Campus-safety officials gave Venkayla Haynes a rape whistle during her freshman orientation at Spelman College in August 2013. These safety personnel at the historically black women’s college assured the entering students that the sound of one blow of the whistle could be heard from anywhere on campus, fending off potential assailants and prompting a swift response from police. Haynes was not convinced.
“All I could think is if a woman tried to reach for that whistle, the perpetrator will just take it,” said Haynes. “But still, in the moment when we all got the whistle I never thought I would be in any situation to use it.”
It was just a few weeks later when Haynes says she was raped by a football player at nearby Morehouse College after both she and the player attended an off-campus party. Haynes was devastated by this traumatic sexual encounter. “I just felt like a lot of me was taken away,” she said.
Her personal agony was complicated by institutional realities. Both Haynes and her assailant are black. Their colleges—Spelman and Morehouse—are affiliated, historically black, women’s and men’s colleges boasting storied legacies and occupying a rarefied space within African-American education.
When she reported the assault to then–Dean of Students Kimberly Ferguson the following week, Haynes encountered these institutional traditions in ways that felt further traumatizing to her. Haynes says the dean questioned her about her wardrobe and her decision-making that night. Though Haynes insists that her alleged attacker was not a stranger, but a friend in whom she regularly confided, she says she was blamed for agreeing to go out with him alone. Haynes says there was no institutional punishment for the Morehouse student.
Haynes believes the way college administrators responded to her assault reflects longstanding tendencies in the black community to shield black men from interactions with authorities.
“We always come to these situations where we can’t come forward because we want to protect black men or protect our black brothers because they’re already fighting against a system that further criminalizes them,” Haynes said.
Spelman College refused repeated requests for an interview. However, Joyce Davis, director of Marketing and Communications at the college, did issue a statement by e-mail, which read in part: “Incidents of hate and violence, whether they be verbal, written or physical, have no place at Spelman College. We have zero tolerance for any type of sexual or discriminatory misconduct and are committed to educating our students to be leaders in building healthy relationships that foster healthy communities.”
Morehouse College did not respond to repeated requests for an interview or statement.
One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Black women at historically black colleges and universities experience sexual assault at the same rate as women at predominantly white institutions, according to data from End Rape on Campus.
Efforts to address campus sexual assault have been inadequate on the whole. This is especially true for black undergraduate women, who often face unique pressures to remain silent in the aftermath of sexual assault when their attackers are African-American men. The national movement to address the college rape crisis also seldom reflects black women’s cases and the complexities of gender, race, and class they face at both predominantly white institutions and historically black colleges. Stories of black women who are enrolled in HBCUs or who accuse black men of assaulting them are even more obscured.
Clarissa Brooks is a senior at Spelman College and student organizer with Atlanta University Center’s organizations Shut It Down, It’s On Us, and Know Your IX, all efforts addressing sexual assault. Brooks believes that college administrators tend to prioritize the voices of certain survivors over others.
“If you’re a straight-A student, if you’re the president of a club, then I can take your story more seriously than I would somebody who isn’t doing as well in school, isn’t part of clubs, has a reputation for being more sexually active than another student,” Brooks said. “So if you can be as close to the Ivy League Harvard student, as close to whiteness as possible, then we can believe you, but if you’re not, then it’s just not gonna cut it.”
For black women, not even Harvard pedigree may be enough to make you a believable witness to your own assault. Kamilah Willingham said she was months away from graduating from Harvard Law School when a former friend and classmate at Harvard sexually assaulted her. A few days later, Willingham reported the assault to the Cambridge police and the university.
“I especially felt they looked at me and questioned me in a way that showed they were stereotyping me,” Willingham said. “When people see me, they’ve already got a template for trying to understand me. It’s usually going to be 90 percent stereotypes and misconceptions. They are trying to reconcile me with what they think a black woman should be. I already knew that. It’s not that I forgot that I was black, I forgot that it mattered.”
Silence about Violence
Not only are the voices of black rape survivors sometimes ignored by authorities, these women can also feel enormous pressure to adhere to a code of silence imposed by racial-community norms as well. There is a strict code of silence that black women are sometimes compelled to adhere to when they experience sexual assault from black men, said NiCole Buchanan, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University. She was inspired to study intraracial sexual harassment after she saw Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1991 and Anita Hill’s congressional testimony about sexual harassment she experienced while working with him.
“Black men have been stereotyped as the super-predator—always down for sex, but willing to be sexually violent,” Buchanan said. “It becomes not only the community saying he’s violent, but a victim potentially saying, ‘Well, this is going to reinforce these stereotypes about my brother, my dad, my lover and I don’t want to do that so maybe I should just stay silent.’”
