Fast-Tailed Girls: The Sources of Sexual Assault Against Black Women and Bridging The Gap Between Black and White Feminists
By Takeallah Rivera@TheBurningBra
As a young woman who grew up in the Bible Belt, my greatest fear was not the boogeyman. My greatest fear was being labeled a "Fast-Tailed Girl." I listened as my grandmother and other relatives cackled and snarked at young girls in my neighborhood- girls whose hips were "too wide for her age" , whose breasts were “too big”, and girls that "swished their hips too hard when they walked.” Oftentimes, in the black community, a girl is blamed for her body type and her curves, as if she has control over her development and genes. Big butts, big breasts, and large hips are seen as erotic to men and problematic to other women. I was forbidden to play with these girls, in fear that their "fastness" would "rub off on me" and "turn me out." With disassociation from “The Fast-Tailed Girls” and being a smaller, super-late bloomer, I prided myself on my perceived innocence. Avoidance of the "Fast Tailed Girls" and ability to remain a Good Girl was highly revered by my family and community.
When I was 21, I was sexually assaulted in a nightclub during a Girls' Night Out. A group of friends and I had spent all summer working multiple jobs, attending summer school, and finally planned a night to let loose! We got dressed up and went to a nightclub in my hometown (Memphis, TN) called “The Premier.” Once in the nightclub, we jammed to music and got close with a round of Adios Motherfuckers and Patron shots. As the night went on, I became heavily intoxicated. Although still aware of my surroundings, my ability to move normally became heavily impaired. A guy, who appeared to be in his mid-twenties, approached me and asked me to dance. I agreed, and began to dance with him, not thinking much of his request. Suddenly, I felt his grip on my wrists tighten. I felt his hand creep up my skirt and his fingers enter my vagina. Unable to wiggle free, I began to feel him drag me out of the nightclub. I never reported my attack to the police because I knew for a fact no one would believe me. That night, I was heavily intoxicated and scantily clad- I "asked for it." When I confided in a few family members, I got what I expected- "you asked for it!", "what the hell did you have on?", "you should not have been there acting FAST!" I hung my head in shame and stopped going out to nightclubs. With this occurrence, my growing hips, and ample breasts, I wasn't a Good Girl anymore....I was now one of those "Fast-Tailed Girls".
In my nearly 25 years of existence, I have endured the pain of sexual assault four times- the aforementioned event, as a child by a family member, as a teenager by an acquaintance and classmate, and as a sexworker working at a Seattle gentleman’s club. Many nights when my insomnia and anxiety haunted me, I wonder why did this happen multiple times? Why was I a victim of these occurrences? Why? Then, upon researching statistics and reading personal accounts, I discovered that my story was all too familiar to other African American women.
So, who or what is to blame for all of this? There are several factors contributing to this, but for the sake of time and maintaining sanity, I will only focus on a few key factors.
For one, the harsh and constant policing of Black Girls' bodies has led us to become ashamed of ourselves- ashamed of our bodies and our sexualities. Our larger hips, ample asses, and breasts are hypersexualized, and as a defense mechanism, we hide our sexual desires in order to repel this hypersexualization, and judge others who choose not to. We label other women as "hos" and steer clear of them, still suffering from the fear of being labeled a "fast-tailed girl." We quickly dismiss victims' statements about their sexual assaults, and instead run to the perpetrator's defense. (Prime example: R.Kelly. Black women and others STILL support him and his music.) The social acceptance of body-shaming, slut-shaming and victim-blaming within African American culture has shown that our girls are not valued, with the statistics to prove it.
Speaking of statistics, let’s take a moment to review some:
Over 60% of Black Girls are sexually assaulted before they reach their eighteenth birthday, which is over half the Black female population. This translates to higher rates of addiction, PTSD, and depression within the population as well.
African American women have a “tendency to withstand abuse, subordinate feelings and concern with safety, and make a conscious self-sacrifice for what she perceives as the greater good of the community, but to her own physical, psychological, and spiritual detriment.”
The Department of Justice also reports that for every white woman who reports their rape, 5 do not report theirs- Yet, for every Black woman that reports her rape, at least 15 other Black women do not report theirs, due to the history of police brutality towards Black people in America and general mistrust of law enforcement.
