People of African origin have been characterized as sexually aggressive and insatiable more or less since Europeans first planted their soggy feet in the Global South. Can you picture it? These stuffy, Christian, Portuguese mofos covered neck to toe in filthy, sea-worn garments encountering people dressed comfortably, in climate-appropriate clothings, perhaps exposing (gasp) parts of their bodies? What association did these invaders have with such flaunting of practicality, other than prostitutes and young children?
That’s my historical re-imagining anyway, considering the subsequent infantilizing and sexualizing of their African hosts. With perhaps the briefest sojourn at “cultural difference” (then, as now, White people appear blind to the conscious human choices that created their way of living), the behavioral peculiarities were ascribed to biological and physiological inferiority, and sexual promiscuity was foremost among the stereotypes.
Finding ways to differentiate the unknown from the familiar happens in our brains without our say-so and isn’t inherently bad. Stopping at that point is at best amoral. Doing what our European forefathers did: expanding, exaggerating, condemning, and de-humanizing that presumed difference in order to excuse the theft of land and resources and oppression and abuse of people, is the foundation of chattel slavery.
Gomes Eanes de Zurara is credited with writing the first “recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas” with The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, in 1453. See Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning for historical analysis.
Greed creates racism, but first it has to create Race. There was a lucrative reason to type African people as other – the more they were ascribed traits that Europeans identified with animals, the easier it would be to exploit them, whether that meant taking over their land or enslaving their people. It was a deliberate and literal de-humanizing of darker skinned people in order to absolve one’s fellow businessmen and their bros of guilt.
Of course, that was just the beginning of the lie. Horrible, long dead White men will be horrible, long dead White men, with that natural penchant for rape and oppression. (You can’t blame them! They were born that way!) So, in an effort to excuse their desire for Black women, they characterized them as inherently sexual; sorceresses who forced good, respectable European men to want them against their will. And then the men raped them. (Were Black women more desirable? Or had desirability just been squeezed out of White women by their corsets? More likely: the disgust with humans as humans made Europeans hide sex as dirty, animalistic, and used by good Christians only as an unpleasant obstacle to creating more Christians.) While they were busy raping Black women, they didn’t want their White wives out getting some themselves, so they doubled down on the lie that White women are asexual. White men should not rape White women (who weren’t their wives. You can’t rape your wife, right?) because that was a stain on both of you, but if a White man was going to give in to his lingering gross tendencies, he could at least avoid taking down a good Christian in the process. Completely objectify the victim, and its practically masturbation. Raping an African woman was hardly worse than avoiding sex entirely.
The hyper-sexualizing of African people gave enslavers a reason to keep African males away from their conversely (and just as inaccurately) pigeonholed “chaste” white women. Any attraction their wives might have to Africans couldn’t just be excused, as it was for the White men. It had to be completely denied. White women had no sexual desires. So any interracial sex with a White woman was rape, and any interracial sex with a Black woman was sorcery. In any scenario, the Europeans are absolved of responsibility.
The effectiveness of the hyper-sexualizing of Africans went beyond sexual relations. Any creature uncontrollably devoted to sex wouldn’t be expected to form lasting human bonds with sexual partners. African sexuality meant that they didn’t need or want or feel real bonds with their sexual partners or their children, so denying marriage and separating couples and families in the interest of commerce was no big deal.
I can’t imagine that some variation of this theory doesn’t contribute to family separation at our borders today. If Steven Miller and his gang believed that Central Americans were fully human, would they enforce this? Could they? Why was the first description Trump used when stoking fears about immigrants from the South “rapists”?
Slavery, of course, was just the beginning. Most of the lynchings that terrorized Black people after emancipation used the excuse of sexual assaults on White women (including the 3 men murdered in Duluth, Minnesota). The inexpressibly awesome Bryan Stevenson has led the creation of our most compelling history of lynching, but the at least equally awesome Ida B. Wells was the first to really explain it.
