A Black man’s guide to powerful men navigating sexual assault allegations

A Black man’s guide to powerful men navigating sexual assault allegations

There are few situations more harrowing than having to navigate sexual assault allegations. The court of public opinion is often quick to cruel and unforgiving judgment; reputations built on years of hard work can be ruined in an instant. Online mobs may descend on you and tear your reputation to shreds without mercy.

Despite this harsh reality, a growing number of women are summoning the courage to come forward and speak about their traumatic experiences of sexual assault at the hands of powerful men. The #MeToo movement has finally given women an opportunity to speak up about sexual assault, and have their word taken seriously. For the first time in human history, even powerful white men are faced with the uncomfortable possibility of navigating a world where their past behaviour will be scrutinized and challenged by the general public.

Going through life like this is terrifying, stress inducing, and can often feel entirely unfair. Trust me. I know. It’s what we Black men have been dealing with our entire lives. Allow me to offer the recently initiated a Black man’s insight on how best to survive a world where everyone regards you with suspicion.

Now, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking the following:

“But what about Bill Cosby! OJ Simpson! Russell Simmons! They are Black men who have been accused of sexual assault by multiple women, and there are still many people who defend them to this day!”

You’re not wrong: There are people of colour who also benefit from the presumption of innocence. As the title of this article suggests, the gift of being presumed innocent is linked to power. In a capitalist society, money is a form of power. In a patriarchal society, being male is a source of power.

But in a society founded on racist colonial principles, one that is still rooted in white supremacy, being white is also a form of systemic power. If you have all three, you are basically going through life like a character in a video game competing on easy mode. It’s not that you aren’t finishing the same levels, beating the same bosses, and playing the game like everyone else; it’s just exponentially easier for you on every level.

Don’t believe me? Google some studies about online dating or looking for jobs as a Black woman, let alone as a poor Black woman. 

This is this shit Black women have been up against for ages now. We Black men have our own struggle that I’ll tell you about next.

 Columnist Omari Newton. Photo by Jens Kristian Balle

Columnist Omari Newton. Photo by Jens Kristian Balle

I literally can’t remember a time when I was above suspicion.

Whether it was as a child being followed, questioned, and searched by shopkeepers while buying candy at my neighbourhood convenience store, or as a student being accused of plagiarism for handing in essays deemed above my level of intellect, or during “routine traffic stops” that saw me interrogated and ID'd despite being a passenger in a vehicle – then, later, being subjected to the indignity of watching our white female friend being asked if “she was okay.” Apparently a white woman sitting in a vehicle with her Black friends is enough to raise alarm bells for some police officers…

Growing up under these circumstances makes Black men constantly aware of the need to monitor our behaviour, and nowhere was this necessity more evident than it was around white women. For prudent Black men, respecting women’s boundaries, being courteous, thoughtful, and kind are not just shallow displays of chivalry used to impress the ladies, they are quite literally survival mechanisms.

This presumption of Black men being a threat to white women was so commonplace it was captured in the earliest example of feature film. Director DW Griffiths’ unfathomably racist 1915 film Birth of a Nation portrays Black men as savages who roamed in packs attacking white men and raping white women. The “heroes” of the film were the Ku Klux Klan, who “bravely” protected white southerners from predatory Black men hell bent on their total destruction.

A more recent example of this reality was captured brilliantly in director Jordan Peele’s Oscar winning masterpiece, Get Out.

–SPOILER ALERT–

At the end of the film, Alison Williams’ character is revealed as a manipulative, predatory monster from a white supremacist family that preys primarily on African American men.

After Williams’ character is shot by a Black man whose mind had been temporarily released from the grips of the control of a white supremacist,  the protagonist (played by Daniel Kaluuya) understandably begins strangling his tormentor in rage. In a nuanced and moving scene, his compassion stops him from finishing her off.

Moments later, what appears to be a police car pulls up to the sight of a Black man on top of a wounded white woman. The look of defeat in our protagonist’s eyes the second the siren and lights arrive tells a story known all too well by Black men.

When Williams’ character plays the victim and makes a feeble call for help, all hope for our hero is lost. Despite the evil ordeal he has just survived, both he and the audience knows he’s done. Like all Black men, he is well aware that, historically speaking, the assumption of  a Black man’s guilt is a given, particularly when white women make accusations.

–END OF GET OUT SPOILERS FOR LAMES WHO HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET–

 Daniel Kaluuya in  Get Out . 

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out

Of course, this perception of Black men as sexual predators has a long, sad history that predates film. The roots of this insidious myth can be traced all the way back to America’s foundation in slavery and extends through the Civil Rights era and beyond. I, like many young Black men, grew up knowing the tragic, cautionary tale of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy from Mississippi, murdered in 1955 because of the mere accusation of inappropriate sexual advances towards a white woman. Accusations that would be considered tame by today’s standards were enough to cost an innocent Black child his life in Jim Crow-era America. 

Growing up in a world where I am constantly feared and presumed guilty has taught me many things about how to best avoid even more unwanted scrutiny. My first piece of advice for you, the newly initiated, men of power, is obvious but important:

Don’t sexually assault, pressure, or coerce women. 

