The New Initiative Uplifting the Stories of Black Survivors of Sexual Violence

Audra Heinrichs
·9 min read

Even in a post–Me Too world, survivors of sexual violence know the perils of coming forward. The stigmas endure. And a woman’s word is often not believed. Black women are at a particular disadvantage, rarely receiving the opportunity to tell their stories at all, even after longtime civil rights activist Tarana Burke saw the Me Too movement she founded become a household name in 2017.

According to a recent report from the National Center on Violence Against Women, for every Black woman who reports a rape, there are at least 15 who do not. It’s also been noted that half of all Black transgender women are survivors of sexual violence and two-thirds of Black transgender people said they would be uncomfortable asking the police for help.

However, ahead of April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Burke announced that Me Too. International has joined  the National Women’s Law Center and the Time’s Up Foundation to create We, As Ourselves, an initiative that will address one leading factor of why so many Black survivors don’t feel safe enough to seek public support and one of the most pressing issues of the survivor justice movement: reshaping the narrative about sexual violence and its impact on Black survivors.

According to its website, the initiative aims to create safe spaces where Black survivors can confront their stories, to upend cultural narratives that harm and silence Black survivors, and to build new practices wherein Black survivors are believed, heard, and supported. Its first major event will be the first ever week of action during Sexual Assault Awareness Month to focus on Black survivors.

Via Zoom, Glamour spoke with Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, and Monifa Bandele, chief operating officer of the Time’s Up Foundation, about the origins of the initiative, how the survivor justice movement has failed Black survivors, and what we can all do to ensure they’ll know a justice they deserve.

Glamour: How did this initiative come to be?

Fatima Goss Graves: You know, sometimes when Black women gather, exciting things happen, and I think this is one of those examples. It’s probably not a surprise to say that Black women have been leaders in the survivor justice movement over the decades, but we’re acutely aware that our stories are very rarely told, and when they are told, they aren’t given the dignity and respect they deserve. This initiative really grew out of conversations with Black survivors, some who are household names and some who people probably don't know but who want to change the conversation and culture and ways in which Black survivors are received.

Monifa Bandele: It was also just a response to the fact that Black women have been on the forefront of fighting for survivor justice but at the same time are invisible in the stories that were being told, and feel unworthy of care in this movement. It’s both shoring up the Black-led survivor justice movement but also saying, “See us, hear our stories, center us.” We are not just workers in this movement. We are survivors too.

The name—We, As Ourselves—was taken from an excerpt of a Paula Giddings book, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, with her blessing. What was the thought behind that?

Goss Graves: Paula Giddings has this foundational book, and for those of us who were honing this project, we felt her sort of challenge for the world was thinking about what it would look like if Black women experienced the world differently. What would it look like if—as the title says—we could actually be ourselves without the range of factors that undermine our stories? What would it look like in this case to be able to center Black survivors, their story, their ability to find justice, and their ability to heal? In some ways, I see the launch video as a first offering. But the important offering that comes next is the opportunity to take a pledge and join us in unapologetic support of Black survivors.

Bandele: As Black women activists, we always acknowledge the lineage. We’re always very conscious of the fact that we’re building on so much foundational work from our elders and from our ancestors. Naming the lineage of the work is just so important because it gives us power. This is not something we woke up last year and started. This moment was created by the powerful women before us.

The video that accompanied the launch, “A Love Letter to Black Survivors,” was so moving and featured several Black women in the public eye that many women and femmes are inspired by. How did that all come together and how did so many people get involved?

Goss Graves: The short answer is, we put out a call and people wanted to be a part of it. I think people wanted to be a part of sending a message of love and solidarity with Black survivors. They wanted to say, “We see you, even if your story isn’t being told,” and that we would fight together for a different future and take on the really dangerous public narratives that Black survivors are surrounded by.

It’s difficult for any survivor to be believed and given the care they deserve, but statistically the stakes are even higher for Black women. According to a Brandeis University study cited by the Time’s Up Foundation, prosecutors filed charges just 34% of the time when a Black woman is attacked, compared with a 75% rate when the victim is a white woman. Why is it that much harder for a Black female or femme survivor to be given dignity, due process or to be validated at all?

Goss Graves: It’s not a new idea that survivors aren’t believed. We know that’s a long-standing challenge. But for Black survivors, what you’re talking about is an additional intersecting of race and of sex stereotypes that are loaded with the sort of stories we have long told ourselves about Black women. The range of racist and sexist stories that are conjured up for Black women shapes how we see them today. It shapes their interactions with institutions when they come forward. It shapes their interactions with police if they report. It shapes even who we think of when someone says survivor. I think if we can shift this for Black survivors, we will really be shifting it for all survivors. If the least likely to be believed can have a chance to be treated with dignity and respect and given an opportunity to heal, that becomes more likely for everyone.

Bandele: I think about a book that I picked up in undergrad called All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. It talked about the fact that in conversations around gender justice, white women are centered, and in conversations around racial justice, Black men are centered—which means that somehow Black women are at this invisible intersection of both of them. This conversation and this visibility that we’re giving Black women survivors via the initiative is about saving our lives. I have two daughters, a teenager and an adult. I know their bodies and lives are in danger. These myths about who we are and how we experience things continue, so not only are correcting the record now, we’re also trying to save our lives.

Why do you think the survivor justice movement and many feminist movements leave Black women behind or consciously and unconsciously isolate them?

Goss Graves: Going back to what Monifa said, unlearning the idea in All the Women Are White, as movements and as institutions, is not an easy thing. Our movements have been grappling with what it actually means to do things differently. What does it look like to actually center the experiences of women of color and how does that benefit an entire movement? I think it has taken a long time and people are going to continue to get it wrong. But I’m actually really hopeful about the type of leadership we have right now. We’ve always had Black and brown women leading in the feminist movement; you just weren’t always able to name their names. But we’re in a moment right now when people are acknowledging the work that they’re doing and that’s helping to provide an important shift.

Bandele: Far too many white women survivors have been hoodwinked. I don’t believe that the white patriarchal power structure even cares about white survivors until the utility for them to be weaponized is discovered on a case-to-case basis.

There’s been almost a smoke-and-mirrors thing going on, in that a certain group of survivors believe their pain is being centered. Therefore, we have this dynamic that we’ve been talking about over the past 10 years, where we’re not always aligned politically and in the media. There’s a comfort in being aligned within white supremacy, without realizing that you are being weaponized in service of patriarchy as well.

Aside from championing this initiative, what can we all do to ensure Black female and femme survivors are not only adequately centered, but also have the agency to lead?

Goss Graves: Reject any pieces where we are erased. We need to critique narratives, whether they’re campaigns, stories, books, articles, etc., that fail to mention the unique experiences of Black women survivors. Refuse to let us be left out. I think continuing to cover us in the media as well. A lot of times, especially as social media has emerged, we’ve seen from Black Twitter that Black women do tell their stories, and these stories have been ignored by mainstream media. Now the chorus is growing and we’re pushing this as an opportunity for the mainstream media to center those stories as well.

Audra Heinrichs is a New York City–based writer and organizer. Her work has appeared in  The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Teen Vogue, The Telegraph, Refinery29, Ms. Magazine, and others.

Originally Appeared on Glamour