I was lucky enough to be awarded an academic scholarship to start college, but it wasn’t sufficient enough for my family to cover the entire bill. Feeling stuck, I vented to my hairstylist while getting my hair done for my senior prom. To my surprise, he offered to cosign a loan for me.
The reaction tells us that vulnerable folks don’t count — and specifically, vulnerable Black folks. They must have ulterior motives or have played a role in their abuse.
I didn’t want help from a stranger, even one like him who had a reputation of being a good guy. But out of other options, I reluctantly allowed him to go ahead. The loan was denied, and I now wonder if that was divine intervention, since soon after he applied for the money, he attempted to kiss me. I made sure never to be alone with him again.
Eighteen-year-old me hadn’t connected the dots. But once I understood that the offer was conditional, I was fortunate that I could ditch the creepy man in his 30s who did my hair and had a crush on me. However, had I been harmed, would anyone have believed me? Would I have been blamed for bringing the problem on myself? Would my parents have?
I found myself asking these questions as I observed the reactions to the start of testimony in R. Kelly’s trial for sex trafficking, racketeering and related charges this week. Despite decades of allegations of sex abuse perpetrated against several minors, many people have taken to social media to claim that another Black man is being railroaded by the criminal justice system and to insist that they’ll listen to his music no matter what. Worse yet, they are blaming his alleged teenage victims — and blaming their parents for supposedly giving R. Kelly access to their daughters and sons.
Even though they are surely in the minority, I’m disheartened by the Black fathers and husbands saying R. Kelly is innocent, who seem not to realize how easy it is for their loved ones to become ensnared in such circumstances. And I’m blown away by the many women who continue to hold signs and show support for him outside of the courthouse. I’m saddened to see their judgment clouded to the point of looking past years of allegations and his marriage to 15-year-old singer Aaliyah after prosecutors detailed how she used a fake ID to obtain a marriage license. R. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.
Maybe some of this is halo bias, which makes it hard to believe anything negative about someone with whom you have a positive association. A well-known face in the community who gives back could never want to harm anyone, right? But whatever factors are in play, the reaction tells us that vulnerable folks don’t count — and specifically, vulnerable Black folks. They must have ulterior motives or have played a role in their abuse.
R. Kelly’s accusers don’t enjoy the fame and riches he does. Perhaps, as his defenders have insinuated, some who met the superstar at his concerts or in his hometown of Chicago were looking to the famed performer as a ticket out of their mundane existence through a music career or other avenue he might provide.
But why attack desperate people instead of the person who allegedly preys on their desperation? Maybe some of those victim-blamers have never been in dire straits; maybe their moments of desperation didn’t take the form of allowing their children to attend the concert of one of history’s biggest R&B singers in hopes they’d get discovered. But that shouldn’t be necessary to sympathize with them rather than demonize them.
Particularly since victim-blamers’ targets are often children, as many accusers were under 18 when they met the singer. In doing so, finger-pointers are perpetuating or missing the reality of adultification bias, in which too many Black children are believed to be older than they are — and in which Black girls in particular are sexualized when they are young. No matter how old a girl “appears,” her brain is still developing at the rate of every other girl her age — white, brown or purple. Yet she may be relegated to being “fast” or “grown,” as though existing around the male gaze is her fault.
Defending R. Kelly only adds to the many instances of Black women struggling to be believed, further questioning our integrity and eroding our position instead of standing by us and protecting us. Rather than seizing this moment for solidarity with Black women, some are choosing to question why alleged white transgressors aren’t going through what R. Kelly is. Instead of asking about double standards, why aren’t they asking themselves why they don’t hold fellow Black men to a higher standard?
Instead, too many don’t want to see a Black man face justice for his alleged crimes. But convicting R. Kelly would be a win for every Black woman and girl who has had her pain and trauma minimized, and who’s been blamed for putting herself in the wrong situation. We don’t know how his trial will conclude, but we already have an opportunity and obligation to examine the way we handle our treatment of victims within our community.