As protesters and activists around the country are continuing the fight against racial injustice and police brutality, domestic violence activist Sil Lai Abrams knows it can be challenging to “hold space” for an “equally large” issue: sexual violence against black women.
“As a black woman, I can’t separate racism from sexism,” said Abrams, who appears in the new HBO Max documentary “On the Record” in which she and other women detail their accusations of sexual assault by music impresario Russell Simmons. (He has denied the accusations.) “One of the challenges that happens within the movement for black lives is that far too often, the experiences of black women are pushed to the side in favor of the dominant narrative around our race. And I understand why we do this, because it is through racial solidarity that we make advances as the people. At the same time, it is through the color of our skin and our race that we are held back.”
Abrams, who two years ago accused Simmons of sexual assaulting her in 1994, said that too often black women’s accounts are diminished. “It’s very challenging for people to hold onto the importance of black women’s issues, which are considered a subset of black issues, whereas black men’s struggles are foregrounded because we live in a patriarchal society.”
The frequent erasure of black women’s stories, particularly in the conversations around police brutality, has led to initiatives like the #SayHerName campaign, which “calls attention to police violence against black women, girls and femmes, and demands that their stories be integrated into calls for justice, policy responses to police violence and media representations of police brutality,” according to the campaign’s website.
But when it comes to sexual assault — another kind of violence inflicted upon black women — Abrams said she’s more recently seen people push back on the Simmons case with comments like, “We’re dealing with bigger problems, who cares?” or “Well, at least she’s still alive.”
“It’s very challenging for people to hold space for multiple issues at a time,” Abrams said in an interview from her Philadelphia home.
Still, Abrams said she’s “painfully aware” of the privilege she has as a “light-skinned,” “conventionally attractive” black woman in being able to tell her story on public platforms. She also acknowledges that the fame and wealth of her alleged perpetrator is a factor, too. “Had he not been, no one would listen,” she said.
These are also privileges Abrams discusses in “On the Record,” which features talented women — including Drew Dixon, a former Def Jam and Arista Records executive who brought together hit songs like Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s “You’re All I Need” and Estelle and Kanye West’s “American Boy” — who say they have been pushed out of the music industry due to the industry’s pervasive culture of sexism and misogyny. (Simmons declined to be interviewed in the film and has repeatedly denied accusations of rape.)
But the documentary, released at the end of May, also comes amid nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, yet another black man who has died at the hands (or knees) of police. The film, in its discussion of the added struggles black women face when their abusers are black men, raises further questions in light of the protests: How might black women seek justice when the criminal justice system disproportionately targets black men and is less likely to believe black women and nonbinary survivors? And how might black women feel supported when members of their own communities may subscribe to racialized rape myths, as the scholar Saida Grundy put it, and see these women as betraying black men in the ongoing fight for racial justice?
There’s no single answer to those questions, and Abrams notes it’s an “incredibly personal decision” for survivors regarding how and if they share their stories publicly, and that “speaking truth” can happen in the private sphere as well. Still, a few things remain “primary,” Abrams said, for those who do seek justice through the current systems in place: that survivors “get to determine what it is that they want,” any restorative measures that are approached are a “collaborative” process with trained professionals and perpetrators “must acknowledge the harm that they have done.”
But on a different level, Abrams said she hopes that viewers of “On the Record” will prompt a change in how black women’s stories are received. “If a viewer were to close her eyes and listen to our stories, listen to the struggle of navigating a toxic workplace, of being alone, drunk with someone you considered a friend, or seeking advice from a man who claims that he can advance your career, that if you don’t look at our faces, I hope that they can resonate with the larger message and realize that this film is a love letter to all black women and that I see all of us,” Abrams said. “And I wish there was an opportunity to represent all of us in the media, so that when a woman who’s a black woman whose rapist isn’t notorious for some reason, when she is assaulted, that it gets the same type of traction that a white woman’s assault gets.”