Commentary Race

Is There No Room for Black Women in the Rape and Alcohol Debate?

Wagatwe Wanjuki

Media is powerful. It tells us which voices (and bodies) are valued by society. By paying attention to all types of sexual assault survivors, we not only are sending a message to survivors that we believe they matter—we are also telling rapists that they will not get away with assault just by choosing a victim of a certain race.

Last month, Slate‘s Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, presented a far from groundbreaking solution to the rape epidemic on college campuses: Tell women to stop drinking. In a piece originally titled “The Best Rape Prevention: Tell College Women to Stop Getting So Wasted,” Yoffe explained why women’s sobriety is apparently the key to ending campus rape culture. (After much backlash, the title was changed to the patronizing “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.”) While there is value in properly addressing the role of alcohol in sexual violence, especially on college campuses, tired, victim-blaming arguments like Yoffe’s are infuriating at worst and annoying at best.

Myriad outlets published responses to Yoffe’s piece, including the New York Times. In its Room for Debate feature, the Times presented a variety of viewpoints on the subjects of college women, rape, and alcohol. While I was pleased the paper dedicated space to such an important issue, I was disappointed when I saw the contributors—all of the people who weighed in were only either white women or Black men. This was troubling for two reasons: (1) the (very incorrect) stereotype that most rapes in the United States are committed by Black men against white women immediately came to mind; and (2) once again, the voices of women of color were excluded from the debate.

Adding insult to injury, one of the men featured, Dillard University President Walter M. Kimbrough, focused his piece on the fact that “acquaintance rape at college is less of a problem for black women.” While it is true that some studies have shown white college women to be slightly more likely to be raped while intoxicated than Black women, that does not mean the voices of women of other races are less important. Did the Times feel that there were no women of color fit to weigh in? Is there a reason the editors did not think Black women should speak for themselves?

The fact of the matter is that gender-based violence is a serious issue for Black women, who are on the whole raped at higher rates than white women. Almost 19 percent of Black women are raped in their lifetimes (compared to 17.7 percent of white women), and about 40 percent of Black women report enduring coercive contact of a sexual nature by age 18. Yet, when we see the faces of sexual assault survivors, we most often see white, cisgender women. Even during the most recent media flurry about drinking, college women, and rape, there’s been little diversity in the art used to accompany the articles—something feminist writer Jessica Valenti noticed as well. Once again, we see, literally, the types of bodies over which we are supposed to be wringing our hands because they are most valuable: thin, beautiful white young women.

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Visibility has already proven to be a valuable tool in combating harmful stereotypes and trends in our society. As an activist who has been involved in the movement for safer college campuses, I am pleased to see such an explosion in the attention paid to campus sexual violence by the mainstream media. However, as I’ve written before, we have a long way to go when it comes to racial diversity in the people we see as the face of the issue. It is just one part of a broader problem that we have in the United States: Across the board, Black women are not adequately represented in media. There is a long way to go when it comes to Black women as mediamakers, in addition to being depicted in media. In a recent Essence survey, Black women said they saw an overwhelming amount of negative depictions of Black womanhood in media. There is a dire shortage of women of color as staff journalists. The Sunday talk shows (save for Melissa Harris-Perry’s) seem to have a white male problem. And in a shocking (and completely unfunny) move, Saturday Night Live recently responded to critiques about the show’s lack of diversity by booking only white, male hosts and musical guests for the month of December.

Media is powerful. It tells us which voices (and bodies) are valued by society. By paying attention to all types of sexual assault survivors, we not only are sending a message to survivors that we believe they matter—we are also telling rapists that they will not get away with assault just by choosing a victim of a certain race. We need to do better about creating space to hear from the people who are actually affected by these issues. We’re here, and we’re ready to talk. Are you ready to listen?

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