When Black Women are Caught in the Crossfire of Black Men's Scandals

by Harper Blake

It is hard to keep straight the growing number of women who have come forward accusing Bill Cosby of sexual assault. When I hear about any sexual assault case, it not only tugs at my heartstrings as a woman and my conscious rage as a feminist—but also my empathy as an ordinary human being. However, when I hear that a group of primarily white women have accused a black man (celebrity or not) of sexual assault, my racial prejudice sensors begin to sound off. As a black woman, I am forced to straddle a very tough line of thinking critically and asking valid questions while struggling to avoid falling into our society’s tried and true pattern of victim blaming.

As members of the black community, we are often expected to stand on certain sides of certain issues; the same holds true for us as women. But at the intersection of our identities as Black women, sometimes these two identities compete, each scratching at us to elicit an appropriate and characteristically ‘loyal’ response. Be that as it may, none of us are less woman or less Black if we choose to believe one way or the other, or if we refuse to draw lines in the sand and instead take a neutral stance on this case.

Gender-based violence has plagued women since the dawn of time, and racial prejudice has existed for probably just as long. In discussing the issue of rape and sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, I want to be respectful in acknowledging the various historical and social contexts at work. I wish to consider thoughtfully what these women are saying, to place myself in their shoes during a time when rape was rarely talked about. Even today, sexual violence is only marginally understood and a whopping 60% of sexual assaults are NOT reported to the police.

As Whoopi Goldberg said on The View last week: I have a lot of questions.

Many of us in the black community are very familiar with the role rape has played in the affecting the lives of Black men in this country. In 1955, Emmett Till was fatally beaten and mutilated at the mere suggestion that he whistled at a white woman. Kristina Ruehli, one of the latest Cosby accusers, alleges that her assault occurred 10 years later in 1965. Joan Tarshish states that she was drugged and assaulted twice four years after that in 1969. These allegations span decades, yet there was no formally recorded attempt to initiate criminal or civil proceedings until the Andrea Constand case in 2005.

Many survivors of sexual assault do not file reports because they fear they will not be believed, given our society and legal systems’ extensive past of being unsupportive and downright accusatory of victims.

Perhaps it’s because Cosby has been lauded as the consummate American father figure. Who would have believed that the dad of all dads could be capable of such heinous crimes? But the The Cosby Show did not premiere until 1984, and many of these allegations date back to the 1960s and 70s. Cosby had achieved great success as a comedic star and three-time Emmy award winner for his role in the 1965 television series I Spy. But this was the same time period when I Spy was banned by certain television stations because it showcased an African-American in a leading role. We must remember there have long been entities—media and otherwise—ready and willing to take down celebrities, especially those whom are Black.

By no means am I saying that these assaults did not occur. It is estimated that every two minutes, a person is sexually assaulted in America. In 2003, 9 out of every 10 rape victims were women. The prevalence of violence against women cannot be denied. Rape culture is real, and victim blaming is all too frequent. But what’s even worse is the overwhelming majority of women who never receive the justice they deserve.

I am not calling these women liars nor am I saying that Bill Cosby is innocent. At best, Bill Cosby is likely a philanderer who cheated on his wife over decades with an incalculable number of women, using his influence as a celebrity to manipulate them. At worst, he’s a despicable excuse for a human being who used his celebrity to rape and sexually assault numerous young, impressionable girls. At this point, we know nothing for sure. People have said that these women have nothing to gain by coming forward after all these years other than some semblance of justice, but none of us really know what their motives are. However, these women should absolutely be allowed to speak their truths without being scornfully ridiculed. 

None of us were there and there is so much that we do not know. There is a way to ask questions while being respectful to all parties involved. I say all of this because as a black woman, I want to make it understood that I am not a rape apologist or a bad feminist if I have questions about the circumstances of these allegations; neither am I betraying the black community—or specifically, black men—if I do not wholeheartedly throw my support behind Bill Cosby or refuse to shame and disrespect these women who have been so brave in coming forward and sharing their stories.

And as a Black woman—and a human being—it is my duty to listen to them.

Harper Blake is a recent university graduate with a passion for serving disadvantaged communities. She is an avid feminist, DMV native, and her favorite things include globetrotting, reading, and private dance parties where she is the only guest.

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