A Girl Child Ain’t Safe

“I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men.”

So said Sofia, the hefty, feisty woman in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (and immortalized by Oprah Winfrey in the film adaptation). In a novel highlighting protagonist Celie, an incest survivor who ultimately triumphs over her childhood abuse and domestic violence, Sofia’s line is a reminder of the prevalent experience of young girls who must face the sexual violence of men visited upon them due to their vulnerable positions. Whether we are talking of a “family of men” or a “nation” of them—if we want to broaden the spectrum—black girls in this context are rendered prey in a racist and misogynistic society.

This issue has already been addressed: whether we point to “police criminals and the brutalization of black girls,” the “history of policing black women’s bodies” or the “war on black girls.” The infamous case in McKinney, Texas of a black teenaged girl, Dajerria Becton, being dragged, slammed and manhandled by police officer Eric Casebolt demonstrates the egregious legacy of white supremacist patriarchy and its propensity to criminalize and deny black women and girls protection. That Becton was only  clad in a bikini while attending a pool party, her exposure before a fully dressed older white man also gave the hint of racialized sexual assault and the longer historical legacy of institutional sexual violence against black women and girls in this country. This incident has led to Casebolt’s resignation, massive protests and a renewed interest in the #SayHerName campaign, which highlights the ways that black women and girls also suffer from police brutality.

This comes upon the heels of various #BlackLivesMatter protests over the murders by police of such men and boys as Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, to name a few.  There have been just as many black women also racially profiled and murdered, but our communities barely rally for their sakes—that is, not until the nationwide protests on May 22. Even then, it must be noted: the collective outrage in response to the video of this McKinney incident—a visceral reaction, as some of us would tell it—is based on the suggested sexual assault and the failure of police protection, indeed the reinforcement of racial and sexual state violence when neighbors rely on police to subdue the presence of black youth at a suburban pool party. That this police encounter was framed by the racial and gendered difference of the two actors in this incident highlights these social divides and the fracture of a society that cannot and will not protect those most vulnerable—indeed, would rather view black youth as aggressors who require over-the-top policing and brutality to keep under control.

Despite the widespread outrage, there are others who have come to the police officer’s defense—some members in the housing community, where the pool party incident took place, posting signs of gratitude. Others have posted racist remarks disparaging black youth, and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly reminded her audience that Becton “was no saint.” This latter remark has since circulated among various social media memes and blog posts highlighting the double standard in the way Becton is criminalized while not too long ago, certain news coverage minimized the severity of Christian fundamentalist Josh Duggar, who admitted to molesting young girls, including his sisters, when he was around the same age as Becton. However, this is less about creating “double standards” as it is about maintaining—no matter how precarious—the image of white male innocence, which must be protected at all costs in a white supremacist and patriarchal society.

While it is true that, as Tanya Steele notes, black girls are often precluded from the category of femininity, in which “femininity is to be ‘cared for,’ ‘pampered,’ ‘protected,'” this idea needs further complication. After all, what does it mean to be recognized as “feminine” subjects in need of caring and protection, when one could characterize Josh Duggar’s sisters as fulfilling the ideals of white femininity, yet they were not “protected” in a family of men? Purity culture, which encourages men to dichotomize women into “modest” girls and “temptations,” dovetails with police culture that divides communities into a racial “us” and “them.” And then there’s rape culture, which is all about controlling women’s bodies. What connects these various cultures is their dependence on the binary of masculinity that divides men into “protectors” and “violators.” Those who are invested in the innocence of police-as-protectors cannot reconcile with the fact that, sometimes, these protectors are also violators. And if we can’t accept that among law enforcement officers, how do we begin to address incidents in which our so-called “protectors” (as purity culture tells it) are our fathers, uncles and brothers, who in turn become our “violators,” in the case of the Duggar family, or as noted in the fiction of The Color Purple?

And yet, certain communities would rather make excuses for these protector-violators than protect our girls.

“A girl child ain’t safe in a family/nation of men.”

The McKinney incident was caught on tape; but how how many more of these cases were not?  And how many more are surviving the shame of sexual assault and abuse—at the hands of police, partners, family members? Racism makes it easy to deny certain people humanity, while misogyny denies certain genders their personhood. And black women and girls are caught at the intersections. Either way, we are all at the mercy of those invested in power at the expense of justice, respect and dignity. Unless we resist, like Sofia, and fight for our very survival and humanity.

Not one of us is safe if we cannot protect our girls and hold our so-called “protectors” accountable when concepts of racialized masculinity are routinely upheld and distort the lines between protection and violation, neighbors and trespassers, citizens and aliens, black and white, humankind and “others.”

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.