African American women experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault have their children removed from the home by social workers more than any other groups of women, even when the circumstances are similar to other groups.
Half of Black women who experience child abuse never report the abuse and less than 5% never receive counseling for the abuse.
African American women experience domestic violence at greater levels than White Women, Asian women, and Latina women.
African American women comprise 8% of the American population, but account for 20% of intimate partner homicides.
The number one killer of African American women, ages 15-34, is homicide at the hands of an intimate partner or ex-partner.
Pop Culture (or Culturally Clueless pop culture, as I like to call it) is dominated by mainstream white female artists, which definitely does not contribute to improving things for Black women. Pop stars, such as Lily Allen, Miley Cyrus, and Iggy Azalea, are revered for using Black girls as props in their music videos, mocking our bodies, and ridiculing us. In Lily Allen’s music video, “Hard Out Here,” she employs Black dancers, emulates their dance moves, and then states in her lyrics, “ "Don’t need to shake my ass for you ‘cuz I got a brain… There’s a glass ceiling to break, uh huh there’s money to make.” These lyrics, in a nutshell, impy, “Hey Black Girls- your dance moves and big, juicy butts are cool and all for me to profit from, but I am still better than you!” Also, let’s not forget Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance, where she paraded Black girls across the stage like cattle, smacking their butts and humping them along the way. Suddenly, every white woman in America began twerking and it’s considered ‘cool’ and “humorous”- while black women have been twerking for years and have been labeled as “whores” and “sluts” for doing so.
The most disturbing part of this is that many white feminists, our supposed allies and “sisters” consider this oppressive trash “empowering.” No matter where I go, I cannot escape the glorification of Miley Cyrus’ twerking, Katy Perry’s or Gwen Stefani’s serial cultural appropriation, or being subjected to white women asking me questions about twerking or asking me to teach them how to twerk. All along my Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter feeds, I read comments such as “Miley Cyrus is so empowering! I don’t know why she gets so much hate!”
Riddle me this: Is it “empowering” to further oppress Black women, knowing that we are more likely to be stereotyped and more likely to be victims of sexual assault and domestic violence? Knowing that we are less likely to report our assault to law enforcement, and when we do report it, are less likely to have action taken on our case? Is it “empowering” to constantly appropriate various cultures, without giving a second thought to how this may affect the world’s view of the cultures or the individuals belonging the culture? Is it “empowering” to praise Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Gwen Stefani for their openness about their sexualities, yet shame Nicki Minaj and Beyonce for doing the exact same things and police their brand of feminism? Acts such as these have not bridged the gap between Black and White Feminists... they have widened them!
Because of the gap between Black and White Feminists, I took a huge risk not only participating in, but speaking at Slutwalk Seattle 2014. I risked being shunned and frowned upon by other Black Feminists and labeled as a “traitor”. I risk having my words falling upon deaf ears at the mention of the words “African American women,” for our experiences have oftentimes been erased in the feminist movement. Mainly, I took a risk of enduring the age-old battle Black Feminists have fought for years- having to choose between my race and my gender.
Since the beginning of the international Slutwalks, African American women, as a whole, have chosen not to participate. In fact, Black Women’s Blueprint, penned and published “An Open Letter From Black Women to the Slutwalk” on September 23, 2011, signed and endorsed by many Black activists, professors, writers, and survivors. In the letter, Black Women’s Blueprint stated the following:
“Black women in the U.S. have worked tirelessly since the 19th century colored women’s clubs to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular of slut, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent. Although we vehemently support a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants anytime, anywhere, within the context of a ‘SlutWalk’ we don’t have the privilege to walk through the streets of New York City, Detroit, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, L.A. etc., either half-naked or fully clothed self-identifying as ‘sluts,’ and think that this will make women safer in our communities an hour later, a month later, or a year later. Moreover, we are careful not to set a precedent for our young girls by giving them the message that we can self-identify as ‘sluts’ when we’re still working to annihilate the word ‘ho,’ which deriving from the word ‘hooker’ or ‘whore,’ as in ‘Jezebel whore,’ was meant to dehumanize. Lastly, we do not want to encourage our young men, our Black fathers, sons and brothers to reinforce Black women’s identities as ‘sluts’ by normalizing the term on t-shirts, buttons, flyers and pamphlets.”
