Traveling with a Vulnerable Black Woman's Body

*A version of this post can be also found at http://bknation.org/2013/11/vulnerability-black-female-body/

While walking from the supermarket with a male friend from Spain recently in Cartagena, Colombia, a man in a group purposely threw a fish head at my feet. Yeah, you read correctly, dude threw a fish head at me. As if this weren’t vexing enough, the man I was with did nothing. I couldn’t tell with whom I was angrier, the fish hurler or the mute. After a few days of letting it stew and fester, I had to bring it up. First off, my friend claimed that he didn’t even realize it had happened. He could afford to be oblivious apparently. Secondly, his response was “I’m not your body guard.” What the?? My homies from home would NEVER stand for that shit! What was a play here? His white Europeanness? His lefty politics? My brown skin? My Afrodescendancy? My Latinidad? My Americanness? Suddenly I felt ashamed for even expecting him to take a stand for me.

Now even though I do regularly think of myself as Vanity from Berry Gordy’s Last Dragon (but come on, who doesn’t?), I don’t need an actual bodyguard. But, ya know what? I am a Black and Latina woman trying to survive in a world that often sees me as an undervalued, and consequently a very easy target for all forms of assault. Yes, I am strong. I am capable. I am powerful. But that doesn’t somehow change the skin I’m in. It doesn’t change the fact that people feel that they can attack me without fear of societal or legal retribution.

In the United States, few differences exist in the rates of sexual violence across racial and ethnic groups over time [1]. However, male perpetrators receive less severe sentences and are convicted less often when the victim is a Black woman as opposed to a White woman [2]. Black women can be harmed with fewer consequences because they are deemed to be less credible, more desiring of sex and more at fault when an assault does occur [3].

  "Negrita Puloy    "

"Negrita Puloy"

While I don’t know what the statistics are in other countries, I do understand how similar the stereotypes of women of African descent throughout Latin America are to those in the United States. These pervasive attitudes have very real consequences for the vulnerability of Black women and of their bodies. Latin American versions of the stereotypes often blend the asexual subservient “Mammy” figure and the hyper-sexualized, seductive, amoral “Jezebel”. Black women are perceived as tough and impervious to pain compared to other women; they are subservient, with an insatiable animal-like sexuality. Stereotypes easily translate into the notion that violating a Black woman isn’t an assault at all because she’s not actually hurt by it, or because she was deserving of it. And even if it is technically an assault, who will stand up to care?

Two years ago in Cartagena, I was leaving a bar with two male Brazilian friends when an Irishman leaving at the same time cocked his hand back and smacked me on the bottom for all to see. I was livid. I tried to yell at him but could barely find the words. My male companions did nothing but usher me into a cab. I felt mortified that the violation had an audience and hurt by the fact that my friends did nothing.

When an elegantly dressed gentleman in his late 30s, standing with his back to me during rush hour on a train in Santiago, Chile, started to graze my crotch with his thumb, I uncomfortably assumed that it was an accident and tried push myself away as best I could. As his thumb moved with my every move, I began to panic as I realized this dude was tryna cop feels. I shifted and wiggled, anything to get away. I couldn’t. Then I looked around with this sense of shame, like I’d done something wrong…wondering who was watching and if I had allies. Scenarios quickly ran through my mind of what would happen if I were to confront this vile opportunist.

The scenario that dominated my thoughts was something out of The Color Purple, akin to when Miss Sophia, played by Oprah Winfrey, is slapped by the white man who she then knocks out. A hostile crowd of white people quickly descended upon her, shouting at her until she was knocked unconscious with a firearm. I pictured a slightly less dramatic version, sans firearms, in Spanish, and me with an inability to understand all the voices amidst the frenzy. The scenario seemed more frightening than the actual violation. It spoke to my fear of victim-blaming that I assumed would ensue, not just because I had dared to wear shorts in the summer (crazy, right?), but also because I was a Black woman who had done so.

My understanding of what it meant to be a Black woman in Chile made me believe that the little old ladies staring at me would say I asked for it; that the men already with their eyes transfixed upon me would somehow sympathize with the pervert; that the women of my own age group would think that it served me right for wearing sex so prominently. So I slid away as soon as I could and said nothing, contemplating what I could’ve done differently, bearing this sense of shame, as he left the subway car unscathed and possibly with some sick sense of satisfaction. I was likely wrong about the presumptions that I made of my fellow commuters. But they speak to the fears of someone feeling that she is alone in the fight to protect her vulnerable body.

[1] U.S. Department of Justice-Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Female Victims of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fvsv9410.pdf

[2] Cassia Spohn & David Holleran- Prosecuting Sexual Assault: A Comparison of Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases Involving Strangers, Acquaintances, and Intimate Partners https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/199720.pdf

Gary D. LaFree:-Rape and Criminal Justice: Social Construction of Sexual Assault http://www.amazon.com/Rape-Criminal-Justice-Construction-Assault/dp/053411055X

Marvin E. Wolfgang & Marc Riedel- Rape, Race, and the Death Penalty in Georgia, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1939-0025.1975.tb01193.x/abstract

[3] Gail Elizabeth Wyatt- The Sociocultural Context of African American and White American Women’s Rape http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1992.tb01158.x/abstract