Rape is an act of sexual violence, typically perpetrated by males against females or other males. The concept of rape suggests some degree of force in that the sexual encounter is not consensual. Rape is an act of brutality and terror; the rapist is primarily motivated by the need to dominate and control the victim. In the United States, the relationship of rape to race and racism lies in myths created and perpetuated by Europeans about black sexuality that fueled racial violence for centuries. From the slavery era until the mid-twentieth century, myths surrounding black sexuality perpetuated the notion of the hypersexual black woman and the criminally sexual black man. Grounded in the belief that black people were inherently primitive and sexually deviant, these myths served as justifications for various forms of racialized violence by whites toward black men and women. Rape is also a racially significant concept because historically, white women were viewed as chaste and in need of protection; black women were considered unchaste and responsible for any violence directed at them. Well into the twentieth century and beyond, studies show that the experiences of black rape victims are very different from those of white rape victims and that in general, white women’s charges of rape are given more credence than similar accusations made by black women or other women of color.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Myths surrounding black women’s hypersexuality developed during Europeans’ initial contacts with Africans. Strongly influenced by Victorian values of purity and chastity, Europeans misinterpreted various forms of African culture, particularly African dress and body movements. Europeans often assigned sensual meanings to common African practices that were related to the climate and geography of the continent, such as partial nudity. As historian Deborah Gray White (1985) argues, “the travel accounts of Europeans contained superficial analyses of African life and spurious conclusions about the character of black women” (p. 29). These spurious conclusions gave Europeans license to act out their sexual fantasies and frustrations through brutal and degrading interactions with black women.
For example, in 1810, a young black South African woman named Sara Bartmann was taken to England, where she was put on display for five years as the “Hottentot Venus.” Europeans were particularly curious about
African genitalia and were fascinated with the size and shape of Bartmann’s buttocks, which were shown publicly in various venues. Upon her death at age twenty-five, Sara Bartmann’s genitalia were autopsied by George Cuvier, a leading scientist of the time, who compared her sexual organs to those of an orangutan. Her sexual organs were displayed in a Paris museum until 1974. Thus, two very powerful forces influenced European attitudes toward Africans and affected race relations for centuries: obsessive sexual curiosity about the black body and the belief in black licentiousness. These two forces would form the basis of what some feminist scholars call a rape ideology, which frames rape as an act of uncontrollable male lust and holds women accountable for any forceful behavior directed at them. Rape ideology is strongly intertwined with racism in that sexual violence has often been used as a tool of racial oppression.
For centuries in America, rape was largely defined and conceptualized as a sexual act perpetrated by a black man against a white woman. In fact, any accusation against a black man by a white woman would lead to severe punishment or death of a black man. America’s legal system provided black men with no protection against false accusations of rape and no justice to any black woman raped by a white man.
THE SLAVE ERA AND BEYOND
From the slave era until the mid-twentieth century, interactions between blacks and whites were colored by a complex racial and sexual ideology that contributed to complicated attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors surrounding rape. For example, during the slave era, some black women consented to sexual relations with white men in order to lessen the inherent brutality of slavery. As they sexually exploited black women, slaveholders also utilized rape as a tool for increasing the slave labor force. Some black women consented to sexual relations with black men at their master’s command. Thus, sexual assault—in various forms—was a part of the political economy of American slavery. The sexual exploitation of black women workers remained a persistent practice, challenging black women’sense of respectability for centuries. For example, black domestic workers, who worked in northern cities during the Great Migration in the early twentieth century, experienced rampant unwanted sexual advances while employed in white households. These women—who had fled the South in search of economic opportunities and freedom from legal racism—often had to make choices that compromised their images in the black community.
In the documentary Freedom Bags, a film recounting the hardships of black domestic workers in the 1920s, one woman indicates that many black women “had babies by their employers.” Thus the complexities of interracial rape were further problematized by what appeared to be black women’s willingness to be complicit in their own sexual exploitation. However, black women who consented to unwanted sexual relationships did so because they lacked the power to refuse. These women unwittingly perpetuated the notion of the promiscuous black woman by prioritizing survival over morality.
