As Black women faculty who have watched and shared with students the 2015 film The Hunting Ground, which exposed rape culture and crimes on U.S. college campuses, we are appalled at the lack of attention the case of serial rapist Officer Daniel Holtzclaw has received by the national and higher education media. Officer Holtzclaw raped and assaulted 13 Black women who range in ages from 17 to 58 and received a 263-year sentence. As we rejoice on this verdict, we must ask: Is the rape of 13 Black women not a social justice issue? What does the Daniel Holtzclaw case tell us about racist, sexist silence on college campuses?
In response to this lack of attention, we write this piece to raise the level of consciousness on the conditions of our sisters, daughters and friends who live in a racist-gendered society that continues to dehumanize our existence. When we think about rape culture we often think about White women. The silence behind this case reveals to the world how Black women’s bodies are constantly under attack. At the same time, when social movements like #SayHerName are calling for the elevation of Black women and girls who suffer state-sanctioned violence at the hands of the police, we find it necessary to address why this omission seems to be commonplace in our society.
We are reminded by Kimberle Crenshaw, who challenges the misconception that Black women are doing just fine, and apply her critique to media invisibility and silence. Furthermore, we see how controlling images and tropes of Black womanhood are functioning within a White (or White-passing) patriarchal imagination. Officer Holtzclaw suggests even in his own statements that his rationale for targeting Black women was due to his ingrained assumption that people would not believe these women. His actions and statement are an indictment on our society, a society that makes women go to great lengths to prove they have been assaulted. One survivor, when asked why she did not come forward about her assault, responded, “What kind of police do you report to when it’s an officer?” This question speaks to the embodiment of state-sanctioned power that is manifested through the consciousness and body of this White (or White-passing) male police officer.
In the context of higher education, the misconception is that Black women are doing just fine (due to higher degree attainment when compared to Black males). However, if the violence against Black women is not addressed, then how can we assume or put forward that sexual violence within the college campus is being seen as a social justice or human rights issue. What can we do?
Using critical pedagogy. As faculty in higher education institutions, we must engage in a curriculum that addresses Black women violence within systems of oppression across all content areas. We are reminded of how Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, was exploited for her cells and this discovery shaped the history, scholarship and profit margins of global biological corporations. Even in the teaching of science, questions related to ethical medical practices are steeped well within White supremacist patriarchal epistemologies. It is imperative to use critical text such as Ain’t I a Woman?, Why We Should All be Feminists and Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity to have intellectual discussions in the classroom across college campuses.
Our positionality in higher education. The higher education community should understand themselves as public intellectuals. We have the opportunity to be change agents in our fields and address injustices in society that affect the lives of people on the margins while shedding light on the abuse of power from those at the center of society. Ask yourself, how are you being supportive of Black women on your campuses? How are you publically addressing and denouncing the violence against Black women?
Know rape culture and its relationship to Black women. Disaggregate the data on sexual assault claims on campus. Make sure that there are culturally competent mental health professionals who are trained in race-related distress that comes with being a survivor. Understand how tropes and myths of Black womanhood influence the delivery of services and the accountability of professionals in our institutions. For instance, on our campus, an impetus for the student activist group Concerned Students 1950 was the rape-suicide case of a Black female student-athlete in 2011. While the Holtzclaw case has reinvigorated a conversation about sexual assault, we find resources and awareness that address the intersections of race and gender violence lacking.
In closing, we would like to remind readers that 13 Black women were raped by a police officer and it barely made mainstream media. Moreover, neither did the implications of this case to our higher education community. Yet, this is why we do this work, because there are too many cases to cite. We are challenging this silence because otherwise we are complicit in the oppression of Black women on college campuses, nationally and globally. As members of the higher education community, if you are not using this case as an example within courses and campus training on sexual assault than you are being complicit and are part of the problem.
This silence is killing us.
Dr. Ifeyinwa “Ife” Onyenekwu is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Missouri. Dr. Amalia Dache-Gerbino is an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis Department at the University of Missouri.