The past month has justice for Black communities into the spotlight. First there was Black Lives Matter's high-profile protest against police presence at the Toronto Pride Parade, and the ensuing racist backlash. Then, the tragic murders of Black community members including Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Abdirahman Abdi, and Korryn Gaines at the hands of police.
Police brutality against Black communities continues because Black folks are dehumanized: Black men and boys are seen as automatically-threatening predators, and Black women and trans people as disposable.
One of the ways anti-Black racism manifests is the way we talk about (or don't talk about) sexual violence perpetrated against the Black community. While Canadian statistics don't gather victimization data by race, we know that Black communities are among the most underserved and marginalized groups in Canada, making Black women and trans folks among the most vulnerable to sexual violence.
How can we ensure that stories of Black survivors of sexual violence are heard? We spoke with activists Margaret Alexander and Riya Jama to learn more.
Margaret Alexander has been an activist and educator in the anti-violence movement for over 20 years. She's worked in both women's shelters and rape crisis services, developing programming that provided support and advocacy to female identified people who had experienced violence, as well as delivering anti-oppression training to frontline shelter workers all over the province. She's currently a professor at George Brown College.
Riya Jama is diasporic visual artist, photographer, and graphic designer.
Interviewer: What are the challenges you have seen in mainstream media reporting on sexual violence and rape in enacted against Black women?
Margaret: "Canada perpetuates this idea that racism doesn't exist here. When talking about survivors who've experienced sexual assault, they don't actually mention what color they are or their ethnicity... The media sets up this good victim/bad victim [dichotomy]... they erase any of the structural or protection issues. It reads as an individual situation where this 'bad' guy raped this 'good' woman, or this 'not good' woman allowed themselves to be raped. And queer people and trans folks are completely invisible - thereby 'unrape-able.'"
Riya: "When I read an article like that I automatically know what they're leaving out. And God forbid you're a survivor who's never shared their story and you see that... Why would I want to share my story if I'm going to continuously be erased, continuously have my own lived experiences be completely invalidated?"
Margaret: "When sexual violence occurs to Indigenous women* or Black women* it gets constructed into something else besides racism but it is racism... That's how sexual violence happens for brown and Black bodies. It happens through the lens of racism." (*self-identified women and people perceived to be female)
Interviewer: How have seen Black communities creating consent culture?
Margaret: "Many communities are taking their power back and addressing issues of violence without feeling like they have to involve the systems, the cops or the media... The Internet's an enormous tool that's allowed us to tell our own stories and not be reliant on dominant media to tell the story for us. It's kind of freeing when you get to tell your own story, and be in control of who knows the story, and when your story is told, and how it is told. And then you hear other people's stories that are similar to yours and you join up."
Riya: "I'm working within my community, the Somali community, and we're working to have these conversations initiated. Things like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are so important because you're sharing your story. And you're sharing in the way you want it to be shared... I feel like just like how there's this quiet revolution happening with people of color and media and how we're taking back our voices and creating spaces."
Interviewer: Survivors are often portrayed as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women. How can the media avoid minimizing stories about survivors that don't fit this narrative?
Margaret: "As much violence as we experience in our intimate partnerships, we also experience that violence from the state in great numbers. The last thing you want to do is go to those institutions for help. You know not only are you at risk of a violent assault from a cop or having your kids stolen by the state but there's also this idea that [for] Black women* and First Nations women*, reporting violence that we experience in intimate or familial relationships is like turning in our Black brothers. Because you know that over a white person, they're going to be put in jail quicker and longer."
Riya: "It's not like this system has empathy for [us]. Our stories are never heard because there's a degree of violence when we do share our stories."
Interviewer: There's been a swell in media coverage of rape culture in recent months. What do we still need to address?
Riya: "All I've seen [so far is] the violent backlash. I've noticed there's this universal support system that cultivates the protection of the abusers, and there's a silencing that's happening with the victims. This whole system of creating spaces where abusers can thrive and exist and can come out unscathed, hav[ing] no harm done to them. Meanwhile the victim is completely destroyed, completely victimized all over again. I don't know if I want mainstream media to tell my story... They're not going to honour my voice."
Margaret: "They'll take your words [to] create a sound bite and put things out of context, then they'll focus on the things that are important to sell their paper, not [that are] important to help you as a survivor. That's not their job. They're not there to help you survive. They're there to sell their papers. I think journalists have biases -- just like everyone else in society -- and that there's no such thing as 'objective' voices in the media."
This blog is part of a series of interviews femifesto is publishing on media reporting and sexual violence in diverse communities across Canada.
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