It has been confounding – heartbreaking, actually – to see how, after each tragedy involving white violence and black bodies, so much of the national conversation has focused on image. Not the image of the shooter, of course; if the last few killings have taught us anything, it is that he is not on trial here.
Instead, the worst of us insist that the shooter's guilt or innocence depends not on the facts of the case, but on the photos displayed on the victim's Instagram. It is, transparently, a cheap attempt to retroactively transform a dead teenager into a dangerous criminal. To make a teen boy's image, literally and figuratively, into the crime that justifies the punishment.
There's a parallel with rape here, and the way women are asked to prove themselves worthy of being recognized as victims. Though I'm very wary of equating the theft and publication of nude photos of Rihanna, Jill Scott, Jennifer Lawrence and others with sexual assault, it seems clear that the leak was tacitly underscored by the old "she was asking for it" standby. In the topsy turvy logic of rape culture, rape and sexual violence are the responsibility of women who are too many things — too sexual, too immodest, too careless with themselves. For black women who are raped, misogyny and racism often conspire to make victim an unattainable status.
Against this backdrop, the Daniel Holtzclaw case is sadly familiar. Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer, is alleged to have forced eight women, all of them black, to have sex with him or face arrest. His alleged victims range in age from 34 to 58; at least one of them is a grandmother. He is charged with 16 felonious counts, including rape, forcible oral sodomy and sexual battery, for assaults carried out over six months, according to investigators. The attorney of an alleged victim — one of just two who reported her assault to police —said that her client was "afraid that no one was going to believe her because she's African-American."
She might as well have been speaking for every black woman. In the days since I first read that quote, I've returned again and again to a summer a few years ago. A friend and I were spending a week in Montauk, New York, an annual retreat. One night, we had a couple of drinks at a local bar, a cocktail at home, and ended up on the beach sharing a bottle of wine. A large group of guys near us were also having a sort of spontaneous beach party. At some point we started chatting, and then, hanging out and drinking together. An hour later I realized that my friend and I were separated, and that I felt a way too tipsy to be with a group of boys — all white, all drinking fairly heavily — I didn't know. At some point, they invited me to come with them to another party in town.
There's no tragic ending to my story. For some reason, I had a sudden flash of the way police, the media and, eventually, the courts would treat a sexual assault victim who'd had the audacity to be drinking, hanging around with "strange" boys, and — perhaps most incriminatingly — a black woman. Let me make it clear that I don't recall anyone doing or saying anything threatening or scary. But the nagging sense of what if — the stark realization that if something bad did happen, I'd be a liar or a slut — effectively shifted the tone of the night. I found my friend, said I was tired. My friend complained about the early end to the night the whole way home.
I'd sometimes felt ridiculous about that story until reading about the Holtzclaw case — how almost none of his alleged black victims reported him, convinced no one would believe them. Or care. (Holtzclaw's role as a police officer obviously intensified to this fear.) In their stories, I recognized the shared sense, or more accurately, awareness, that although black women can be victimized — are more likely than their white peers to be victimized, in fact — we are rarely acknowledged as victims. Rape culture forces all women to prove they don't provoke sexual violence; the hypersexualization of black women pretends their very nature invites it. With the awareness of this image comes the often infuriating need to, consciously and just as often unconsciously, navigate the world with it as a guide.
As if to confirm this idea, in the days after Holtzclaw's arrest, the usual suspects rallied to his defense. A GoFundMe garnered more than $7,000 in just a little over a week (the site has since shut down his campaign). His family claims they have sold out of several batches of "FREE THE CLAW" t-shirts. A "Justice for Daniel Holtzclaw" Facebook page set up by his family has more than 700 likes. (In comments left on the page, one supporter says "these "ladies" are fabricating stories so they can sue the city and get rich." Another writes: "I would never see him even dating a 30-50 yr old African American, let alone doing anything beyond that," in what is clearly a grave misunderstanding of both dating and rape.) It's awful hard to imagine that some of the strangers donating to Holzclaw's fund aren't less motivated by the pursuit of justice than they are they are racial animus. Or that at least a few of them weren't also contributors to Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman's campaigns.
Rape is vastly underreported across the board, but African-American women are significantly less likely to report than white women are. In fact, a Department of Justice study found that while one out of six white women report sexual assault, just one out of 16 black women do. For many of Holtzclaw's alleged victims, the added complexities of class and previous arrests made the choice of of keeping quiet less threatening than being stalked and sexually battered. (Holtzclaw reportedly assaulted some of his victims multiple times.) Lots of people will dwell on this — it's a wink-nudge way of talking around race — while ignoring the fact that there are black women in every sphere, in every class, in every town, who wrestle with the reality that our bodies and lives are simply valued less. It is an incredibly sad fact, with long historical roots. A heartbreaking truth that, sadly and surely, Daniel Holtzclaw knew all too well.
Kali Holloway is a freelance writer and film producer who lives in (surprise!) Brooklyn.
Image by Tara Jacoby