To be a black woman in America is to constantly be forced to choose between two identities.
Black women since slavery have always been the backbone of the black community. They endured daily the unthinkable at the hands of their slave-owners: rape, abuse, and back-breaking work, and in spite of all of that, they did their best daily to protect their black sons from being beaten, sold, or worse, lynched.
Black women have always been expected to protect black men, even when they hurt us, abuse us, mistreat or rape us. We are told, “You don’t want to turn him over to the system.” We are told, “You have to understand his anger. How hard it is to be a black man in America.” As if it is any easier being a black woman in America.
As a Virginian and as a black woman, the issue of Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax and the sexual assault allegations made against him by two black women is indeed complicated. I have had many conversations over the past few months with black women in my social circles, in the leadership of civil rights groups, and in elected office in the Commonwealth, who almost all without exception want to believe the women accusing Fairfax, but fall back to talk about how “they are trying to take down the black man in office and let the white men off. Not on my watch.”
I understand the instinct given the political moment, but it is one that does not bode well for the countless black female victims of sexual assault forced to choose between themselves and the well-being of their attacker.
Fairfax’s accusers spoke to CBS This Morning with Gayle King. Professor Vanessa Tyson, who was the first to come forward with allegations from a 2004 encounter with Justin Fairfax at the Democratic National Committee, says that she wants a public hearing in the Virginia Assembly, not an investigation by the legislature, because an investigation may allow people in power to cover up information.
“I would want Meredith, myself, and Mr. Fairfax to be able to speak. To be heard,” Tyson said, referring to Fairfax’s other accuser, Meredith Watson. “And particularly for survivors, I think this is incredibly important… we need to be heard, we need to be seen, we need to be treated as the human beings that we are.”
For her part, Watson, who also appeared on CBS This Morning, said the now-Virginia lieutenant governor preyed on her because “he knew that the year prior that I had been raped by someone and that nothing was done about it. And he was a very good friend to me,” Meredith Watson told King. “Which is why I never would've expected anything like this from him.”
Watson said Fairfax assaulted and raped her in 2000, when they were students and friends at Duke University, where she had confided in him about allegedly being assaulted by a Duke basketball player the year before.
We have seen the cover-up before: R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, and Russell Simmons. Many an athlete, professor, or pastor. Black women were made into “tramps, temptresses or worse” who lured these men into sexual impropriety, even if they were but girls themselves. Enough.
Of course, black women know that men have been falsely accused of sexual assault—and we know that those cases are rare, not the norm.
The black community has to do some reckoning with how it treats black women who are verbally, physically or sexually assaulted by black men in the church, on campus, in the statehouse, or, sadly, within our own families. If we as a community continue to protect our sons at the expense of our daughters, what kind of message does that send?
I do not know if Mr. Fairfax is being truthful, as the lie-detector test results his office released this week allegedly indicate. What I do know, as a survivor of sexual abuse as a child, is that girls and women do not come forward because they do not want to be further attacked, denigrated or not believed. They hide in shame and fear. They want to make it all go away.
We owe our daughters a better future—one that says they have value. One that says we will believe them when they share their hurts. One that says they are as valuable as our black brothers and sons.