I am an African-American male whose abuse, perpetrated by multiple abusers, began at age four and lasted for 15 years. The camaraderie and understanding of the groups I worked with helped me rebuild my self-esteem and regain control of my Life.
During my recovery, however, I noticed a troubling trend. I was, in most cases, the only African-American in the groups I attended. Other African-Americans would not stay in the group for more than three or four meetings. I immediately began reaching out to persons of color when they would first come to the group. I tried to be supportive and encourage them to continue in the programme. In most cases, I was not successful overcoming barriers for them.
As the former Legal Advisor to the Director of the Office of Human Rights in Washington, DC, I have spent well over 10 years studying and specializing in discrimination and race relations as it applies to employment and other opportunities for people of color. When I began my recovery, I was surprised at the extent to which the same issues appeared in that context.
In professional settings, I could objectively evaluate cultural differences and keep my emotions separate — so my legal training led me to believe. But when issues of race became intimate parts of my own recovery, I had to face my feelings about them. I could not move forward with my sexual abuse recovery until I put them in their historical perspective in relation to my life.
In my discussions with other survivors of color, and from my own experiences, I have identified barriers that persons of color may have to face to reap the full benefits of group participation in the recovery process. These barriers are born of external and internal prejudices. The most difficult external prejudice we face is a dysfunction of our larger society — racial prejudice. This problem is readily reflected in a 1990 survey of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, which found that:
“Fifty-three percent of non-black believe that African-Americans are less intelligent than whites; 51 percent believe they are less patriotic; 56 percent believe they are more violence prone; 62 percent believe they are more likely to ‘prefer to live off welfare’ and less likely to ‘prefer to be self-supporting.'”*
This is a snapshot of the psychological environment people of color face every day We must expect that any group we attend will have at least some people who share these beliefs. It is easy to understand how this social reality can act as a barrier to communication.
I can attest to the fact that it is difficult to speak of personal issues when you feel you will be perceived as “less intelligent” and “more violence prone” than other members of the group — especially when the group is dealing with the violent crime of sexual abuse. Claudia Black, Ph.D., M.S.W., writes about this dynamic in her book Double Duty:
“Many people of color learn at a very young age that their color is not okay. This swiftly becomes internalized as shame the belief that they are somehow defective. They learn that they can’t trust majority people, that they will never be accepted for who they are.”
Black’s statement echoes what other survivors of color have personally shared with me. They say they feel too uncomfortable to talk about sexual abuse in a group where they question whether they can trust the majority of people to be understanding without regard to race.
The second external prejudice involves two sexual myths about African-Americans. One myth is that all men of color have enormous “sexual potency.” This myth often includes an assumption about penis size. The myth has its historical roots in slavery, when male slaves were lined up like cattle before men, women, and children and publicly examined. Rumors began about the length of male penises and the sexual potency of the “breeding” males.
These tales, based on historical circumstances, have taken on mythical proportions, and the myths continue today. Some young African-American males unwittingly carry this myth as a badge of honor.
About women of color, the myth is that they have great “sexual prowess” — almost animalistic. This myth, too, is rooted in slavery, where young women were forced to give birth as soon as they were old enough and then were bred like animals. The rumor spread that these women were very fertile and sexually proficient, and these women often were used as desired sexual objects by their masters. The myth has grown and transformed since those times, but it is still being fueled today through general social sexism and sexist advertising practices.
Many people today continue to take these myths as fact and do not understand the history that created them. They are often joked about. In this climate, it is very difficult to face a group of people who might make statements like, “Well, black men are known for their sexual potency, so why be surprised that they start having sex earlier”; or, “Black women are so sexy, who can blame someone for being attracted to them.” I have actually heard such statements, often made about pre-teens and adolescents, more times than it is comfortable to admit.
As a male survivor of color, I had a terrible time overcoming barriers that would well up in me when I wanted to speak of my abuse. After all, I was a male of color who was victimized by other males of color. How could I expect the other members of the group to understand this? Feeling the alienation of being a male of color in a society that had more stereotypes for me than I imagined, I was trapped.
