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For African American rape victims, a culture of silence

But as the phenomenon is finally addressed, women's voices emerge.

July 20, 2004|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

There's an old saying in the African American community: Black women raise their daughters and love their sons. A legacy of the atrocities of slavery, it signifies a communal protectiveness of black men, from the coddling of toddling boys to a reluctance to report rape and incest.

It's not like a get-out-of-jail-free card. It's born of a wariness of authority, especially white authority, learned from those stories about how your light-skinned sister got those gray eyes and your dark-skinned cousin got that keen nose, from those photographs of white lynch mobs and the beaten body of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed because of a wolf whistle.

"Remember, in this country black women have had to come to the aid of black men who were falsely being accused of sexual assault. Remember the movie 'Rosewood'? That's what it was all about," says Sharon Shelton, the senior program manager of the YWCA Greater Los Angeles Sexual Assault Crisis Program in Compton. It wasn't just a movie, it was history: In 1923, in Florida, the black town of Rosewood was obliterated by a white mob after a white woman claimed she'd been attacked by a black man.

" ... So it's very difficult now to disclose that your perpetrator was indeed of your own same race," Shelton says. And part of the reluctance, she explains, is the difficulty some black women have in finding "people who look like you" when they seek help.

Rape is one of the most underreported violent crimes, according to the Department of Justice, regardless of the victim's sex, age, race, ethnicity, religion or class.

But as a group, African American women are the least likely to break the silence.

This phenomenon, first documented in 1981 by Gail Wyatt, a sexual behavior researcher at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, is now being addressed in self-help books and at rape crisis centers created specifically to serve minorities, such as the Rosa Parks Sexual Assault Crisis Center in South Los Angeles. It was also the focus of half a dozen workshops at the National Sexual Violence Prevention Conference held here in May.

At her workshop, CeCe Norwood, a counselor from Toledo, Ohio, gets right to the point. "With white audiences," she says, "there are usually very basic questions they want to know: How is it different -- why are we black people less likely to report when these things happen? Why don't more black people seek help? Why do we keep it to ourselves? ...

"Black culture makes it different," she says. "Our culture makes us less likely to report." She bases this explanation on her own experiences as a sexual abuse survivor "three times over," years of counseling and surveying others, and federal statistics.

The black culture she refers to is a storytelling culture, rooted in the South before the decline of American apartheid. It comes with its own set of rules. "Blackisms," Norwood calls them during her presentation. She cites a few, as many black workshop participants chant along with her, such as: "What goes on in this house, stays in this house."

Protect, don't expose

"Historically, we have learned the system, which in our minds is white folks, is not to be trusted," she says. Historically, she adds, black people like herself are expected to protect, not expose, the black community.

Norwood says that when she finally told her family about being abused by her stepfather, they refused to believe her. Seeking information about incest and black women, she went to a public library.

"When I started in '89 with my own recovery, there was only one book I could find, 'Crossing the Boundary' by Melba Wilson. I found nothing else specifically about the African American experience," Norwood says. Charlotte Pierce-Baker's "Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape," the first book on that topic, came out in 1998.

At the conference, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Norwood displays two current books: "No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal From Sexual Abuse" by Robin D. Stone, and "I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse" by Lori S. Robinson.

"It's really clear that African Americans are having a particular problem," says Robinson, here from upstate New York to lead a workshop on confronting sexual violence in black and Latino communities. She asks for "culturally specific" reasons that black women remain silent.

"The sisters don't want to report the brothers because we know what's going on in penal institutions," says Terry L. Stevens, who works with the Family Service League in Waterloo, Iowa.

Robinson herself grew up in a family protective of black men -- especially of her older brother, who while away at college was falsely accused of mugging a white woman. This protectiveness runs deep in many black families.

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