Even as I post this, I know that this campaign is going to be difficult. And I get it. I was just at an event this week-end when a favorite R. Kelly tune came on. Instinct 1, "Oh, I LIKE that song. Sing along." Instinct 2-- "Wait, that's R. Kelly. The serial abuser. Can we turn that off?" And of course, we couldn't----people were enjoying it, had requested it, and to do so would be disruptive of a special moment. So it goes. And even I still have the damn song in my head--an endless, catchy, aspirational loop completely at odds with the ugliness that surrounds him., R. Kelly is gifted. No doubt. And he is also twisted. So now folks are going to grapple with how to reconcile the two. And it'll expose some deeply gendered fault lines in our solidarity politics.
Already we can predict exactly what the debate is going to sound like, right?
1. "First Bill Cosby, now R. Kelly. They are going after our brothers. In the words of Clarence Thomas, 'It's nothing but a high tech lynching." Um, no. What it is is a long overdue reckoning with the fact that the stories of multiple Black women over decades have not been believed or worst still, valued, either within our community or in society overall. To say that finally valuing these women is akin to lynching is an insult to lynching victims--both men and women--as well as an insult to Black women who have experienced Kelly's abuse. Thomas' claim over 20 years ago was pure deflection, an attempt to rally Black solidarity to his defense. It worked. Most in our community rallied to Thomas' side and repudiated Anita Hill. And we've been paying the price ever since. We should have learned then about the consequences of this asymmetric solidarity by now. Has anything changed a generation later? Do we value our sisters enough to put an end to wrapping the wolf of sexual abuse in the sheep's clothing of racial solidarity?
2. "But what about Harvey Weinstein?" This one will probably stop folks in their tracks. But of course, the movement has indeed called for the prosecution of Weinstein for his allegedly criminal behavior, supported by credible, recorded evidence. Similar evidence of criminal acts exists against R. Kelly. The criminal acts both men have been accused of go beyond the civil wrongs of sexual harassment which is what most of the other celebrity abusers are accused of. And in any event, TimesUp WOC made it clear--they are speaking for WOC who have not been heard. That is most certainly the case with the women and girls abused by R. Kelly. These survivors should not have to wait another day to receive our support.
3. "But white men do this all the time and get away with it. Even if he did what accusers say, it is racist to call out R. Kelly for what he's done to Black women until white men are punished too." This is the claim that's kept Black women silent for centuries. And guilt tripped when they do speak out. Of course, no one can ignore the fact that white male abusers are more likely to get a pass than Black male abusers. After all, one is sitting in the White House. If Obama had self confessed to grabbing pussies, this country would have elected a door knob over him. (Well they did that anyway.) But here's another truth too often ignored, When it comes to racism and punishment for sexual assault, the greater race disparity is between the justice system's treatment of the victims of different races, not the abusers. The hidden but continuing legacy of racism is that Black women are less likely to have their abusers arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and punished than white women. Historically in some states it wasn't even against the law to rape Black women. So yes, racism is always a lurking factor. But to say that Black women must simply accept being collateral damage in the struggle against racism reinforces the racist logic that we are expendable, even within our own communities. This expendability in the name of racial justice was Eldridge Cleaver's rationale for raping Black women to practice his eventual rape of white women--a strategy of revenge against white men for their rape of Black women. Of course, sexual autonomy of Black women was not remotely part of this agenda. Black women were simply pawns in the struggle between men, not subjects of racism and solidarity in their own right. No aspect of this sensibility should survive today. None.
4. "What about the other people responsible--the parents, the enablers and the girls themselves. They all consented." I don't want to come close to affirming this by failing to contest the facts, but let's just say even if this were true, irresponsibility and even the consent of parents is not a defense to the crime of sexual abuse. Full stop. For underage girls, the whole point is that they are below the age of consent. You might debate the wisdom of statutory rape laws, but at least formally, they still outlaw this behavior. But once again, Black girls are often "adultified" when it comes to the law, one of the factors that figures into the high numbers of trafficked girls being prosecuted.
We certainly shouldn't contribute to exempting Black girls from the law's protection.
We are worthy, our girls are worthy.