In 1892 Ida B. Wells turned her attention to the institutionalization of racial violence, particularly in the American South. Deeply angered by the lynching of three black store owners in Memphis, Tennessee, Wells began to reconsider the beliefs that she and most other southerners had about lynching. One was that black men were justifiably lynched for raping white women. Realizing that the three store owners had not committed rape, Wells concluded that lynching was a racist strategy to prevent black economic and political progress. She realized that in the post-Reconstruction South, whites could no longer claim blacks as property, but they could still control blacks by threatening violence. Using her newspaper as a platform, Wells stated unequivocally that many sexual encounters between black men and white women were consensual and that charges of rape against black men were often false. Wells also indicated that rape by white men was far more prevalent, yet white men’s sexual brutality went unpunished. Although Wells was Page 487 | Top of Articleforced to flee the South because of her anti-lynching activism, she continued her campaign in New York and eventually brought international attention to her cause.
THE MODERN ERA
Lynchings decreased in the American South as a direct result of Wells’s activism. Through her campaign she also underscored the sexual victimization of black women by white men. However, it was not until the 1970s that rape—as a form of patriarchal oppression—became a part of the public consciousness, primarily through the activism of white feminists. Although these activists reconceptualized rape as an act of violence specifically directed at women, most ignored the complex racist underpinnings of rape in America. In 1977 the Combahee River Collective, a black feminist group, identified rape as a black feminist issue and championed the need for rape crisis centers in black neighborhoods. Understanding the historical vulnerability of black women, these activists spoke out against sexual violence perpetrated by both white and black men.
Despite antirape activism that has led to more substantive legal protection for women, race-based inequities in arrests, prosecution, and in attitudes toward rape victims are difficult to eliminate. Studies show that black women are less likely to report rape than white women. Some scholars suggest that this reluctance to report rape is related to black women’s acceptance of certain rape myths. Aaronette White (1999) refers to these myths as “mythical gutter wisdom,” a rape ideology that dominates and distorts the discourse on violence against women in the black community. White argues, “When Black-on-Black crime is mentioned, rarely do we discuss the sexual brutalization of Black women” (p. 211). When black women do report rape, they are less likely to be believed than white women in similar situations. In court, jurors are more likely to believe that the assailants of white women are guilty than they are to believe a black woman has been sexually assaulted. Across every aspect of the criminal justice process, racial bias can play an influential role.
Throughout America’s history, black people have lived with two sources of racist shame: black women’humiliation through rape and various forms of public violence targeting mostly black men. This legacy ripped through the very core of black America when Anita Hill accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment before a congressional committee in 1991. Sexual harassment is a form of institutionalized rape in that it implies an element of sexual exploitation, particularly in the workplace. Many African Americans were more appalled at Hill’s public accusations against a prominent black man than they were at the possibility that the accusations could be true. Referring to the congressional hearing as a high-tech lynching, Thomas unearthed shallowly buried racial skeletons and secured his seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. However, both Hill and Thomas could be viewed as victims of a rape ideology that simply assumes new forms from one century to another.
Combahee River Collective. 1982. “A Black Feminist Statement.” In All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, 13– 22. New York: Feminist Press.
Kennedy, Elizabeth. “Victim Race and Rape.” The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. Available from http://www.brandeis.edu/projects/fse/Pages/victimraceandrape.html
Nelson, Stanley, and Elizabeth Clark-Lewis. 1990. Freedom Bags. New York: Filmakers Library. Film.
White, Aaronette M. 1999. “Talking Black Talking Feminist: Gendered Micromobilization Processes in a Collective Protest against Rape.” In Still Lifting Still Climbing, edited by Kimberly Springer, 189–218. New York: New York University Press.
White, Deborah Gray. 1985. Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: Norton.
Cheryl R. Rodriguez