White Supremacy & Sexual Violence
History records (read: lies) that Emmet Till catcalled Carolyn Bryant one fateful summer day in 1955. That damning lie affirmed one of the oldest racist ideas ever formulated and justified fourteen-year-old Till’s murder. The lie was grounds for Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law’s acquittal by the “justice” system. The lie was accepted as fact for decades.
The lie that killed Emmet Till has been reinforced throughout history.
In the climactic scene of The Birth of a Nation, a grossly racist film released in 1915, a white woman leaps from a cliff to her death in response to a Black man’s marriage proposal. The Black man is grotesquely portrayed as a ravenous, subhuman beast in contrast to the woman’s lily-white sexual purity. The catch is that a white actor in blackface performs the role of the Black man.
Racist ideas about the sexual nature of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other people of color are often deployed as a red herring to divert our attention away from the real history of white people’s racist sexual violence against people of color. People empathize with these racist ideas because they reinforce the inferiority of people of color while emphasizing the purity of whiteness.
The trope of Black hypersexuality predates the construct of race. In Stamped from the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi asserts that what evolved into the theory of race started as the “climate theory.” Climate Theory proposed that the sun’s intense heat had darkened dusky-complected people’s skin, minds, and hearts. The extreme heat, allegedly, resulted in African people possessing a bestial sex drive. While “Climate Theory” was eventually exchanged for the “Curse of Ham.” The lie that Black men and women possessed a uniquely depraved sexuality remained.
To see the flip side–the underbelly–of that racist idea, one needs only look at the rationale that the Atlanta spa killer used to explain what drove him to murder the Asian women he held responsible for sexual fantasies that went against his sense of Christian morality. Moreover, one need only to look at the ensuing dialogue in the public square and how quickly people blamed the women for their own murder.
When it comes to sexual violence against darker-hued people, whiteness frequently appeals to distorted views of human sexuality to justify its lust. Stereotypes abound as men and women are viewed through a white supremacist lens. This isn’t to say that only white people are capable of sexual violence, but rather, to name a destructive dynamic in which Black people and people of color are unduly blamed for racialized sexual violence.
Victim and offender are often inverted when those who have privilege leverage their societal power to absolve themselves of guilt and blame when the violence of their lust is found out. Dark skin becomes dark sexual magic that either unduly entices or brutishly victimizes.
Most of the victims of the Atlanta spa murders (Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng) were women of Asian descent. Their senseless deaths remind us that the task of naming racialized sexual violence requires that we accurately diagnose its root: white supremacy.