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Detroit advocate reflects on black women’s role in #MeToo and impact of R. Kelly series

Kalimah johnson smiling for a portrait
Courtesy of Kalimah Johnson

Earlier this month, Lifetime released the six-part documentary series Surviving R. Kelly. It features more than 50 interviews with women who claim that they were sexually, physically, and emotionally abused by R&B artist R. Kelly.

Lawsuits against Kelly and rumors accusing him of sexual assault, rape, and possession of child pornography date back over two decades. The singer has denied all such accusations, and has never been convicted of any crime. 

The release of Surviving R. Kelly has spurred discussion, both within and outside of African-American communities, about how black women who have experienced sexual assault are treated. 

Kalimah Johnson is the founder and executive director of the SASHA Centerin Detroit. (SASHA stands for “Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing and Awareness.”) She is also a survivor of sexual assault. 

Johnson says she thought that the Surviving R. Kelly series was “profound,” and that it has caused "a lot of conversation" within the African-American community over issues of sexual assault and harassment. But she says that the controversy surrounding R. Kelly ultimately represents a much larger problem.

For every African-American woman who reports being sexually assaulted, 15 others do not. That's according to the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence. The chance that a prosecuter will pursue a reported case of sexual assault also differs by race. A study from Brandeis University found prosecutors pursued 75% of sexual assault cases brought by white women, compared to just 34% brought by black women.

Kalimah says there is a long history of systemic issues that make it hard for black women to access the resources needed to seek justice for themselves. 

“If I was to go all the way back to when we were enslaved people in this country, black women had no dominion over their bodies. They could not decide about who to say ‘yes’ to — if they could say ‘yes’ at all — and there was a lot of sexual assault of black women in this country with no punishment,” Johnson says.

Johnson says there are cultural myths that persist today, like the portrayal of black women as hypersexualized, that limit black women's ability to hold abusers accountable. But she adds that cultural attitudes toward black men also play a role. Kalimah points to the disproportionate rate of incarceration of black men within the criminal justice system.

“We know that there’s a lot of unfair, biased treatment of black men — murdering of black men — and so, you have black women who will participate in the group that will say ‘I’m not going to the police because I want him corrected, I don’t want him murdered.’ Or ‘I don’t trust the criminal justice system because they’re going to blame me for what I did, because they truly believe that we don’t have dominion over our bodies,’” Johnson explains.

In the #MeToo era, the pervasive issue of sexual abuse has been in the spotlight of public discourse more than ever before. That hashtag, Johnson notes, references a movement founded by Tarana Burke, a black woman activist who first coined the phrase in 2006. But Johnson says black women and their experiences continue to be left out of conversations.

Which is where Johnson’s work and the SASHA Center comes in. The Center's approach is informed by what Johnson calls, "The Triangulation of Black Women and Rape." 

“It’s a model that explains why it’s difficult for black women to seek services, how it’s difficult for services to make their programs culturally relevant and specific for black women, and why it’s difficult for funders to find relevant ways and more creative ways in helping us fund the work,” Johnson says. 

Johnson founded the SASHA Center to help fill these gaps, and to provide a safe space for African-American women survivors to share their stories of trauma, recovery, healing, and triumph. 

Listen to Stateside’s full interview with Kalimah Johnson to hear her message for fellow survivors, her response to Chance the Rapper’s remarks regarding the sexual assault allegations against R. Kelly, and what her work has meant for her own healing.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas.

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