In my senior year of college, some like-minded men and I went on a tour in order to present to audiences on how men could help sexual assault survivors that disclose to them -- a message that we felt furthered a broader mission to reduce the troubling rates of sexual violence on our campus and abroad. Our first stop was a university in the Atlanta area where we met with a collection of faculty and staff.
After presenting, the audience provided feedback and discussed what it might take to get a similar group of men running on its campus. As we were making our way out, a black woman who had given us much feedback pulled me aside while my co-presenters headed off. She disclosed how she had been raped, and went on to say that the man who assaulted her had never been convicted, even though she described an experience that I figured only the most incompetent of juries would excuse. She had never even pressed charges.
From what limited training that I possessed on victim advocacy at the time, I knew that it was common for survivors to eschew criminal adjudication. I also knew that one should generally avoid questions that imply judgment on a victim's decisions; yet the words that came out of my mouth in response were not the best. I asked, "Why didn't you press charges?"
The woman replied by saying, "I never pressed charges because I wanted to protect you. I couldn't bear to see another black man in jail."
That was the first, but definitely not the last, time that I would hear this. "I didn't want to further assault the black male image." "I didn't want to tear apart the community." "I didn't want to aid racists taking aim at a successful black man." Whatever the language might be, the burden of black women "taking one for the team" was eventually shared with me on numerous occasions.
Those were my first glimpses into the network of black women burying personal tragedy in order to avoid community setbacks -- women committed to trading personal sacrifice for perceived communal good. I think we would find these silent sisterhoods among most communities and fueling them all is a deep belief that "their men" deserve protection. I would also guess that black women do not adhere to this practice at the lengths that they once did but the practice survives to some degree.
I wonder then what it is that I am supposed to do in return. If there is some reciprocal custom stitched into the souls of black men, I never learned it. I do not see how I could have when I cannot recall a single earnest conversation about male violence prior to the age of 20. Now having the opportunity to speak with other black men about sexual violence, I know that I am not an anomaly. No reciprocal effort has ever emerged that matched the continued sacrifice of black women in intensity.
The staunch defender of black men says that this is not the case, and that I have succumbed to racist ideologies. He says that the effort does indeed exist in the many black men who contribute positively to their communities, take care of their families, never raise a hand to their partners, and repel the lie of the black male brute through their daily walk. And the defender would be correct in noting that the vast majority of us have never assaulted a woman; but he would be wrong in arguing that this is a sufficient standard for this is a standard that one meets merely through not personally acting on the most violent and impulsive of urges. We cannot sincerely say that we have responded until we examine the ways in which we shelter those among us who are violent.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and this is a great time for us to ponder if there is a debt owed to the women who wield their silence to protect others. I leave others to debate the social efficacy of these decisions but the sentiment of sacrifice inspires action nonetheless. I, of course, went on to meet many female survivors who were publicly vocal about their experiences with male-perpetuated violence. These women also challenge me to consider if there is something that I should be doing to respond to violence. That they carry intimate awareness that some men are trained to make unilateral decisions about the bodily integrity of others but still shine as exemplars of citizenship carries its own debt to be repaid.
I write all of this with fear that racists shall seize on my confessions of Black male violence as proof of the especially violent nature of men of my demographic (though men of all races and backgrounds harbor perpetrators). I'm sure that some will, but I have made a choice to no longer allow this fear to prevent the necessary training of boys to resist violent socialization. I am fully aware that racism exists and that it will exist long after I'm gone. In the meantime, I make a choice to respond to those women of all races who thought enough of me to share a violent experience with me. I hear you and I owe you.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.