Believing Black girl survivors

Dr. Ayanna De'Vante Spencer addressed unjust treatment of Black female survivors, incorporating the justice system and criminalizing survivors over supporting them. Graphic by Kate Hickman.

*This article contains potentially sensitive or triggering content.

Dr. Ayanna De’Vante Spencer of the University of Connecticut presented on “Beyond Believing Survivors: Epistemic Oppression and the Criminalization of Black Girl Survivors in the US” in Utah Valley University Philosophy Department’s new series, the Inclusive Knowledge Theory & Activism Series on Tuesday. Her talk addressed the unjust treatment of Black female survivors in the United States and explained how the justice system is structured to criminalize the survivors rather than support them. 

Spencer is an assistant professor of Philosophy and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut. She is a Black feminist epistemologist and survivor-scholar who earned a doctorate in philosophy at Michigan State University. 

Spencer began her presentation by discussing the treatment of Black women in legal processes. She provided a background of how Black girl survivors have been mistreated by the system, including providing an example of how she is a Black girl survivor and knew many through her youth care experiences. 

“Frequently, we hear this claim to just believe survivors. And I think that’s really important. But one of the things I observed was that frequently, belief just wasn’t enough,” said Dr. Spencer. “That, particularly young people, don’t get to meaningfully act as experts in their own experiences of violence or what sort of happens next. They don’t really get to have a role in the sort of decision-making process about what should happen next.”

Spencer shared research on the criminalization of Black girl survivors in the United States. Focusing on Black girl survivors who were criminalized for their acts of self-defense, she mentioned four cases. These four cases consisted of State of Missouri v. Celia (1855), State of North Carolina v. Joan Little (1975), State of Tennessee v. Cyntoia Brown (2006), and the recent case of State of Wisconsin v. Chyrstul Kizer (2018). 

Spencer goes on to explain how many Black girl survivors have been locked up and are being released. She goes back in time to discuss how the U.S. Settlers State accused these survivors as, “knowingly acting with criminal intent” despite their testimony of self-defense. The U.S. Settlers State originated from settler colonialism, a type of colonialism that replaces indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that develops into a distinctive identity and sovereignty over time. She continues this thought by explaining how Black girl survivors are, unfortunately, positioned in a way that shows how people of power can challenge and/or deny claims of sexual violence by survivors.

“So the problem is not merely whether people in powerful positions believe Black girl survivors,” said Spencer. “But the convergence of sociopolitical and epistemic power to deny what survivors know about their own experiences of violence and the power to punish survivors for acting on ‘contested’ knowledge.” 

Speaking both from personal and professional experience, Spencer noted the history of this behavior in the U.S. is essential to understanding the present conditions. She then defines the Constructive Pragmatic Encroachment as a knowledge attribution account that she developed where real-world practitioners tend to support or, “deny knowledge to a subject based on a subject’s constructive practical stakes in relation to some proposition.” 

With this in mind, Spencer stressed the importance of locating subjects and how geopolitical context constructs subjects as potential knowers. She further explains that survivors of sexual violence are historically constructed by an exclusionary survivor-hood. Which, she says, is defined in, “an exclusionary race-neutral carceral framework.” 

Spencer then investigated Bethany Richie’s work in “Arrested Justice: Women’s Violence, and America’s Impersonation,” describing the “everywoman” analysis. Based on a report from Richie, the everywoman framework describes how rape is a threat to any and every woman. She also explains that a survivor of gender-based violence is defined as a “state-recognized victim of crime through the institutionalization of the US Anti-violence movement.”

Spencer claimed the everywoman analysis has narrowed the victims of rape down to middle-class white women. This alienates other survivors, reinforcing racist frameworks that portray Black women to be suspicious and criminal when they come forward about sexual violence. 

She explains how important the historical role of sexual violence against African American women was in American settler conquest and obfuscating survivor hood.

Spencer told the story of Celia from the State of Missouri v. Celia case. Celia was tried for first-degree murder of her owner, Robert Newsom, in defense of sexual violence. The case concluded with the conviction of Celia by a jury of 12 white men: she was sentenced to death.

This example demonstrates the power dynamic between settlers and African Americans, specifically African American women. 

“It’s very crazy to me that our justice systems have punished these girls so badly just for standing up for themselves. It makes me sad to learn about it and see this in our systems,” said sophomore and business administration major Jake McCoy. “I hope that we are able to make more positive changes going forward and these women find justice. This is unfair.” 

Spencer explained that as a result of inequitable power dynamics in cases of sexual violence, a stereotype of Black women began to develop. This stereotype portrayed them as con artists or hypersexual beings. She noted that this history of powerlessness and discrimination left Black women with little ability to defend themselves.  

Spencer emphasized that while it’s important to believe survivors, it’s more important to make the legal changes to grant survivors justice, arguing that legal action is necessary to make that change.

“We actually have to go back to ‘How do we talk about survivors as not knowingly acting with criminal intent when they defend themselves against their abusers?’,” stated Spencer. “Well, that’s really difficult to do when the context is set up against you.”

At the University of Connecticut, Spencer studies how Black girl survivors of sexual violence in the U.S. are denied the power to meaningfully act as experts on their own experiences of violence. She also studies epistemic oppression, sexual violence, and criminalization to help aid efforts of dismantling the sexual abuse in the prison pipeline.

If you or someone you know is seeking support, the National Sexual Assault Hotline can be accessed here. Further resources for Black survivors can be found through the Ujima Community.

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