The Racist Roots of Rape Culture

The #MeToo movement has been spectacularly successful at drawing attention to sexual harassment and abuse of women in the workplace. Some women are now being believed, and some powerful men are finally being held accountable. But as we saw with the Larry Nassar case, sexual abuse is caused not only by individual bad people, but by a system and a culture that allows sexual abuse to continue.

Dorothy Roberts, acclaimed race, gender and law scholar, knows how #MeToo can strike U.S. rape culture at its roots: by centering the sexual assault and abuse of Black women.

“The historical devaluation of Black women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy has shaped the way Americans think about what it means to have sexual and reproductive freedom,” Roberts explains. The fact that enslaved women did not have the right to refuse the sexual demands of white men, for example, set a standard that then shaped the treatment of all women. The treatment of the most marginalized women then sets a standard against which all women have to measure their behavior in order to maintain their respectability and freedom. This makes rights contingent on good behavior—a slippery and subjective standard determined by those in power—and pits women against one another.

“Because of the way racism functions,” Roberts continues, “it’s a way of dividing women, so that as long as Black women can be seen as not entitled to these freedoms, it limits freedom for everybody. It’s a very powerful way of policing white women to say: ‘Look what happens to Black women. It could happen to you if you act like a Black woman, or if you unite with Black women.'”

The treatment of incarcerated women, who are disproportionately women of color, perpetuates rape culture today. Roberts points to the recent case involving seven prison guards charged with sexually abusing incarcerated women in Lackawanna County Prison in Scranton, Pennsylvania, as an example of how the sexual abuse of incarcerated women is brushed aside. The women had reported the sexual abuse for years, but had been ignored. As people in prison, these women were seen as lacking the same rights as those on “the outside,” and their abuse was then seen as less important.

We cannot let our enemies divide us, nor can we leave each other behind. If the rape of any woman is seen as justified or deserved or unimportant, then the rape of all women can be justified. If we don’t fight for women of color in the midst of the #MeToo movement, none of us will find justice at the end of it.

There’s a long history of women of color organizing against the sexual abuse of African American women. INCITE!, for example, has been organizing against state violence against women of color for years. Andrea J. Richie’s recent book Invisible No More details widespread police violence against women, particularly Black women and women of color. And the Human Rights Project for Girls has documented the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline predominantly affecting girls of color. The work of these people and organizations centers the most marginalized targets of sexual harassment and abuse.

Despite some cross-class collaboration among women, the #MeToo movement has focused on workplace sexual harassment and the assault of white, privileged women. Similarly, the mainstream media has worked to garner sympathy and shock for the white women of the movement like Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan but has given comparatively smaller amount of attention to women of color like Lupita Nyong’o and Misty Upham.

By focusing on white women, celebrities and workplace sexual harassment, we miss an opportunity to expose the roots of rape culture and challenge the institutional and structural support for sexual assault and abuse of women. #MeToo will only change the landscape of women’s lives if it’s big enough for all of us.

About and

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.