B singer. The claims against the 50-year-old range from illegal underage relationships, child pornography and holding women against their will. Why do you think he's still insulated?

ATTIAH: You know, I think it's a number of factors. First of all, his music has been such a mainstay in black culture. He was the architect of our dances and all of that. And I think part of it, you know, to be honest, is a lot of his victims have been black women and girls, not, you know, famous celebrities or anything. Part of it, unfortunately, has to do with whether or not we see black women and girls as worthy of care and worthy of protection. And, unfortunately, it's hard not to think that if his victims were wealthy white women, that we would be including R. Kelly in these conversations that we're having right now about sexual abuse and exploitation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are these conversations happening in the African-American community, also? I mean, on the one hand, you might have white people not discussing it. But are people in the black community holding R. Kelly to account?

ATTIAH: Sure. I mean, I think this is one instance where it's really sort of interesting. I've written about R. Kelly myself. And I'm black. I'm a woman of color. I get sort of a split sides. I mean, I hear, of course, both men and women who say, you know what? He's got to go. This guy's a monster. We can't allow this to be happening. And then I also just find this sense of, well, we need to wait for all the facts. And so it's kind of unfortunate to hear that from the black community. So it's hard to kind of demand that the mainstream media and community stand up for the victims when it seems like the black community - our community - is not always willing to do that ourselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The #MeToo movement has become a rallying cry. Do you think it's spoken to women of color?

ATTIAH: You know, it's really interesting because I think of Lupita Nyong'o's New York Times article where she talks about her encounter with Harvey Weinstein. And it was one of the more moving and very well-written accounts of what it was like to have to deal with a man who is powerful yet charming yet fearsome. And it struck me that Weinstein - it was her account that Weinstein or his team forcefully pushed back on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

ATTIAH: Not only is there - since we're excluded from the narrative. But even when prominent members of our community are in the narrative - that we're the ones whose stories are pushed back upon. We're the ones who are lying.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Is it important, in your view, for black women to claim this movement, too, though? I mean, I guess, after all sexual harassment affects women of all races and ethnicities.

ATTIAH: I guess in the sense of claiming, we have always been there. And especially when it comes to #MeToo being in social media, we are in that conversation. I think one thing about the #MeToo movement - a lot of it has been seemingly confined to, I would say, white-collar professional jobs. So if we're wanting to include more women, we need to also be talking about the abuses that go on in sectors like restaurant workers, domestic help.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Areas that largely are populated by women of color in vulnerable positions.

ATTIAH: Absolutely correct because, again, what ties all of this together, regardless of income, regardless of status, regardless of color, really, is about the abuse of power. So women of color who already have harder barriers in those professional circles - I think we absolutely do need to pay more attention their stories. And part of that will be for us to start listening and to start taking women of color seriously.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Karen Attiah is the global opinions editor at The Washington Post. Thank you very much.

ATTIAH: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF GENERAL FUZZ'S "WARM STEEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.