Another Challenge on Campus Sexual Assault: Getting Minority Students to Report It

Reporting a campus sexual assault can be difficult, even traumatic, for any student. But for minority students who have been assaulted, speaking up can be an especially daunting prospect.

Many of those students may simply not know how to go about reporting an assault. Many more may not feel that theconversations about sexual assault that have cascaded across campusesover the last year even apply to them, experts say. Increasingly, advocates for sexual-assault victims wonder: Are colleges doing enough to bring those minority students into the fold?

Hard evidence on the racial demographics of campus assault is scarce. The U.S. Education Department doesn’t collect data on reported campus assaults broken down by race. According to a 2014 study released by the White House, about 22 percent of all black women — not just college students — reported being raped, compared with 19 percent of white women. More than a quarter of women who identified themselves as American Indian and Alaska Native said they had been raped.

In a pair of recent studies supported by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, meanwhile, 13.7 percent of undergraduate women at two large public institutions said they had experienced a sexual assault during college, while 9.7 percent of undergraduate women at four historically black colleges said the same.

Yet campus reporting of sexual assault can break down much differently, according to investigators. Brett A. Sokolow, president and chief executive officer of the Ncherm Group, a consulting and law firm formerly known as the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, said that in his experience, the reporting rate for white women on campuses is about "10 times the reporting rate" for women of all other races.

Closing that gap should be among the top priorities for those who seek to curtail campus assaults, some advocates say. Race is largely left out of conversations about sexual assault, said Wagatwe S. Wanjuki, an activist and board member of the advocacy group SurvJustice, but biases "like not believing a woman of color" may keep students from deciding to report.

"Most of the faces and stories we’ve been hearing are usually white women, or middle class or pass for middle class," Ms. Wanjuki said. That pattern has the effect of "making survivors of other identities feel like they don’t matter."

Ms. Wanjuki, a black sexual-assault survivor, said she "spent hours and hours looking for someone who looks like me" when she first reported her assault. "You want to feel like you’re not alone," she said.

'Layers Upon Layers of Privilege'

More than 100 colleges and universities are now being investigated by the Education Department over their response to sexual-assault reports. Many on that list are elite institutions with large populations of white students, like Dartmouth College and Brown University, and it’s those campuses that often draw the most attention.

Columbia University, for example, was home to one of the most high-profile sexual-assault debates last year, when Emma Sulkowicz, a senior,carried a mattress around the campus to protest how administrators had handled her alleged rape.

The focus on cases like that one can leave minority students on the outside looking in. Many of the most prominent faces in conversations about campus sexual assault have been straight, liberal, white women, said Sarah Merriman, a communications coordinator at Students Active for Ending Rape, or Safer. The community of activists that has rallied around the issue is similarly homogenous, she said.

"I’m a woman of color," Ms. Merriman said. "I’m always excited when people look a little bit more like me and say these things are tied together."

When students of color don’t experience that feeling, it can create a barrier to reporting, according to Mr. Sokolow. "Race and other minority identities are marginalized, and that marginalization impacts on the willingness of minority women to come forward," he said in an email.

There are other obstacles already. Deciding to report a sexual assault to the campus police or to a college’s Title IX office, which can help steer survivors through the reporting process, often is facilitated by a layer of privilege, said Ms. Merriman. Accusing a college of violating Title IX, a step that can prompt a federal investigation, is seen as an even more elite activity, she said, because it involves pulling on the levers of power to right an alleged wrong. In order to file a report, a student would need to understand the process and feel empowered enough to go through with it, she said.

"Going up against your school administration has layers upon layers of privilege that is not necessarily afforded to students who are of a minority race," Ms. Merriman said. Students who hold jobs may not have time to file a complaint, she added, and others may worry about losing a scholarship if they defy their administration.

Stereotypes Hamper Understanding

In 1994, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, an activist and documentary filmmaker, began work on No! The Rape Documentary, which focuses on sexual assault in black communities and on college campuses. The film, which had its premiere in 2006, features testimony from black women about their experiences with sexual assault. No!, she said, is "still unfortunately relevant" today, and she continues to screen it for college students.

When she first showed the film, Ms. Simmons said, "there were quite a few folks who were kind of pooh-poohing my focus on it." But Ms. Simmons, who will hold a visiting professorship in Africana studies at Williams College starting in January, still reaches college audiences. She screened the film at the University of California at Santa Cruz in April, and held screenings at universities including Tulane and Penn State last year.

Ms. Simmons said it can be especially difficult for black women to report attacks if they were raped or assaulted by black men. About 92 percent of women at historically black institutions who were raped were attacked by black men, according to the HBCU study.

"You’re not going to call the police nine out of 10 times, whoever your rapist is, but definitely if you’re a black person and your rapist is a black man, you know there’s that silence," Ms. Simmons said.

From a young age, she said, black women are taught to protect black men, an attitude that could keep them from reporting because they don’t want "to be seen as a traitor to the race." She also said black women are often sexualized in popular culture, a stereotype that creates the "myth that black women can’t be raped."

"We’re always wanting, willing, and able," she said. "Or we’re so sassy and big and bad that no one is going to be able to rape us because we’re going to fight them off."

Understanding Culture

Students who feel their colleges have been more broadly insensitive to issues of race could find it even harder to come forward, said Kathleen Wong(Lau), director of the Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

"If I don’t trust my institution on issues of racism, why in the event of having been assaulted would I trust my institution?" Ms. Wong(Lau) said. "Racism can shape the way that you might decide to ask your institution for help, even if the assault may not have been rape."

Ms. Wong(Lau) said administrators should understand students’ ethnic backgrounds before telling them about available resources, so that all students’ needs can be met. For example, Asian-American students may have been taught to not talk about sexual activity; Native American students may seek help only at a health center on tribal land. Such students are unlikely to use mainstream resources like rape-crisis centers, and are "far less likely" to report an attack, she said.

"You add in immigrants, you add in second-generation, you add in all kinds of other things, you add in class," she said. "The institution may not recognize that complexity."

Ms. Simmons, the filmmaker, agreed. "We have to acknowledge that sexual violence looks very different in all kinds of communities, and have these resources always available," Ms. Simmons said. "What happens to Muslim students who are covered, wearing hijab, and raped in their community?"

This fall, Safer, Ms. Merriman’s organization, will release a new training curriculum that colleges can use in workshops for their students. The previous curriculum had focused on issues of federal policy, like Title IX complaints. The new one is more specifically geared toward the needs of minority students, she said.

"We are definitely working on our own language in terms of being much more inclusive," Ms. Merriman said. "We’re trying to make the college campuses more aware that they don’t just serve one specific narrative and one specific population."

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