First, lynching is color-line murder. Second, crimes against women is the excuse, not the cause. Third, it is a national crime and requires a national remedy…. This was wholly political, its purpose being to suppress the colored vote by intimidation and murder.
This question is answered almost daily— always the same shameless falsehood that “Negroes are lynched to protect womanhood.” Standing before a Chautauqua assemblage, John Temple Graves, at once champion of lynching and apologist for lynchers, said: “The mob stands today as the most potential bulwark between the women of the South and such a carnival of crime as would infuriate the world and precipitate the annihilation of the Negro race.” This is the never-varying answer of lynchers and their apologists. All know that it is untrue. The cowardly lyncher revels in murder, then seeks to shield himself from public execration by claiming devotion to woman.(1909) Ida B. Wells, “Lynching, Our National Crime”
True, that White women are just the excuse. (The assault of a White woman was used as an excuse to burn down Black Wall Street in Tulsa in 1920, as well, but that was after Ms. Wells gave this speech.) Whether the men who commit the act are people who “revel in murder” or not, there was a political motivation. Once, the preponderance of Black bodied people was a good thing, since almost all Black people were slaves (and, in the South, always presumed to be slaves), earning profits for White Americans in every state, and giving the South greater congressional numbers and power, Congressmen who could then ignore, or worse, 40% of the Southern population. After emancipation, as Ms. Wells said, it was the fear of Black power that was behind the murders (not Black Power – not yet) and thus the blocking of the legal vote. During Reconstruction, Black men were elected to Congress, validating the fears of White men (regardless of the legislators’ policies), most of whom were poor and had little to hang their hats on other than the fantasy of White superiority.
But why is this lie still used today? Whites have found many other ways to suppress the vote. Why do we still carry this idea of the predatory Black rapist, the Black seductress? For many of us, of course, it is involuntary. We’ve been exposed to the lie through rumors, movies, news our whole lives. Mostly through White sources, but also some Black personalities who perhaps have taken ownership of this stereotype because it may be more empowering in our now highly sexualized world than the other stereotypes applied to Black people. But that’s only part of it.
The Black predator myth remains despite the almost exclusive White male serial killer cohort and well-known, powerful predators like Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, etc. Personally, I have been only greeted and complimented on the street by Black men, occasionally greeted and occasionally harassed by Latino men; and harassed, flashed, threatened, and physically attacked only by White men. (It is probably worth mentioning that 3/4 of the men currently in prison for sexual assault are White. Given the documented bias against Black men in our Justice system, the percentage of White rapists may be far higher.)
Why do we continue to believe that Black women are hyper-sexual? Maybe so we can blame Black single mothers for their institutionally enforced poverty, arrest and abuse Black prostitutes, ignore Black rape victims (well, that was the point, after all) and Black victims of domestic violence. Black couples are two to three times as likely as White couples to report domestic violence. Black women have always been more vulnerable to abuse than White women, getting it from White men, Black men, and White women.
Which brings us to this horrifying bullshit, undoubtedly a holdover from the lies of the 15th century: the adultification of Black girls, resulting in the criminalization and sexualization of typical preteens and teenagers. Check out the summary video here, but basically, people think that:
- Black girls need less nurturing
- Black girls need less protection
- Black girls need to be supported less
- Black girls need to be comforted less
- Black girls are more independent
- Black girls know more about adult topics
- Black girls know more about sex
Black boys are adultified, too. Read some of the justifications of the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Check out the school-to-prison pipeline writings. I can’t do everything for you, folks.
What do we do about this? Good grief, how do we break down shit rusted into the foundational structures of our society? White people need to do what we need to do with everything around our reactions to Black people: stop, feel it, think about it, question it, look at the evidence, make a conscious effort to establish the truth in our unreliable heads. And, of course, CHANGE ALL THE SYSTEMS THAT PROMOTE AND ENDORSE THESE LIES.
*I am calling this series Black Lies instead of White Lies about Black People in the hopes that a racism skeptic will accidentally stumble across it. Fingers crossed.