Three years after Haynes said she was sexually assaulted, a survivor anonymously detailed her own experience of sexual assault in a series of tweets from the Twitter account, @RapedAtSpelman. Echoing similar sentiments that mirrored Haynes’s experience she wrote, “Spelman has taught me to be a free thinking woman and also to be a woman who has to keep her mouths closed to protect her ‘brothers.’”
Who Stands for the Black Women Silence Breakers?
Despite all the barriers, there are black women who have nonetheless found ways to tell their stories of assault and survival. “We have the historic whiteness of history, and maleness of history, and combined, they completely eliminated black women’s voices,” said historian Danielle McGuire, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University and the author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of black Power. “But black women have been telling their stories for forever, and it’s not like they have been doing it in private or in secret, but often in the public and in the public sphere. The problem is that people weren’t looking. People weren’t listening.”
Consider The Hunting Ground, the 2015 award-winning documentary detailing campus sexual assault in the United States. The film depicted very few black women survivors of sexual assault. Kamilah Willingham, who went public with her story about being sexually assaulted at Harvard, was the only black woman survivor featured prominently. In the context of the film, she did not name her attacker. By June 2015, he was publicly identified as Brandon Winston. Also African-American, Winston was tried on charges of indecent assault and unwanted sexual touching. He was not convicted on criminal charges associated with Willingham’s case—although he was convicted of another charge in a related case for which Willingham testified. Winston was subsequently allowed to reenroll and complete law school at Harvard.
The outcome of Winston’s criminal case and his reinstatement as a student was reported at length in a blistering critique of the film by Slate columnist Emily Yoffe, titled “How The Hunting Ground Blurs the Truth.” A group of 19 Harvard Law professors followed suit, publishing a statement that read, in part, “This purported documentary provides a seriously false picture both of the general sexual assault phenomenon at universities and of our student Brandon Winston. For an investigative journalist’s in-depth story demonstrating the biased, one-sided nature of the film and its unfair portrayal of Mr. Winston.” These published pieces raised important critiques of the film and opened necessary conversations about how media discuss race and rape. At the same time they opened wounds for Willingham.
When black women go public with their claims of sexual assault by black men, is there a place where they will be sheltered? Are there institutions and entities committed to their survival?
Professor Janet Halley is one of the Harvard professors who signed the statement. She told Black on Campus that she was dissatisfied with the film’s depiction of the sexual-assault case, and that she decided to be public about this dissatisfaction when she saw Brandon Winston’s name mentioned in a press kit for the film—even though he was not named directly in the documentary itself. Halley said her goal was not to attack Willingham. Rather, she wanted to address the filmmakers, including Amy Ziering, CNN, and Kirby Dick, and to safeguard Winston’s reputation. Halley said there needs to be a fair process for all sides involved in cases involving sexual assault.
“We know that many times the person who gets the false or the inaccurate accusation of sexual wrongdoing will be a person of color, a man of color,” said Halley, who is white. “This is also a social problem that we have. If too many people get accused who didn’t do anything wrong and that becomes the public attitude, then we can’t meaningfully sanction any wrongdoing. We’ve squandered the precious resource of our process. I’ve been excited about #MeToo because it has completely transformed the public attitudes in a way that’s very productive, but there’s definitely been some roadkill in the form of unfair process.”
But it was Willingham who felt like roadkill in this process. In March 2016, she responded to the letter by Harvard Law faculty in an editorial clearly articulating the implications of their treatment of her case to a larger environment facing black women on campuses.
“Even while claiming without evidence that Black men are disproportionately and wrongly implicated in on-campus sexual assault proceedings, you — charged with shaping some of the brightest legal minds in the country — ignore well-established research on the disproportionate rate at which women of color are sexually assaulted. It is for these women that I write.”
Surviving and Speaking
Willingham, who continues to advocate for campus-sexual-assault awareness, has a strained relationship with Harvard. Haynes also has a rocky relationship with her college. She gained notoriety for her advocacy work to end sexual assault and had the opportunity to work with former vice president Joe Biden during the It’s On Us campaign tour in 2015. Haynes maintains it was then Spelman began taking more interest in her story.
“For me, that seemed a little bit fake, because that’s not what I exactly wanted,” Haynes said. “What I wanted was for when I reported my freshman year was for me to be relieved, for me to be taken care of, and for my Title IX rights not to be violated.”
For Brooks, Spelman has a long road ahead to improving the climate for black women in the Atlanta University Center. “Spelman would have to acknowledge this history they have, accept it and then actually make the sacrifices to make sure that black women are really free,” she said. “But they’re not going to do that any time soon.”
Editor’s note: The description of Brandon Winston’s trial has been edited after publication to more thoroughly reflect its outcome. Also, an additional quote from Kamilah Willingham was added to the piece after publication, but due to an editor’s error, that addition was not noted at the time. We do so now.