I was in high school when I was assaulted by someone I knew.
I grew up believing rape happened to people who didn’t know better—or should have known better. My stories of sexual violence, the ones I believed, were those in which a woman had agency and didn’t use it.
When I was assaulted, I wasn’t drunk. I had cut a class in school to hang out with someone I liked, who didn’t live far from campus. We were hanging out and suddenly he was kissing me. I didn’t want to, but I was confused about why because I liked him. I was shy, a little bit awkward, and inexperienced, and I wasn’t ready. But when I said no, he didn’t listen. Instead, he pulled me closer when I resisted. He was stronger than me. I was embarrassed about being a prude, embarrassed about resisting, and worried about what would be said when we went back to school. So instead of the story being that I fought him, I gave in. I wanted him to like me, but I didn’t want to have sex with him.
I spent a lot of time confused about what happened to me. I didn’t believe that rape could happen to someone who didn’t kick, claw, scream for help. I didn’t believe it could happen to someone like me.
I grew up with my mother telling me that I didn’t have to do anything with anyone I didn’t want to. When I was a child, my mother would teach me self-defense moves in our kitchen, late at night when it was just she and I who were awake, when all the other kitchen windows in the neighborhood were dark. My mother was assaulted by a family member, she confessed to me one night in our kitchen, as she told me about how sperm swim to make their way into your uterus.
Sexual violence is a secret that Black mothers tell their girls in the kitchen while doing our hair, or in hushed voices, in the background of dishes being washed and counters and floors being cleaned.
We talk to girls about how to protect ourselves, but I don’t recall stories with boys about how to check for consent—or about how to defend themselves if they too are being touched or raped. We talk to girls about making sure our signals are clear, but I don’t recall conversations with boys about the autonomy of their bodies. We tell boys that sex is how they become men, and we tell girls that sex is how we become whores. We tell boys that being curious about their bodies is gay; we tell girls that exploring intimacy with other women is hot.
In Black communities, we are either very loud or very quiet about violence, depending on the type. If it’s sexual violence, we tend to be quiet. When a Black man has been accused of sexual violence, we are loath to acknowledge it because we know Black men are attacked in every possible way in America. Our DNA rattles in ancestral recognition of white women who accused Black men of lusting after them sexually, often resulting in lynchings, murders, or castration. When a Black man is accused of sexual violence by a Black woman, especially a successful Black man, we are told to be quiet, told that we wanted it, deserved it, and are engaged in a project of trying to take the Black man down.
From Mike Tyson to 2Pac to Russell Simmons, Black women are told to be quiet, to leave those stories wrapped in shame for the sake of the progress of the race. We indoctrinate Black women and girls with the belief that they will be viewed as a traitor to the culture if they publicly speak about what has happened to them. Because we know that Black people are lied about, lied on, falsely accused with deadly results, we throw away useful tools to help us understand that violence is about power and control.
The only way to stop violence in our communities is to expose it, as violence depends on silence, keeping it hidden from ourselves and each other. We have to expose the Black men sitting in jail on false rape charges at the same time we expose the Black men who have committed harm, especially if they experienced harm themselves and had nowhere to address it and no one to listen and witness. The violence is not our fault, but the silencing of the recounting of it certainly is. We have to hold all of it, or we risk failing to address any of it.
Alicia Garza is an organizer and political strategist. She is the principal at the Black Futures Lab and the Black to the Future Action Fund, co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter and the Black Lives Matter Global Network, director of strategy and partnerships at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and host of the Lady Don’t Take No podcast.