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Excerpted From: Mikah K. Thompson, Just Another Fast Girl: Exploring Slavery's Continued Impact on the Loss of Black Girlhood, 44 Harvard Journal of Law & Gender 57 (Winter, 2021) (283 Footnotes) (Full Document)
As an adolescent Black girl growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a very good understanding of the “dos” and “don'ts” of life. I knew I should work hard in school and strive for good grades. I understood that I should be kind to others and respectful to my parents. And I knew that above all else, I should refrain from any behavior that might make me look like a fast girl.
As a journalist explained recently, “[b]eing fast meant you were asking for something. Being fast could mean wearing certain lip colors or hairstyles, tight clothing, showing age-appropriate interest in the opposite sex, or even receiving interest from peers and older men--regardless of whether that interest was welcome or reciprocated.” For me, the best way to avoid being perceived as fast or womanish was to dress modestly, lean into my natural shyness, and avoid being too aggressive with boys despite my budding interest in them. Ironically, my efforts to avoid being fast did little to protect me from sexually aggressive boys and men. Although I am not a survivor of sexual violence, I recall older boys and men making sexually suggestive comments to me starting at around the age of ten. From that young age, I learned that my actions could result in attention from men and boys that made me feel uncomfortable. I certainly wanted boys to like me, but I did not want to be assaulted, and I believed that acting like a fast girl might result in rape.
It is this loss of girlhood that is the subject matter of this Article. While girls of all races must learn to navigate the world around them, I believe the journey is different for Black girls due to our country's history of slavery. American society utilized an array of misperceptions and stereotypes to justify the brutality of slavery, and chief among them was the belief that Black girls and women were hypersexual, immoral, and dishonest. These perceptions continue to persist today and may explain the difficulties Black girls and women face when they report the sexual violence committed against them.
This Article was inspired in part by my need to understand the environment that allowed entertainer Robert “R.” Kelly to maintain a successful multi-decade career as a singer and songwriter despite the Black community's knowledge that he had been accused of sexually exploiting teenage girls. When Kelly was tried on child pornography charges in 2008, he was acquitted, and at least one of Kelly's jurors has indicated that his perceptions of Kelly's alleged victims affected his vote. When asked about his assessment of the women's testimony, he stated, “I just didn't believe them. I know it sounds ridiculous. The way they dress, the way they act. I didn't like them. I disregarded all what they said.” This juror perceived Kelly's alleged victims to be fast girls and women who were unworthy of belief and perhaps undeserving of the law's protection.
This Article will show that many of society's perceptions of Black girls are rooted in slavery. Section I describes the origins of the stereotype that Black girls are promiscuous and demonstrates that this stereotype remains prevalent today. Section II describes the origins of the stereotype that Black people are inherently dishonest and considers the impact of this stereotype on Black girls who come forward with allegations of sexual violence. Section III discusses the effect historical stereotypes of Black girls have on the players in the justice system, including law enforcement officers, judges, jurors, defense attorneys, and prosecutors. Finally, Section IV advocates for policing reforms, training initiatives, and the use of certain courtroom practices that will combat the influence of these stereotypes.
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It should come as no surprise that the institution of slavery, which predated the founding of our country and existed for hundreds of years, continues to affect American society today; but it is this acknowledgement of slavery's continued influence on our country that is often fodder for debate. In a sense, I understand the difficulty one might have in squaring her belief that America was founded on principles of freedom and liberty with the reality that our country's centuries-long denial of rights to certain members of society has resulted in an ongoing disadvantage for those individuals.
This Article has addressed just one slavery-era phenomenon that remains today. Despite the law's stated goal of protecting all citizens equally, perceptions and stereotypes about Black girls that thrived during slavery have resulted in a modern-day hierarchy of protection under the law. This hierarchy can explain why an accused sexual predator like R. Kelly was able to avoid criminal conviction and public ridicule for so long. It also explains why Kelly was embraced by many in the Black community even though he was accused of exploiting the most vulnerable members of that community: its children.
More than anything, this Article is a mea culpa to all of the fast girls who have gone unprotected. As a girl, I wanted to avoid being perceived as fast because I had learned that fast girls were at least partially responsible for the sexual violence committed against them. I did not want the wrong type of attention from boys and men, and I believed that dressing and behaving in a certain way would invite that attention. Like other members of society, I blamed the girls who were victimized and gave a “free pass” to the boys and men who harmed them. Although I lost some of my girlhood by working to avoid being fast, my and others' judgments of fast girls continues to deprive them of something more. They have lost the opportunity to live, learn, and grow freely before being forced to take on the obligations of adulthood, and society, including the justice system, has done very little to protect their innocence. Moving forward, we all must do much more to safeguard our children regardless of their race and sex.
Associate Professor of Law, University of Missouri-Kansas City.
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