Feeling the alienation of being a male of color in a society that had more stereotypes for me than I at first imagined, and being faced with sexual myths that were “supposed” to bring honor I was initially trapped. External pressures threatened to emasculate me if I revealed my abuse, and the internal pressure caused by keeping the silence threatened to kill me if I did not speak.
The most destructive internal prejudice I faced was simply internalizing the negative judgments of the larger society. Throughout my early childhood, I noticed that I was treated differently, and many times without respect. That fact, coupled with growing up in a culture that sometimes seemed to accept the negative stereotypes imposed upon it, was very confusing for me as a youngster of color. Coping with this inner confusion continues to be a lifelong struggle, especially with the escalating racial tensions evidenced in the media daily.
In my personal history, many factors have fueled this internalized prejudice. I grew up in an alcoholic home where sexual abuse was present, where I was taught the lessons of ‘don’t talk,” “don’t trust,” “don’t feel,” “don’t relax,” and “don’t sleep.” Living below the poverty line in a segregated southern housing project and constantly seeing that people of color are overrepresented among the unemployed, the underemployed, the undereducated, and the socially disabled taught me the message that we were different and, somehow, severely damaged.
There were, and are, too few role models to sufficiently counter these early messages, and they tend to be reinforced throughout one’s life irrespective of high achievement. For example, when I was one of only 12 persons of color in an entire law school, I recall hearing some classmates bemoan that they could not believe “they allowed niggers and Jews to come to this school.” People of color continue to internalize negative messages about themselves until they self-educate beyond these messages. For a survivor, this education is as much an integral part of recovery as dealing with sexual abuse issues. Recovery is about being honest with ourselves about what actually has happened in our lives. A part of this process must include being honest about the role race plays in our lives, and recognizing that this is rooted in the historical development of American society.
Recognizing the role of race may help African-Americans understand how race issues become intertwined with our process of healing from sexual abuse, especially with our feelings of discomfort in groups. This acceptance is necessary for our personal growth, and it need not be argued or justified. There is great social resistance, even today, to accurately examining how race has played a part in American history and in the social history of African-Americans. As survivors, we cannot wait for society to face these issues before we face them. They are already very present for us.
In Studs Terkel’s RACE, Peggy Terry makes the following point:
“To a certain extent we’re all racists. Maybe not to the point of bumming crosses, but we have attitudes that we don’t recognize in ourselves. I know I’ll never be free of it. I fight it all the time. It’s things you’ve grown up with all your life. I will never reach the point where I can sit with black people and be unaware of their being black. I’m always afraid I’m going to say something wrong, even with those I love and trust.”**
This type of honesty can serve as an excellent model for communicating about race in a group. Honest communication like this can help people of color and other group members bridge a gap that often is rooted more in history than in personal judgments. Knowing that some people are willing to be this honest makes it less difficult to take the step of entering a support group. Though there may be people in the group who cling to stereotypes, there may be a Peggy Terry, too, and that makes it worth taking the risk.
I can attest that once we get past the racial barriers, the similarity of the effect of sexual abuse on the human soul creates an enormous bond among those engaged in the process of recovery. For many survivors, there is no substitute for sharing among other human beings-without regard to race, gender, or class-who have also survived the horrors of sexual abuse. Getting there is difficult work, but our lives are worth it.
This is a complex process, and I don’t want to sound like I’m oversimplifying. This topic deserves a book, but, until then, maybe this article can give some guidance. As a person of color who has survived sexual abuse and has been in recovery for over four years, I would advise all survivors, and those who care for them, to examine their own external and internal prejudices, and to honestly address them when they come up in their recovery. This is the only way to truly get in touch with our deeper selves and reclaim the lives we were born with the right to live.
M.E. Hart, J.D., is a lawyer who lives and works in Washington, D.C.
Historical and Cultural Atlas of African Americans.
Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.
Double Duty: Dual Dynamics Within the Chemically Dependent home
Black Lives, White Lives: Three Decades of Race
The Black Manager: Making It in the Corporate World.