The idea of “BVU” has always been one of interest to me. This concept of a collective
Black experience at Vanderbilt, an intangible self-determinism, in which Black students are
called to unite, recognize their heritage, build a sense of community. To define our own goals
and lead our own organizations. It’s inspirational. It’s compelling. It’s what draws Black students
to Vanderbilt. But when it’s time for BVU to prove itself, to actually self-determine, it fails.
Drastically and consistently.
On November 6th, the Black Cultural Center hosted a town hall entitled “Am I My
Sister’s Keeper,” which was intended to be an open discussion on the normative gender
expectations within BVU. It had the potential to be an insightful and informative opportunity to
expose the ways in which our institutions privilege Black males at this university. It was not.
To begin, at a space in which we were supposed to be discussing the problematization of
gender norms within the black community, I found it at best inappropriate and at worst horribly
harmful to ask attendees to designate themselves as the binary men and women and separate
themselves accordingly. I would say this no matter the topic or the space, but I was especially
taken aback to see this at the BCC, which is touted as a space of safety, wellbeing, and respect
for Black students. Yet, when the BCC had an opportunity to prove itself, it failed. It failed to
live up to its name and it failed those Black students who are othered by their peers because of
their gender identity. I didn’t expect them to be othered by us too.
But what did we expect from the same community that applauds a Black men’s
organization that does not program, celebrates an athlete that has repeatedly made victims of
women on this campus, and asks Black women to stay silent on their sexual experiences? This is
not to say that the BCC is at all responsible for the behavior of Black Vanderbilt men. But as a
cultural institution that so many look toward, especially young and impressionable freshmen, it
does have the responsibility to do better and teach better. Starting with its programs.
For those who missed the town hall, when men were asked what they expected from
women, an overwhelming amount of responses suggested that they not speak about their
previous sexual encounters. Is it because we do not view women as sexual beings? Is it because
you don’t want a Black woman that’s been involved with another man? Do we not expect Black
women to tell the truth? Do we not want Black women to tell the truth? When we silence Black
women in this way, we perpetuate their hypersexualization, deny their autonomy, and remain
complicit in the violence against them.
Black women experience both racialized and sexualized harassment and assault, which
we have seen throughout history. Rape was used as a weapon of domination by slavemasters and
slaves alike as an expression of power, authority, and supremacy against Black women. These
acts created a public perception of Black women as sexually deviant and available, which has
furthered rationalized their sexual violence. In classrooms, Rand, Twitter, GroupMe, even in the
BCC, you call Black women “hoes” and “birds” and “bitches.” Where do you think this comes
from? Have you thought about the implications? As said in a 2014 Communities of Color
Report, “Stereotypes regarding African American women’s sexuality, including terms like
‘Black jezebel,’ ‘promiscuous,’ and ‘exotic,’ perpetuate the notion that African American
women are willing participants in their own victimization. However, these myths only serve to
demean, obstruct appropriate legal remedies, and minimize the seriousness of sexual violence
perpetrated against African American women.”
So when we speak about our sex lives, it is not so we can talk about your unimpressive
genitalia, or let people know how “out there” you are, or any of the other ridiculous excuses we
heard that night. It is to reclaim something that has been forcefully taken from us and rebranded
as perverse and wrong. It is to say our bodies are own and we are going to do with them what we
like because we’re grown and we can. When you ask Black women to be silent about our sexual
experiences, you are asking us to be silent about any trauma we may have had, which we have
probably had. For every Black woman who reports her rape, fifteen do not. Consider for a
moment that for the one woman who may have spoken out during that town hall, fifteen others
heard you insinuate that she should just be quiet. But we ask “Am I My Sister’s Keeper.”
You cannot change history. You cannot control every violent offender a woman may
come into contact with. But you can listen when she speaks, and just as important, you can hold
each other accountable. Stop trying to join organizations with known perpetrators. Stop
supporting them on Twitter. Stop ignoring what you hear about them. Stop making excuses.
When you don’t say or do anything because they’re bigger than you, or because you want to be
in their fraternity, or because they’re athletes and people seem to like them, you’re signaling to
Black women that clout and ego take precedence over their safety and wellbeing. Every person
on the female-identifying side of the room raised their hands to say they’ve been harrassed on
this campus. What have you done to help them?