Communities of Color and the Impacts of Sexual Violence
“The following is reprinted with permission from the University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC).”
The impact of sexual violence on different communities can be understood by looking at challenges unique to each community. Communities of color often face multiple barriers when dealing with the aftermath of sexual violence. Kimberle Crenshaw described these barriers as being built and strengthened through “the imposition of one burden interacting with pre-existing vulnerabilities to create yet another dimension of disempowerment” (Crenshaw, 1991).
Sexual violence has historically been used to perpetuate racism and colonialism. The colonizer’s gaze viewed the bodies of people of color as inherently “dirty” and unworthy of respect. Violence against these “dirty” bodies was normalized amongst colonizers to the extent that it was understood as not being ‘real’ violence. Native American women and African American women have historically been viewed as ‘rapable.’
Colonizers used sexual violence to kill and dehumanize Native populations. This narrative has been so internalized by Native American communities that Native survivors of sexual violence often express that they no longer wish to identify as Native American. White slave owners used to rape Black women, who were considered the property of their slave-owners, to reproduce an exploitable labor force.
While there are approximately 17,000 rape crisis centers in the United States, there are less than 5 rape crisis programs that cater to sexual assault survivors in any Native community (Olive, 2012). Poverty increases a community’s vulnerability for violence, and Native Americans continue to deal with increased levels of violence because of high rates of poverty. Violence against Native American communities has continued over the years through different forms; a video game called “Custer’s Revenge” was released in 1989, in which players got points each time they raped a Native American woman.
Men of color become stereotyped as sexual predators in the process of racist and colonial expansion. Black men were targeted for lynching based on their perceived threat to white women. Portraying all men of color as violent sexual predators who threatened the safety of white women perpetuated a narrative that justified criminalizing men of color, particularly Black men.
The stereotypes associated with men of color do multiple things: men of color who report being sexually assaulted are less likely to be believed, and survivors of color who are assaulted by men of color are less likely to report to the police to protect their communities from racist backlash.
Men of color, especially Black men, are stereotyped as criminals or ‘predators.’ These stereotypes perpetuate the idea that men of color cannot be victims of crimes themselves. Because of a culture that perpetuates toxic norms of masculinity and silence around men being survivors of assault, men (regardless of race) are often not believed when they report being sexually assaulted. The stereotypes associated with men of color make it even less likely for them to be believed if and when they disclose experiences of sexual assault. Stereotypes that portray men of color as violent criminals add to the culture of silence around sexual assault amongst these communities. Men of color may be fearful of the police and of law enforcement because of traumatic histories with these establishments; the fear that speaking about their abuse could entrap them in a racist criminal justice system could prevent them from speaking about their abuse.
It’s possible that survivors recognize that men of color are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than white men. Often survivors assaulted by men of color may not report to protect their perpetrators, or larger communities of color, from racism. Black women in particular often fear that their report will reinforce the stereotype of Black men as sexual predators.
Muslim communities have been stereotyped as ‘violent men’ and ‘oppressed women.’ Sexual violence against women in these communities is viewed as being a result of ‘Muslim culture. “Culture” is typically blamed for forms of violence against Muslim women, while it is not used as an explanation for violence against mainstream Western white women. This narrative continues to perpetuate Islamophobia. The fear of having their experience being used to perpetuate Islamophobia against their communities could stop Muslim women from being vocal about their violence. At the same time, Muslim men who report being sexually assaulted may not be believed because of the violent stereotypes associated with them.
Portraying Black and Latina women as promiscuous, Asian women as submissive, and all women of color as inferior to white women, dehumanizes them. Western culture often uses these stereotypes to justify non-white women’s bodies’ violation, promoting the idea that such racialized violence is deserved.
Stereotypes about Black women include terms like “Black Jezebel”, “exotic” and “promiscuous,” which perpetuate the idea that Black women are ‘asking for it’ when they report sexual assault. Black women who receive financial public assistance are at a higher risk for being victimized in abusive relationships. For them, ending a violent relationship that involves sexual abuse may not actually improve their marginalized status. Because of lack of resources provided to them, leaving an abusive partner may leave Black survivors even more impoverished if they are not financially independent. Black women may not report sexual assaults committed by Black men in the hope of protecting their communities from a racist backlash from the police and from the larger society. In situations where Black women are abused by Black men, society fails to recognize the ways in the women are still victimized by racism.
