As We Move Beyond R. Kelly

On Monday, September 27, 2021, a New York jury found Robert Kelly guilty of racketeering conspiracy and eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which prohibits travel over state lines for illegal sex. He was found guilty of using his organization to lure and trap girls, boys, and young women across state lines to “satisfy his sexually predatory desires.”

It bears remembering that in the Spring of 2018, UIC and Chicago said ‘NO’ to R. Kelly. We were not the first to do so—after all, it had been more than a decade since Stephanie ‘Sparkle’ Edwards and Jerhonda Pace had testified in court about his abusive behavior. Black women and girls in Chicago who knew of or directly experienced his sexual predation had been saying he was a problem. Loudly. But those voices were often drowned out by the toxic combination of racism, sexism, and anti-poor bias directed at poor and working-class Black girls. They were, and still are, blamed and seen as deserving of the violence done to them: not to be believed, not to be protected, not to experience anything close to justice. The racist idea that Black women and girls are not rapeable on account that they are already “too sexual” certainly helps to cover up and perpetuate such violence. When hundreds of voices said ‘NO’ by signing onto the letter to Chancellor Amiridis, they were also saying ‘YES’ to survivors, speaking up for the many survivors harmed by R. Kelly and who were blamed, punished, and silenced for what had happened to them. That collective ‘NO’ resonated in a different way across Chicagoland, a place where R. Kelly had always found solace and adoration. What followed was nearly four years of unceasing efforts by Black feminist activists around the U.S. to educate, organize, build awareness, and lead the response to sexual violence in Black communities: social media campaigns, a docuseries, numerous workshops, teach-ins, forums, op-eds, one-on-one conversations, which together had the effect of reclaiming the #MeToo Movement for Black women and girls. While many of those conversations, actions, and campaigns used R. Kelly as a point of departure (e.g., #muteRKelly), it is also understood that he is a highly visible symptom of a much larger problem. And that problem includes Black women and girls not being believed when they attempt to speak up.

In the wake of the trial, many will be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. Those who survived R. Kelly certainly deserve to do so. For the rest of us, we want to believe that, finally, Black women and girls can expect to be protected from harm and to be listened to when they say they have been harmed. But we are not quite there yet. The problem—the willingness of the society to accept sexual violence against Black women and girls as a given—is not erased by a criminal trial. After all, a racist patriarchal system is unlikely to see the error of its ways or change after one criminal trial in courts which are also known for routinely re-victimizing and even punishing survivors who speak up and defend themselves from violence. If we have learned nothing else from the #MeToo movement, it is this: justice is only possible when there is broad recognition of complicity and where there is a clear shift in how we think about and respond to sexual violence. A full reckoning about the breadth and depth of the institutional betrayal—from schools to families to recording industry—is needed to understand why so many Black girls were being fed to that (and any) sexual predator for decades, and then blamed for what happened to them. Regardless of whether or how long R. Kelly will be in prison, we still need a conversation about the consequences of ignoring the problem, claiming ignorance, and refusing to name racism and class biases as systemic forces that disempower and make Black women and girls more—not less—susceptible to sexual violence. We are nowhere close to being done with this matter yet.

As we approach October and Domestic Violence Awareness Month, our campus can certainly learn something from the R. Kelly saga. First, through that strong collective response in 2018, we stood up for survivors then. It’s still important to do so, and to push for campus- and unit-level processes that do not do further harm under the guise of neutrality or objectivity. Second, if we are to promote work and classroom environments where survivors are to be believed and supported, then we must—individually and collectively—identify and resist complacency in responding to harm. Finally, we need to examine how or where our units might be inadvertently creating climates that blame or silence students and staff on these matters. What we need to embrace is the importance of cultivating institutional courage from the ground up.

Speaking of institutional courage—this semester, we continue the 30th anniversary celebrations by spotlighting WLRC’s Campus Advocacy Network, and the tremendous work being done by a tiny but mighty staff to move this campus beyond compliance and towards being a survivor-centered one. Listening to the “Unlikely Alliances” panelists, held on Monday, September 27, I was reminded of the tremendous care and courage of the university staff who collaborate with CAN to undertake this work in their units. To successfully create survivor-centered spaces, they will need ongoing support, information, inspiration, tools, and camaraderie as they set about changing the tenor of their units and ultimately the experiences of students, faculty, and staff who spend time in those spaces. This is work that CAN is proud to engage in.

Join us over the next few weeks as we explore the issue of institutional courage from various angles. From reading and discussing excerpts from Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s Blind to Betrayal with medical students in the College of Medicine’s Medical Colloquium series, watching the film Athlete A, to hosting a lecture and graduate seminar with Dr. Freyd who co-created the field of betrayal trauma studies, we will have a busy month! The events are cosponsored by the department of Psychology, Gender & Women’s Studies Program, Counseling Center, and the Honors College (more to come). Please sign up for any—or all—of the events! We look forward to being in conversation and community with you in the weeks ahead!

Until then, take care of yourselves and each