Rape, white supremacy, and male dominance

White supremacist Dylann Roof, who killed 7 people June 17, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, claimed he was acting to stop the rape of white women. This racist myth is deeply embedded in the history of U.S. racism and lynchings. In fact, it is women of color who have been the targets of rape as a tool of white supremacy and male dominance, as the writings below powerfully demonstrate.

Excerpt from “Feminist Perspectives on Rape,” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-rape/#RapRac

Rape and racism

Rape is a tool not only of patriarchy, but also of racism, colonialism, nationalism, and other pernicious hierarchies. These and other power relationships in turn make women and girls even more vulnerable to rape. In virtually any situation where women and girls belonging to especially desperate or powerless populations are at the mercy of men in authority—from female inmates and girls in foster care, to undocumented immigrants, to refugees dependent on U.N. peacekeepers and/or humanitarian aid workers for survival—some of those men use their authority to force or extort sexual access.

In the United States, the racial dynamics of rape are shaped by a long history of white men raping their African-American female slaves. Because the women were chattel property, the owners (and often overseers) could and did use them sexually at will, with complete legal and social impunity. Because children born of slave mothers were slaves, regardless of their paternity, many slave owners benefited from rape by producing more slaves for themselves. Roberts emphasizes, however, that

   the rape of slave women by their masters was primarily a weapon of terror that    reinforced whites' domination over their human property. Rape was an act of    physical violence designed to stifle Black women's will to resist and to remind them    of their servile status … . Whites' sexual exploitation of their slaves, therefore,    should not be viewed simply as either a method of slave-breeding or the fulfillment of    slaveholders' sexual urges. (1997, 29-30)

Slaves were frequently forced into undesired sexual liaisons with each other as well, based on the whims or the breeding plans of their owners. Ultimately, as Collins observes, “Black women as a class emerged from slavery as collective rape victims” (2005, 223), and the rape of black women, like the lynching of black men, was a centerpiece of Klan activity post-Emancipation. Collins points out, however, that unlike lynching, black women's sexual abuse by white men during and after slavery did not become a central or universally understood icon of American racism. The legacy of slavery and its attendant ideologies has meant that, both legally and socially, “for most of American history the crime of rape of a Black woman did not exist” (Roberts 1997, 31).

Black women's unrapeability was not only written into law, but reinforced by a racial ideology that defined them as lascivious and promiscuous by nature. This same racial ideology stereotyped black men as savagely oversexed and thus sexually dangerous, especially to white women. The post-Civil War terror campaign of lynching, which continued through the 1930's, was frequently claimed to be punishment for black men who had raped white women, although in fact only a minority of lynching victims were even accused of having done any such thing (Hall 1983, 334; Davis 1981, 189), and of those, many had in fact had consensual relationships with white women (Hall 1983, 340). The racist association of rape with black men rendered rape by white men comparatively invisible, thus making white men as a group unaccountable for rape (Davis 1981, 199), a dynamic that continued well into the 20th century (Dorr 2008).

These destructive racial stereotypes remain powerful today, exerting influence on people's judgments of whether a rape has occurred, how serious an offense it is, and who is to blame (Foley et. al. 1995; Donovan and Williams 2002; George and Martinez 2002). Popular culture plays an important role in conveying and legitimizing these stereotypes. For instance, the image of sexually savage and animalistic black masculinity is a central trope of the popular “interracial” genre of pornography, marketed to white men, in which black men are often depicted as damaging white women's bodies with their unusually large penises (Dines 1998, 2006). As Collins observes, “movies, films, music videos, and other mass media spectacles that depict Black men as violent and that punish them for it have replaced the historical spectacles provided by live, public lynchings” (2005, 242).

The stereotype of black women as sexually deviant and aggressive “Jezebels” finds one contemporary reflection in the “hoochie” image, which is increasingly prominent in black as well as white cultural and media venues (Collins 2000, 81-84). One study, designed in part to measure the influence of the Jezebel stereotype on young black women's perceptions of their own rapes, found that the “stereotype of Black women as sexually loose appeared to be internalized by Black participants and identified as an important reason why they were raped” (Neville et. al. 2004, 91). Another researcher, having found that the African-American women in her study were less likely than white women to have disclosed their rapes (Wyatt 1992, 86), attributes this difference in part to the fact that “African American women …. do not anticipate that they will be protected by traditional authorities and institutions” (88). Meanwhile, both the stereotypes of black women and their structural vulnerabilities contribute to a situation in which, for too many, sexual abuse is a routine condition of life: “being routinely disbelieved by those who control the definitions of violence, encountering mass media representations that depict Black women as ‘bitches,’ ‘hoes,’ and other controlling images, and/or experiencing daily assaults such as having their breasts and buttocks fondled by friends and perfect strangers … may become so routine that African American women cannot perceive their own pain” (Collins 2005, 229).

Black women who have been raped by black men are sometimes silenced, either in order to maintain their own hard-won image as “respectable” or to avoid further tarnishing the public image of black manhood. They may be penalized or shunned by their families and communities for speaking out, and thus cut off from important sources of support (Collins 2005, 226-27).

Racist ideologies about rape are also prominent in the history of colonialism and genocide against Native Americans. Ideas about Native men as savage rapists, Native women as downtrodden and raped squaws, and white men as heroic saviors of both white and Native women were essential to the “colonial imagination” that explained and justified the taking of Native lands (Smith 2005, 7-33). These ideas were conveyed in widely read captivity narratives, stories—usually apocryphal, and often written by white men—of the abduction and brutal treatment of a white woman by the “savages” (Smith 2005, 21-22; Faludi 2007, 200-279). The message was that white women desperately needed white men's protection, not only in the usual form of restrictions on the women's behavior and mobility, but also by the men's efforts to control and kill off dangerous natives. As for supposedly downtrodden Native women, white men proposed to deliver them from their oppression by civilizing them, assimilating them to more enlightened European values and culture. In short, the ideology held that “Native women can only be free while under the dominion of white men, and both Native and white women have to be protected from Indian men, rather than from white men” (Smith, 23). In fact, the reality was quite the contrary. Smith argues that rape was a key method of forcibly instituting patriarchal values in what had been relatively egalitarian Native cultures:

   In order to colonize a people whose society was not hierarchical, colonizers
   must first naturalize hierarchy through instituting patriarchy. Patriarchal gender    violence is the process by which colonizers inscribe hierarchy and domination on    the bodies of the colonized. (23)

History bears out Smith's claim, as white men routinely raped and brutalized Native people—first as prisoners and in massacres (Smith 2005, 7-23), and later in epidemic levels of sexual abuse of Native children in white-run boarding schools (Smith 2006).


Additional readings

Excerpt from At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance--a New History of the Civil Rights Movement by Danielle L. McGuire

Excerpt from Women, Race, and Class, by Angela Davis

Article on “The Brute Caricature,” The Jim Crow Museum