It is difficult to imagine this, but it has been three weeks since the stories about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual assault broke in both the New York Times and The New Yorker. In a 24 hour news cycle with everyone chiming in to comment, these stories can move quickly out of our consciousness, no matter how relevant they remain.
After this news broke, I watched women across the world band together to say No more, Not our girls, Not my sons, and so many other pledges to actively demolish the scaffolding that supports workplace harassment and sexual assault in general. I have read beautiful speeches, heard many stories, and experienced a new sense of profound kinship with women across the world as we rose to express our disgust at the stories that brought Harvey Weinstein down.
Then, on Tuesday, Rolling Stone published the story of Kitti Jones, an ex-girlfriend of R.Kelly’s, detailing her abusive relationship with him from 2011 to 2013. The article outlines a pattern of abuse that has been detailed and exposed so many times in so many articles across so many years that I doubt many of us could not recite it from memory. Physical abuse. Statutory rape. Rules about when and where to eat food. How to dress. When the bathroom is allowed to be used. Mental and emotional manipulation.
And what followed this article? Deafening silence.
In three weeks, the media machine was able to stimulate a public response to Harvey Weinstein’s exposure as a criminal that effectively ousted him from the company he owned, ended his marriage, and kicked him out of the Academy of Moving Pictures. For years we had heard hide nor hair of any stories of abuse, partially due to that same media machine’s paid silence. Then, after 30 years of abuse, settlements, and slander, Harvey Weinstein was put down inside the month of October.
Where is this response for the victims of R. Kelly? Where is the outrage for the young teenage girls that have come forward with stunningly precise photo-documentation of statutory rape and sexual abuse. This is a man that married 15 year old Aaliyah while she was moving toward the peak of her career. A man that went on trial for horrific sex acts performed with a 14 year old girl on camera, and was acquitted. In all of the speculation that surrounds this man, why has he not been taken down with the swift force that was applied to Harvey Weinstein?
The similarities are many. R. Kelly has been performing since the late 80s, around the same time Harvey Weinstein came to prominence. He is incredibly wealthy, much like Weinstein. Similar to the film industry, there is a groupie culture, parents who push their children into the spotlight with the hopes of fame and money as a way out of poverty. Kelly, who is 50 years old, is almost exclusively seen with younger and much more attractive women, much like Weinstein, who is presently separated from his beautiful and much younger wife, Georgina Chapman.
So what is the difference? Weinstein’s victims were mainly white, and R. Kelly’s mainly black.
Historically, black women have never been viewed by society as equals. We have, in fact, fought to be recognized as equals for our whole lives, and there is little to no sign that we’ll need to stop fighting soon.
Black women in American have held an integral part in the households of white America since we were first brought to its shores. In slavery we nursed white women’s babies, we continue to play important roles as caregivers in modern day households, and we have watched these contributions be diminished and minimized throughout history in an effort to suppress black women’s advancement. White women, in particular, have been perpetrators of this suppression in their unwillingness to champion us, either because they, like us, have been conditioned to believe that we are inferior, or because they, unlike us, have been conditioned by the partriarchy to see the relationship between femininity and victimhood as inexorably linked.
It is impossible to convince the world to stand up for you when that world has been trained to believe you are not of equal worth to defend. When we speak of overthrowing the patriarchy, we must speak of doing so only on terms where all women are liberated. And, if you are a white woman, understand that a huge element that keeps toxic masculinity so powerful and alive is the elements of white supremacy that fuel it. Liberation is not liberation unless it is for everyone, and as black women have been fighting to deliver that message for centuries, I encourage white women to take up the fight alongside us if we are meant to see any real change.
In this fight no woman can be ‘less than’ another. Women will never be able to truly advance unless we are working for the advancement of all women. And when you remain silent in situations where the victims are nearly exclusively of color, you remain complicit in the devaluing of black bodies. The wake of this silence touches every other element of black life in America, from the number of times a black child will be called on for the answer in class to the threat a police officer sees when a black teenager reaches into his pocket for his driver’s license.
So, my question to you this weekend is a question we, as women, all need to ask ourselves every day: As we continue forging forward in this fight for equality, how often are we reaching back to pull others ahead as well?