Asian women are stereotyped as being docile, and are seen as ‘easy targets’ for sexual violence. Such stereotypes possibly prompt people to blame Asian women for not sticking up for themselves. Their violence is often understood as a result of their perceived submissive and passive attitudes.
East Asian men are often stereotyped as effeminate, asexual, and docile. While white supremacy nurtures toxic masculinity amongst white men, the perception of a lack of masculinity amongst East Asian men perpetuates the idea that those men cannot perpetrate sexual violence. While the “effeminate and docile” stereotype can make East Asian men ‘easy targets’ of abuse, such stereotypes can also harm those who have been abused by East Asian men since their stories are less likely to be believed.
Sex-trafficking from Asian and other non-western countries continues to happen in the United States. Additionally, there are more than 50,000 Filipina mail-order brides in the United States (Incite-national.org). White men who desire women whom they presume to be submissive procure mail-order brides. These women are then at high risk for interpersonal and sexual violence, because of their legal citizenship status, lack of access to social and cultural privileges, and because of the stereotypes associated with them.
Undocumented survivors of interpersonal and sexual violence face multiple barriers to accessing services due to their legal status. Their partners may threaten to report them to the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) for deportation. Undocumented communities often do not trust institutions, including agencies that provide counseling, and this prevents them from seeking help even from confidential resources. Many programs for domestic and sexual violence survivors in the U.S. do not provide services in languages other than English, and this creates an additional language barrier for many survivors, who have to navigate a system in a foreign country and in a foreign language. Women of color are also targeted for sexual violence while crossing the U.S. border. Undocumented immigrants are routinely sexually harassed in detention centers, with undocumented transgender and gender non-conforming individuals being disproportionately targeted.
The gay rights movement has relied on (re)producing the gender binary and gender conformity, and is deeply rooted in a history of institutionalized transphobia. This narrative for the movement demonizes trans bodies. Perpetuating the idea that trans bodies are ‘abnormal’ puts them at increased risk for being sexually assaulted, and trans women and gender non-conforming individuals of color are disproportionately impacted. Institutional racism and cis supremacy make transgender women of color the most likely group amongst the LGBTQ community to experience police discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence. Increased police and law enforcement at events for LGBTQ communities can be threatening for queer and trans people of color who are routinely violated by these institutions.
Every time there is a court ruling that gets public attention, such as the law passed to legalize gay marriage, there is a significant backlash in the form of acts of physical and sexual violence. This violence is largely targeted towards low-income gender non-conforming people of color who cannot afford privacy and safety. Violent societal conditions that perpetuate hate crimes against transgender individuals contribute to the vulnerability of transgender people of color to become victims sexual violence.
Survivors of color may be more reluctant to report victimization because they fear facing a biased criminal justice and legal system and do not think that the police will assist them. People of color, especially Black communities, have had traumatic and violent histories with the police, and survivors of color may not feel comfortable or supported while working within racist institutions. Disclosing their rape often leads to them being blamed, questioned, and stereotyped at a time when they need support. Racial history and stereotypes make people of color vulnerable targets for sexual violence while also creating multiple barriers for them to find appropriate support.
Violence against people of color cannot be decontextualized from racism and colonialism. Work towards ending sexual violence must be anti-racist and anti-colonial. Survivors of sexual violence navigate multiple webs of oppression in their daily lives. This is not to say that all survivors sharing similar social identities will be impacted by sexual assault in the same way; while it is important to historicize and contextualize survivor narratives, it is equally important not to make assumptions about a survivor’s experience based on their perceived identities. Within these frameworks, every survivor experiences challenges in a unique way, and every narrative needs to be honored and respected.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991): 1241. Web.
Davis, Angela Y. “Rape, Racism and the Capitalist Setting.” The Black Scholar 12.6 (1981): 39-45. Web.
“Incite-national.org.” Dangerous Intersections. N.p.. n.d. Web 06 July 2016.
Maier, S. L. “Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners’ Perceptions of the Influence of Race and Ethnicity on Victims’ Responses to Rape.” Feminist Criminology 8.2 (2012): 67-86. Web.
Olive, V. C. (2012). Sexual assault against women of color. Journal of Student Research, 1, 1–9.
Singh, Anneliese A., and Vel S. Mckleroy. ““Just Getting out of Bed Is a Revolutionary Act”: The Resilience of Transgender People of Color Who Have Survived Traumatic Life Events.” Traumatology 17.2 (2011): 34-44. Web.
Alok Vaid Menon: https://returnthegayze.com/