Black women have to keep pushing back against internalized misogynoir
Love requires accountability.
by Josie Pickens
dream hampton’s Lifetime documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, continues to make Black folks do some serious soul searching and unpacking around the kinds of sexual violence too many of us have experienced in our families and connected communities. For Black women especially, much of the mental and emotional heavy-lifting has involved recalling our own personal traumas and being reminded how little the world (and even some of our own folks) cares about Black girls.
This is nothing new. R. Kelly’s alleged sexual predation spans almost three decades, and it was never a secret. Many of us are still forced to be kind to the family and community members who abused us at our local churches, community functions, and family dinners—years and years later. Some of us still haven’t gained the courage to speak up about our pain because we know that we will either not be believed or be blamed for our own abuse.
If we are interested in expanding this conversation on sexual violence against Black people by Black people (let’s not forget that R. Kelly, himself, was a victim of sexual abuse, and that Black boys are likely even less believed or advocated for if they are sexually abused), we have to be willing to talk about the roots of rape culture and restrictive/toxic masculinity, which is heteropatriarchy, and the ways that this system affects Black people period.
I’m always ready for conversations that seek to dismantle “the master’s tools,” and especially ones that call out the particular kind of misogynoir that Black women, girls, and femmes suffer. The term misogynoir was coined by thinkers Moya Bailey and Trudy in 2008 to address the particular kind of anti-Black misogyny that Black women experience. It refers to the kinds of violence women face overall, but especially the kind of racialized violence Black women face in our everyday lives.
Admittedly, I am trained and well prepared to address the misogynoir that is carried out by white men and women and by Black men. I know what this kind of harm looks and feels like, as I’ve experienced it time and time again. It is the devil I know, and critiquing it is easy. What I’ve been grappling with since we have been made to collectively address R. Kelly’s abuses against Black girls and women (and our seemingly communal decision to disregard it—over and over), is how many Black women continue to show support for Kelly, or at least attempt to divert attention away from his ferocious, and cruel predation.
Maybe this kind of internalized misogynoir frightens me—this idea that some Black women work so diligently against their own combined self-interest. That they, that we, can watch other Black women weep and wail as they recount such stories of abuse and still ask: What about R. Kelly’s well-being; What about how parents failed their daughters; What about white men, like Harvey Winstein, who are also ferocious and cruel predators?
Seeing and hearing these rebuttals come from other Black women hurts my heart deeply, but they do not surprise me. Black women are trained to champion, and defend, Black men at all cost under an oppressive system like patriarchy which says—in every way imaginable—that men’s lives are most valuable. This patriarchy also tells Black women that we always deserve the abuses we experience, because we are “fast girls” and “thots” and “angry” and “loud.”
We see these ideas about our worthiness shared throughout our social media feeds daily, especially since the R. Kelly documentary aired. We see it from Black women like rapper Da Brat, who—instead of asking why R. Kelly continuously abused Black girls for decades in her hometown of Chicago— blamed parents for allowing their children in R. Kelly’s presence.
Taraji P. Henson’s brand of “whataboutism” centers trash white men’s bad behavior in attempts to address the double standards Black men face when making the same “bad choices.” She’s not wrong in that regard. Yes, Black people are treated unfairly in every system fathomable—from housing, to maternal mortality, to mass incarceration. A simple Google search will find hundreds of Black men who have been wrongly convicted and incarcerated—and who have spent entire lifetimes behind prison walls for crimes they did not commit. If Henson really wants to address these inequities, there’s plenty of room and work to be done. Instead, she tried to use this very real issue to defend R. Kelly, mocking not only the people who really do suffer at the hands of a corrupt justice system, but also Kelly’s seemingly countless victims. She deserved to be called out, and I hope she listened.
Erykah Badu seems committed to being tone-deaf about why we are standing against R. Kelly, finally, and this is not her first problematic rodeo. As soon as I heard the message she delivered to her audience, at a concert in Chicago no less (!), I immediately recalled her commentary during the 2015 Soultrain Music Awards where she introduced Kelly by saying that no one has done more for Black people than him. I also remembered Badu’s series of tweets where she, essentially, argued that school-aged girls are responsible for the ways grown men behave towards them.
For her to have the gall, the lack of compassion for the Black women of Chicago who have likely grown up watching R. Kelly prey on an entire city of Black girls, to stand in front of an audience and offer her prayers for R. Kelly? That is unforgivable. It can’t be helped if Badu personally wants to vibrate on a level of unconditional love for serial sexual abusers who seem to only victimize Black girls and women, but she should have mouthed those prayers during a meditation series. The people of Chicago should not have been asked to consider praying for R. Kelly or loving him unconditionally, and the fact that Badu continues to push back against valid critiques of her comments, and play the victim is only making matters worse—for her and for all of us.
In all, Black women—each of us—have to be willing to let go of our conflation between championing, defending, and even loving Black men with enabling them—especially when we are enabling them to harm us.
As James Baldwin writes, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of what you don’t see.” Love requires accountability and it should be reciprocal. We cannot make everyone else in the world more responsible for R. Kelly than Kelly himself, and we cannot keep loving him past the almost thirty years of sexual violence he has perpetuated.
When we demand justice against R. Kelly, we are reminding the world that the lives of Black women and girls are just as valuable as the lives of famous Black men. The time is up; the time is now. And if we have to divest from Black women who are more committed to terrible Black men than they are to the ones these men abuse, then please let it be so.
Josie Pickens is a professor, cultural critic, writer and griot. Follow her on Twitter at @jonubian.