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The Intersection of Race and Sexual Assault

December 8, 2011

Earlier today, the Kent County Domestic Violence Community Coordinated Response Team hosted a luncheon presentation by Kristen Moss. Kristen works with Girls Inc., at the YWCA here in Grand Rapids.

Her talk focused on the intersectionality of race and sexual assault, with emphasis on African American women. She began with some basic definitions of sexism and objectification, followed by several ads that underscored her point.

Kristen said, “The media and socialized ideas of gender roles continue to perpetuate the idea that women are merely objects to be used for sexual gratification.” This objectification impacts women of color in significantly different ways in media. African American and Latina women are often portrayed as dominant or sexually promiscuous, tempting and lewd.

Additional stereotypes for women of color in media are Mammy/Patriarch, animalistic, Jezebel, loud/big mouthed, outspoken and seductive. You can see the hyper-animalistic messages these ads portray.

Kristen states that this kind of media and societal representation of women contributes to women of color not wanting to seek assistance in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. This is reflected at some level based on the most recent statistics from the YWCA on the racial makeup of women who sought assistance in 2009.

69.5% Caucasian

19% African American

5.7% Mixed Race

The presenter then gave numerous reasons why women of color are hesitant to seek treatment.

  • negative perceptions about counseling
  • financial hardship
  • It is seen as white social workers being intrusive or nosy
  • Lack of African American counselors
  • There are built-in support systems and networks, such as churches, beauty salons, etc.
  • Abuse should be kept hidden
  • They have to protect the assailant (especially of the same race)
  • They will not be believed
  • The Superwoman Syndrome

African Americans have not made addressing sexual assault and abuse a collective priority. Because people have been so ashamed and this is something that has happened to them, that it’s not something that is a pushed idea.”             Ruth Sallee-Gresham

In addressing solutions, Kristen identified the following ideas. She stressed that it was important to go into the African American community, since those who work in sexual assault prevention and work with victims can’t expect the Black community to come to them. Second, education is critical in communities of color about the issue and what resources are available for people.

A third solution is to create a task force that involves community members and clergy. Lastly, people who do violence prevention work need to get the word out on the importance of prevention and not just services that are available for victims.

Regarding the role of the Black Churches, Kristen said there are some Black pastors who are willing to speak out on this issue and who genuinely want to support members of their congregation that are experiencing domestic violence and other forms of sexual assault. However, she said it tends to be the younger pastors who have expressed interest in this issue.

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