In addition to this reasoning, a young white woman at New York City’s Slutwalk in 2011 flaunted a sign stating “Woman is The Nigger Of The World,” which solidified African American women’s refusal to participate in Slutwalk and prompted more backlash from African American women. Crunk Feminist Collective stated the following on this occurrence:
“If we thought of the history of feminist movement building as a battle over terms, what we would find is that every major battle over terms and the rights and identities attached to them have always had the same damn problem: the racial politics ... "Suffrage" didn't include all women. (Just ask Ida B. Wells how she felt about marching at the back of the 1913 suffrage march.) "Woman" is not a universal experience. (Sojourner Truth anyone?) "Nigger" is not a catchall term for oppression. (Ask Pearl Cleage) Feminism is not a universal organizing category. (Ask bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Fran Beale, and on and on) And "slut" is not the anchor point of a universal movement around female sexuality, no matter how much global resonance it has. (Ask a Hip Hop Generation Feminist).”
So, how can we fix the gap between Black Feminists and White Feminists? How can we accomplish solidarity and make the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, pioneered by Black Feminist and Writer Mikki Kendall, no longer relevant?
Solidarity begins with cultural sensitivity; truly understanding intersectionality. Familiarity with a feminist sociological theory named by Black Feminist Professor and Writer Kimberle Williams Crenshaw in 1989, and understanding that African American women face multiple levels of oppression, are two efforts that would vastly improve the relationship between Black and White Feminists. Taking these steps would also provide greater insight into the fact that racial inequality has continued in a variety of forms in the United States and that racial disparities did not end with the abolishment of slavery.
But, as an African American woman, it is not my responsibility, or any other African American woman’s responsibility, to educate you. However, I can offer suggestions! I challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone, away from familiarity and knowingness. Pick up a book by Angela Davis, bell hooks, or Patricia Hill Collins. “Black Sexual Politics” by Patricia Hill Collins is an excellent, eye-opening starting point. Ask an African American woman (like me) for other suggested reading or podcast resources. Scan through a discussion or article on The Root, Tea and Breakfast, Crunk Feminist Collective, For Harriet, Hood Feminism, or Gradient Lair, popular blogs ran by African American women. Follow a few Black Feminists on twitter. When African American women and other Women of Color are speaking on issues relevant to their communities, close your mouth and open your eyes and ears. Refrain from getting defensive when a Woman of Color is discussing white female privilege or calling you out on your privileges. I can only bring light to these issues and offer suggestions. The rest is up to you.
Will we ever stand in solidarity?
Takeallah Rivera is the Owner of Burning Bra Birth Services. She is a feminist, activist, bookworm, mother. and writer. Follow her on Twitter here.
Documentaries “No! The Rape Documentary” (available on YouTube)
Books -”Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and The New Racism” by Patricia Hill Collins -”Longing to Tell Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy” by Tricia Rose -”Killing The Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and The Meaning of Liberty” by Dorothy Roberts -”Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America” by Melissa V. Harris-Perry -”Surviving The Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape” by Charlotte Pierce-Baker “I Will Survive: The African American Guide to Healing From Sexual Assault and Abuse” by Lori S. Robinson -”Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and Politics of Respectability” by E. Frances White
-”From Janet To BEYONCÉ: Why It Matters When Black Women Sing About Sexuality” by Maya K. Francis (XOJane) -”Why Can’t Black Women Claim Sluttiness, Again?” by Laura K. Warrell (Racialicious) -”Nicki Minaj’s butt and the politics of black women’s sexuality” by Michael Dynzel Smith (Feministing) -”An Open Letter From Black Women to the Slutwalk” (Black Women’s Blueprint) -”SlutWalk: A Black-White Feminist Divide” by Zerlina Maxwell (The Root) -”Should Black Women Oppose the SlutWalk?” by Janell Hobson (Ms. Magazine Blog)
A Few Black Feminists and Authors You Should Know
-Kimberle Crenshaw -Nikki Giovanni -Mikki Kendall -Brittany Cooper -bell hooks -Angela Davis -Zerlina Maxwell -Melissa Harris-Perry
Blogs You Should Frequent
-Gradient Lair -The Root -Racialicious -For Harriet -Color Lines -Salon