The Most Important Takeaway From ‘Surviving R. Kelly’

r kelly round table man repeller

There is a line in a play called Is God Is by Aleshea Harris that goes like this: “We been kilt. Again and again. More than one way to die.”

The character, Racine, is speaking to her sister — reminding her of their upbringing. That line replayed in my head over and over as I watched Surviving R. Kelly (trailer here — warning, it is triggering), Lifetime’s six-part docuseries in which numerous women detail the abuse they experienced at the hands of the singer, which aired last week. It hurt to watch. But it also hurt to turn away.

And so I didn’t — I watched and I cried and I reached out my hands for support.

It was other femmes like me who reached back. A reminder of all the times I’ve survived.

Below, an offering: an extension of my hands, and those of four of my colleagues, in the form of a conversation wherein we discuss our thoughts, feelings and reactions to the docuseries, and in doing so, discover a silver lining. We’ll all be waiting in the comments to share space with you and hold space for each other.

Emma Bracy, Associate Editor: Thinking about the fact that the only reason this doc and movements like #MeToo and #MuteRKelly even exist is because of women of color coming together listening to each other, believing each other, holding each other, really reinforces the importance of femme solidarity and friend groups for me…and left me wondering how we can combat loneliness and isolation in the face of the fear that we’ll be misunderstood or hurt by those to whom we turn for support. Because I wanted to connect after watching this. But I was thinking about how hard that can be sometimes.

So I’m curious — can we brainstorm what holding space actually looks like? When do we feel safe? What do we need? Where are the spaces that hold us? Maybe then we can get to a point of developing a blueprint for feeling safer in the world.

Celia Hazard, Visual Director: Yeah, the majority of the conversations that I have around identity have been with my sisters because we came from the same place, same parents. Between them and now this group, I haven’t really had many safe spaces to talk about these things. So I don’t even know how to ask for this. I think that’s kind of the scary part that maybe a lot of people — especially Black women and the Black community — can relate to. How do we even ask for safe space? Because it’s clearly not being offered to us, so how do we set up this blueprint in a way that means we eventually don’t have to ask, when we don’t even know what to ask for?

Emma: I think that’s what’s so wonderful about this group and this conversation — individually we don’t have all the answers. I know some things that make me feel good:

Being asked if I’m okay before I have to go to someone and say, “I’m sad” helps. I mean, I’ve been crying for days. I feel crazy. I feel like I did those summers when we couldn’t get through a news cycle without another Black person being killed by police. This documentary rocked our worlds — rocked Black and brown women’s worlds. And if you don’t know that, then you’re not paying attention. So I just want the people that I encounter, from my girlfriend to my colleagues, to be sensitive to that in the same way that the entire world was sensitive to the fact that 9/11 happened. Ask me if I’m okay. Give me room to answer. Give me room for that answer to be “no.” Make it clear to me that it’s not a burden when I have feelings.

We have to respond differently to stories like this so they don’t keep happening.

Crystal Anderson, Operations Manager: My DMs or my group chats with other Black women who live all across the country are the safest spaces for me because all day long it’s, “Have you seen this? How do you feel about this?” When the whole R. Kelly thing came out, one person was like, “Is this a triggering comment? Can I come in here with this? Is everybody in a place to have this conversation? OK. This is what I felt. Great. Now we can open dialogue.” And to just have that question posed — “Are you okay to talk about this? Are you equipped right now to have this conversation with me?” — there is no greater good that a person can do for you.

Emma: You mentioned these virtual spaces — DMs, text messages. They are spaces where you know the people participating are actively paying attention. So I’m thinking about what that might look like in the real world: It’s somebody who is not on their phone while they’re talking to you. Or if you’re saying something that is important to you, the person is like, looking you in your eye, asking you questions if they don’t know the specifics of something that you’re talking about. Actively listening and then checking in, which, to me, is about compassion and empathy, like, recognizing that the person you’re engaging with is actually a whole-ass human being with thoughts and feelings.

Crystal: Yeah just those small, little human decencies that exist in our safe spaces and feel like luxuries. I tend to forget because they’re not often extended outside of our safe spaces, but they’re not luxuries. Being treated with compassion should not be the same thing as taking a bubble bath. That’s not how the world works for anybody else at all.

Simedar Jackson, Partnerships Strategist: Yeah. Last night I just went over to my friend’s house and she lives with three other Black women whom I know to various degrees. The safety was in not having to explain things to them, not having to field well-intentioned but inappropriate comments. It’s nice to be given the space to just be able to be.

Emma: Mmm, “given the space” — that’s important. There’s a difference between taking space and being given space. It’s the difference between having to steal away for private hugs and check-ins and the like, and knowing — being told or shown in in some other way — that those moments we all need as humans? They’re okay to take. Encouraged, even.

Simmi, you mentioned to me being expected to go to work and still create work in the midst of having all these intense emotions. It would be lovely if in work spaces or just in society more generally, debriefings were welcome or invited during cultural moments like this one. This doc brought to light crimes against humanity; feeling intensely after watching is not abnormal. I’m interested in thinking about the collective reactions that we have in public spaces. One thing I’ve been thinking about is how the narrative of abuse being the women’s fault is so much easier to swallow than acknowledging that you are either also a victim or also a monster — and probably both.

Crystal: A word!

Simedar: Damn G.

Nora Taylor, Managing Editor: Yup.

