Content Warning: The following text describes sexual assault, child abuse, and intimate partner violence, which can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
On Sept. 27, R&B singer and producer R. Kelly was found guilty on criminal charges of sexual assault, racketeering, and sexual exploitation of children. The conviction comes after a wave of allegations from women, some dating into the 1990s. R. Kelly was a fixture in the Black community for nearly three decades. His many legal issues, such as his 1994 marriage to then 15–year–old singer Aaliyah at age 27, never stopped his career from thriving.
After decades of dodging convictions for various sex crimes, it was the groundbreaking 2019 Lifetime docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly, that put the spotlight on R. Kelly’s patterns of abuse once again. Though the series contained numerous interviews with the Black women he harmed, many of his fans remained convinced of his innocence. Some argued that it was another case of the media trying to take down a successful Black man, despite the staggering evidence against him.
In the #MeToo era, sexual assault allegations have been made against several prominent celebrities. Despite the fact that the #MeToo movement was founded by a Black woman, Turana Burke in 2007, it has focused primarily on white victims. However, in R. Kelly’s case, a large majority of his victims were Black women and girls.
R. Kelly’s trial proves that Black women, who have largely been left behind by mainstream feminist movements, have finally been listened to. Still, Black women had been calling out R. Kelly’s predatory behavior for decades—so how did he get away with his crimes for so long? And how many more high profile #MeToo cases will it take involving Black women for this conviction to be the norm instead of a rarity?
The answers lie in the treatment of Black female victims of sexual assault and harassment by the justice system and general public alike. Adultification bias describes the phenomenon of people perceiving Black youth to be more mature than they actually are. For Black girls, this adultification comes with misplaced blame. In the aforementioned case of R&B singer Aaliyah, who had been groomed since age 14 by R. Kelly, R. Kelly’s supporters have maintained the blame should be placed on Aaliyah for allegedly using a false ID to obtain a marriage license.
From a young age, Black girls are overwhelmingly assumed to be less innocent than their peers. A 2017 report revealed that when Black girls express strong opinions, adults perceive them as “challenging authority” instead of listening to them. The same study concluded that Black girls have been labeled as being more aware of adult topics, more knowledgeable about sex, and in need of less protection in comparison to their white peers. This stereotype isn’t only forwarded by non–Black people, as Black women themselves can contribute to the same stereotype they faced as children.
Many of R. Kelly’s accusers were underaged. The adultification and oversexualization of Black girls is still an issue today—it's this cultural stigma that caused R. Kelly to dismiss the allegations against him as the words of “disgruntled groupies,” instead of victim testimony, in 2019.
The National Center on Violence Against Black Women reported that 35% of Black women experienced some form of sexual assault in their lifetimes, but most do not report. This is because Black women are rarely seen as victims by the legal system. In R. Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial (in which he was acquitted) a juror stated that he didn’t believe the Black women testifying against the singer due to the way Black women dress and act. In week one of the most recent trial, a woman testified about how R. Kelly sexually abused her at the age of 16. R. Kelly’s lawyers responded to her testimony by portraying her as a jealous superfan who invented lies about the singer once he lost interest.
To complicate issues further, Black women don’t always speak up about sexual assault due to cultural stigma. Black feminist writer Feminista Jones wrote that in cases of domestic violence, assault is viewed as a “family secret” in many Black communities. Black men’s turbulent relationship with police officers and the justice system as a whole makes many Black women feel like they can’t turn in members of their own community to law enforcement.
“When we do speak out or seek help,” Jones writes, “We too often experience backlash from members of our communities who believe we are airing out dirty laundry and making ourselves look bad in front of white people.” R. Kelly was considered a respected figure known for giving back to the Black community. The Halo Effect, in which it’s difficult for people to believe something negative about a person whom you have a positive association with, may play a role in the belief that Jones describes. By calling out the behavior of R. Kelly, Black women may fear that it damages the perception of the Black community as a whole.
R. Kelly’s case ended with a conviction, a victory for the many young women he harmed. Still, we can’t dismiss how society perpetuates a climate where Black women are unable to speak up and are blamed for the actions of their abusers. Though #MeToo proves how difficult it is for all women (and men) to speak up about sexual assault, the intersecting impacts of race and gender create a uniquely complicated situation for Black women.
We must consider how so many victims had to come forward for the case against R. Kelly to be taken seriously. This result of this trial should force us to examine how we treat Black female victims of sexual assault, and compel us to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
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