One BVU: “Self-Determinism”

Brianna Mayo

The idea of “BVU” has always been one of interest to me. This concept of a collective Black experience at Vanderbilt, an intangible self-determinism, in which Black students are called to unite, recognize their heritage, build a sense of community. To define our own goals and lead our own organizations. It’s inspirational. It’s compelling. It’s what draws Black students to Vanderbilt. But when it’s time for BVU to prove itself, to actually self-determine, it fails. Drastically and consistently.

On November 6th, the Black Cultural Center hosted a town hall entitled “Am I My Sister’s Keeper,” which was intended to be an open discussion on the normative gender expectations within BVU. It had the potential to be an insightful and informative opportunity to expose the ways in which our institution's privilege Black males at this university. It was not.

To begin, at a space in which we were supposed to be discussing the problematization of gender norms within the black community, I found it at best inappropriate and at worst horribly harmful to ask attendees to designate themselves as the binary men and women and separate themselves accordingly. I would say this no matter the topic or the space, but I was especially taken aback to see this at the BCC, which is touted as a space of safety, wellbeing, and respect for Black students. Yet, when the BCC had an opportunity to prove itself, it failed. It failed to live up to its name and it failed those Black students who are othered by their peers because of their gender identity. I didn’t expect them to be othered by us too.

But what did we expect from the same community that applauds a Black men’s organization that does not program, celebrates an athlete that has repeatedly made victims of women on this campus, and asks Black women to stay silent on their sexual experiences? This is not to say that the BCC is at all responsible for the behavior of Black Vanderbilt men. But as a cultural institution that so many look toward, especially young and impressionable freshmen, it does have the responsibility to do better and teach better. Starting with its programs.

For those who missed the town hall, when men were asked what they expected from women, an overwhelming amount of responses suggested that they not speak about their previous sexual encounters. Is it because we do not view women as sexual beings? Is it because you don’t want a Black woman that’s been involved with another man? Do we not expect Black women to tell the truth? Do we not want Black women to tell the truth? When we silence Black women in this way, we perpetuate their hypersexualization, deny their autonomy, and remain complicit in the violence against them.

Black women experience both racialized and sexualized harassment and assault, which we have seen throughout history. Rape was used as a weapon of domination by slave masters and slaves alike as an expression of power, authority, and supremacy against Black women. These acts created a public perception of Black women as sexually deviant and available, which has furthered rationalized their sexual violence. In classrooms, Rand, Twitter, GroupMe, even in the BCC, you call Black women “hoes” and “birds” and “bitches.” Where do you think this comes from? Have you thought about the implications? As said in a 2014 Communities of Color Report, “Stereotypes regarding African American women’s sexuality, including terms like ‘Black jezebel,’ ‘promiscuous,’ and ‘exotic,’ perpetuate the notion that African American women are willing participants in their own victimization. However, these myths only serve to demean, obstruct appropriate legal remedies, and minimize the seriousness of sexual violence perpetrated against African American women.”

So when we speak about our sex lives, it is not so we can talk about your unimpressive genitalia, or let people know how “out there” you are, or any of the other ridiculous excuses we heard that night. It is to reclaim something that has been forcefully taken from us and rebranded as perverse and wrong. It is to say our bodies are own and we are going to do with them what we like because we’re grown and we can. When you ask Black women to be silent about our sexual experiences, you are asking us to be silent about any trauma we may have had, which we have probably had. For every Black woman who reports her rape, fifteen do not. Consider for a moment that for the one woman who may have spoken out during that town hall, fifteen others heard you insinuate that she should just be quiet. But we ask “Am I My Sister’s Keeper.”

You cannot change history. You cannot control every violent offender a woman may come into contact with. But you can listen when she speaks, and just as important, you can hold each other accountable. Stop trying to join organizations with known perpetrators. Stop supporting them on Twitter. Stop ignoring what you hear about them. Stop making excuses. When you don’t say or do anything because they’re bigger than you, or because you want to be in their fraternity, or because they’re athletes and people seem to like them, you’re signaling to Black women that clout and ego take precedence over their safety and wellbeing. Every person on the female-identifying side of the room raised their hands to say they’ve been harrassed on this campus. What have you done to help them?

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