Ask me if I’m okay. Give me room to answer. Give me room for that answer to be “no.”

Celia: Do you all think Black and brown women are so desensitized to this kind of behavior that it seemed okay?

Crystal: Oh, for sure. I think so. EVERY Black woman has been ogled by a much older man when they were too young to be looked at at all.

Nora: I mean, I think I was 11 the first time I was hollered at on the street.

Crystal: Yeah, and the narrative of Black girls being “too fast” or “hot in the pants” is some real shit that I heard often growing up. White little girls aren’t typically sexualized the way little Black girls are.

Simedar: Agreed. White girls are typically allowed to be young and innocent, whereas Black girls are seen as sexual objects before we hit puberty. It makes me think of all the times I was scolded in ELEMENTARY school for apparently wearing clothes that were too revealing while nobody else seemed to get in trouble like that.

Nora: So we’re being told that Black women aren’t attractive or worthy while still being sexualized and all of a sudden someone famous swoops in to make a Black girl feel special at a time when she’s vulnerable…

Emma: That’s how this happens. The thing that I think I keep trying to get at that is SO FUCKING HARD is like…how am I the monster, too — does that make sense? Like. By buying into these systems (heteropatriarchy, toxic masculinity, preconceived gender roles, etc. etc. etc.) for so long…I am also the monster.

Crystal: No. I refuse to believe that being beholden to these systems makes you a monster. You’re blind until you can see, and it’s what you do when you have full range of motion that determines if you’re a monster or not.

Emma: Maybe that’s not the correct language. But I’m trying to get at, yeah, being beholden to these systems. Because recognizing that is the thing that seems so fucking crucial right now.

Nora: I feel that though. There is the very clear issue of how long it took me to stop fucking with R Kelly. That makes me complicit. I can feel oppressed by the systems that protected him for so long and also be part of the problem at the same time. And the sense of like, “What does liking ‘Ignition’ really have to do with him being a monster?”

Black women are expected to be strong and save the world, but we are also human and want to be loved and made to feel safe.

Emma: We have to respond differently to stories like this so they don’t keep happening. I just wonder what the different response looks like.

Nora: In that “believing women” just isn’t enough? In that there needs to be action towards holding their abusers accountable?

Simedar: I really do think it comes down to valuing the word of Black women. Some people are killed on the word of white women.

Celia: Where are we valued? I think that women and young Black and brown women especially want to be valued so badly that they misunderstand what love is.

Nora: Ooooooof. That sat in my heart.

Simedar: Black women are expected to be strong and save the world, but we are also human and want to be loved and made to feel safe.

Celia: Wanting to feel safe is one of the things that started this convo.

Simedar: A nonblack friend’s immediate response to me discussing the pain of this doc was commenting on the strength of the black women she knows. I was like this is literalllllyyyyy the problem.

In college, there was this place called the Black House, which ironically (it was called “Black” because of a surname, not race!) was the African American Student Affairs Center. I never realized how much I was gonna miss that space until I moved here, because I just don’t have this sprawling network of women of color that I can connect with in New York. A lot of my friends are spread out across the country, overseas even, and creating new friendships as an adult is very, very difficult.

When two or more of us are gathered, we are unstoppable in creating whatever space we need.

Nora: I cannot emphasize enough in my journey of who I am as a Black woman and building this network of Black sisters how important the internet has been. And as a fairly reserved, shy person, having this space where I can go and I can learn and I can be and share in a community in a way that still feels safe to me has been so vital.

I think particularly in times like this, there are Black women that I follow who challenge me and force me out of my comfort zone, and then there are Black women I connect to on an emotional level whose platforms provide an emotional safe space for me. When I can’t have a certain conversation, I can go to those people and go to those spaces and engage on my own terms. I can learn and I can feel safe and seen in a way that helps me process the way that I like to process.

Safe and seen.

Emma: So my girlfriend is Mexican and Thai. We watched the doc together, and I felt safe and seen the entire time. She was so tender in the way she held my body and my emotions and my spirit and my hurt, so kind in the way that she didn’t ask anything of me or offer something that wasn’t hers to give. And I am grateful to know I can be held in the way that I need to be held by people like her. You don’t have to be a Black femme to get it right or to connect with me on a human level — I don’t want to get caught up in that sort of essentialist trap. I mean, a Black femme probably taught you how to get it right, but I’m sure we’ve all experienced that Auntie Zora was right in saying, “All my skinfolk ain’t my kinfolk,” and vice versa, too.

My white best friend from college was also in town last weekend. We met up very briefly, and she just gave me a hug because she knew I had watched the doc. But she also knew, because we had been through this before and she listens, that there was nothing else that she could say and nothing else that she could offer. That awareness coupled with her not feeling bad or weird or left out or whatever (or at least, not freighting those feelings onto me) was a gift, too.

Simmi: I just wanna say that’s an amazing friend and that is really, really important.

Emma: And it’s so uplifting to know, like, “Wow. This is possible.”

Celia: Yeah…I have to say, this convo has been really healing and supportive for me. Because I haven’t been able to discuss it with anyone…it’s just sitting inside me.

Crystal: When my grandma couldn’t go to church she’d say, “When two or more are gathered in his name, God is there.” And that’s how I feel about safe spaces for WOC: “When two or more of us are gathered, we are unstoppable in creating whatever space we need.”

Graphic by Emily Zirimis.

Emma Bracy

Emma is the Associate Editor at Man Repeller.

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