Unpacking 'Surviving R. Kelly'
R. Kelly, born Robert Kelly, is an award-winning singer, songwriter, and music producer with a career that began in the early 1990s. Notably, Kelly has had a successful career despite numerous accusations of child molestation, child pornography, sexual violence, and intimate partner violence. With the newly released documentary series Surviving R. Kelly that brought these issues back to light, sexual and intimate partner violence is again at the forefront of national discourse. Acknowledging the visibility of survivors is important. However, we also must acknowledge a deeper issue: the invisibility of black girls and women as survivors of violence, as it relates to the demonization of black men in the public spotlight.
Approximately 40-60 percent of black women have reported being subjected to coercive sexual contact by the age of 18. (Black Women’s Blueprint, “The Truth Commission on Black Women and Sexual Violence,” 2012) We as a nation fail to discuss, let alone respond to, this number which illustrates the high risk and vulnerability relative to the victimization of black girls and women.
Until recently, sexual violence has been underrepresented in the media. Historically, white women have been hyper-visible while black women as victims, in comparison, have been invisible. This once again demonstrates that we are not addressing the epidemic that women of color are neglected by our white supremacist-rooted institutions and society.
When a juror from Robert Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial was asked about his decision to find Kelly not guilty he stated, “I just didn’t believe them, the womans [sic]. I know it sounds ridiculous. The way they dress, the way they act; I didn’t like them. I voted again— I disregarded all what they said.” (Surviving R. Kelly, Part 4, 2018.) Studies confirm this perception that a black victim of sexual assault is less believable and more responsible for her assault than a white victim. (Roxanne A. Donovan, “To Blame or Not to Blame: Influences of Target Race and Observer Sex on Rape Blame Attribution,” 2007.)
While black girls and women are represented as powerless and without value, the representation of black men is not without bias. This is not to dismiss the strength and risks taken to come forward against influential perpetrators. However, disproportionately and historically, white men who have done harm have not been held to the same standard of accountability. Some notable cases are:
It is true that cases of white men being perpetrators have received media attention but this is when their victims are white. They are also not scrutinized to the same degree as black men. They often face fewer consequences for the same crimes committed, if at all. Some examples include:
On the rare occasions that we talk about black women and the violence they experience, it is instances when their perpetrator is a black man. This allows us to uphold the “Super Predator” stereotype that plagues the black community. Take Daniel Holtzclaw’s case for example: Holtzclaw— who identifies as white— sexually abused 13 poor black women while employed as a patrol officer for the Oklahoma City Police Department. He strategically chose these women based on their ethnicity, social-economic status, criminal history, and history with drug usage because he knew they would be considered less credible if they chose to come forward. Even though this case was extremely publicized and illuminated societal vulnerabilities, Holtzclaw’s identity was of his role in law enforcement, not that of his whiteness. This is an example of how we will only pay attention to the trauma and violence against black women as long as the perpetrator fits into our comfortable idea of who causes harm.
The Surviving R. Kelly series displays the complex realities that are unacknowledged by white mainstream media. This impacts how we view, support, and believe un-served, under-served, and inadequately served survivors of sexual violence while also showing the inequities in how perpetrators are held accountable. This story is far too complex to be summed up here, however the overlapping of racism and sexual violence demands visibility as well as intentional efforts to dismantle these structures.
More about the author, Nadia La Fontant
Nadia began her work in the anti-violence movement in 2012. Currently she serves as the Underserved Communities Specialist for IowaCASA. In her role, Nadida provides technical assistance to victim service programs on the Prison Rape Elimination Act, serving and supporting incarcerated survivors, and support and retention of advocates of color. She's also involved in developing and facilitating programming in corrections, relationship-building between advocacy services and correction, and she works with victim service programs to support underserved individuals. Previously, Nadia worked at Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support (ACCESS) in Ames. She graduated from Iowa State University in 2013 with a B.S. in Child, Adult, and Family Services. You can contact Nadia at email@example.com.