I know. This should be a given. But here’s a reality you may have missed while living under the invisible force field of systemic privilege. Women rarely make up sexual assault allegations. This is not to say it never happens. There are always exceptions to rules, but there are many statistics that support this reality. Google them. 

So, if you are accused of sexual assault, statistically speaking, it is likely your accuser at least genuinely feels as though they have been violated by you in some way.  Again, this is not to say you are necessarily “guilty,” but don’t be shocked that the public believes women for the first time ever. Statistically speaking, the public should believe women.

Navigating life will be much more difficult now that white, male, or wealth privilege are no longer placing you above suspicion. You’d be smart to follow my advice.

Step two is: If you have in fact sexually assaulted, coerced, or violated a woman, own up to it. Acknowledge that the accusations made against you are credible. Apologize to your victim(s) and let the legal and social justice systems begin the work of healing everyone involved, yourself included.

You are not an irredeemable monster who exists in a vacuum. Toxic masculinity, born of a patriarchal society that encourages men to be aggressive and unfeeling plays a big part in all of this. So does unfettered capitalism that values wealth above all else. And we’ve already discussed white privilege. You are not the first or last to make this mistake. There are resources available to help you.

If you genuinely believe that you are innocent of any wrongdoing, and are dumbfounded by the allegations against you, as hard as it may be, you still have to face these accusations with empathy and grace.

You aren’t a monster, right? Remember, there are women who genuinely believe you have violated them. They are also suffering, possibly more than you, and likely for much longer than you have. Empathy has to be your guide. If you feel no empathy for your accusers, this may be indicative of a bigger problem, but, even if you are a sociopath, incapable of actually feeling genuine remorse, know that you would be advised to at least feign empathy and introspection. Behaving like a human being who is capable of genuine empathy will help the credibility of your claims of innocence tremendously.

Once allegations have made mainstream headlines, it is highly likely that social media will become a toxic place for you. You may be tempted to respond, speak out incessantly, tweet at strangers who have publicly stated their support for your accusers, and jump on the Facebook pages of people who shared articles that paint you in a less than flattering light.

Don’t do it, because there are women who truly feel you have violated them. Speaking out may re-traumatize them. It may also make you look heartless, desperate, and more guilty. Walk away. Reflect. Consult with family, and if necessary, mental health professionals. There is no shame in this, despite what patriarchy has taught us.

If you can’t resist and you do chose to speak out, under all circumstances, avoid the terms “lynch mob” or “witch hunt.” The origins of those terms are ironically rooted in systemic power that has traditionally benefited powerful white men such as yourself. This irony will not be lost on your accusers or the general public. It will just make you look tone deaf, heartless, and, again, potentially more guilty.

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If you are fortunate enough that no women have formally filed charges against you in either criminal or civil court, consider yourself lucky. Many women are aware that the legal system is not likely to deliver justice in sexual assault cases. They are also aware of how humiliating, exhausting, and dehumanizing the process of taking a sexual assault case to court is, so they often don’t bother speaking up. Take this gift of patriarchy, white privilege ,and systemic power, and walk away. Wait till things die down. Reflect.

Unless you are an international celebrity with paparazzi beating down your door and harassing your family, do not hold a press conference. Holding a press conference will draw even more attention to you, re-traumatize your accusers, make you look like a narcissist, and invite even more publicly scrutiny. It will also open you up to questioning and potentially leak even more damning information about you into the press. You have to think like a Black man now. The public thinks you’re guilty. Act accordingly.

Finally, and here is the most important part: You must live your life as though you are constantly being watched by a hostile judge, waiting to catch you committing some horrible crime they have always suspected you of doing. Your new life consists of “proving” to the world 24/7 that you’re different. That everyone like you is different.

Those sexist jokes you used to openly make with the guys, and the locker room talk you used to engage in while women sat and watched? Those are a thing of the past.

The aggressive flirting with co-workers over whom you hold power? Also done.

If you do this shit publicly, it will make people even more likely to believe women who accuse you of sexual assault. You should even reconsider seemingly “innocent” behaviour, like closed-door meetings with female staff or students, cat-calling women on the street, walking towards a woman on the same side of the sidewalk as you when it’s dark out, getting wasted in public and acting the fool, wearing hoodies, ever…

You basically have to try and live every moment of your life like a perfect, unthreatening gentleman whenever possible. These are some of the strategies prudent Black men have long been using to try and protect our reputations if not our lives. It hasn’t saved all of us, as the Emmett Till story showed you, but it at least gives us a chance at survival.

Welcome to our world. Glad we could be of service.

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Editor’s note: Omari Newton is a creative force who has made a mark in multiple cities across Canada: in Montreal, where at 19-years-old he won accolades for his performance in Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!’ with Black Theatre Workshop, Canada’s oldest Black theatre company; in Ottawa, where his play ‘Sal Capone’ will run in the second half of the National Arts Centre’s 2017-2018 season; and in Vancouver, where he’s straddled the screen and theatre worlds as an in-demand actor (‘Continuum’), producer (‘The Shipment’), playwright (‘Sal Capone’), and teacher. Social justice issues are important to Omari – he writes about them on his Facebook page, Visible Minority Report – and are central to his work in the arts. Omari writes about social justice issues – and how they intersect with the entertainment industry – for YVR Screen Scene. –SF

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