“Surviving R Kelly” Exposes Society’s Racial Bias When It Comes To Sexual Harassment

From his illegal marriage to fifteen-year-old singer Aaliyah in 1994 to the child pornography trial of 2008 to the sadistic sex cult reported to Buzzfeed in 2017, R Kelly’s well-known exploits have furthered his career rather than damaged it – until now. The gruelling docuseries, “Surviving R Kelly”, has forcibly dug the heads of both the music industry and the public out of the sand regarding the allegations of sexual abuse against one of the most powerful forces of modern R&B.

Despite featuring a damning compilation of dozens of testimonies, the programme is not an actual “exposé” of Kelly’s behaviour, because many of the severest allegations had already been documented by Jim DeRogatis and Abdon Pallasch in a Chicago Sun-Times Story in 2000. Unlike the result of the New York Time’s 2017 piece on Harvey Weinstein, which uncovered crimes against white female celebrities, DeRogatis and Pallasch’s exposé of Kelly’s behaviour against young African-American women did not result in the end of the perpetrator’s career. As “Surviving R Kelly” explains clearly, the victims’ race and the associated stereotypes and discrimination is why popular culture felt it could ignore, explain, and permit Kelly’s crimes for so long.

The R Kelly case has shown that Malcolm X’s observation in 1962 that “the most disrespected, [unprotected and neglected] person in America is the black woman”  remains true decades later. In the US, black women face oppression from a myriad of areas, most commonly with regards to race, gender and economic status. These intersections come together to form huge amounts of bias and discrimination against women of colour.

A study from Brandeis University found that while US prosecutors pursue seventy-five per cent of sexual assault cases brought by white women, only thirty-four per cent brought by black women are investigated. According to African-American sociologist Patricia Hill-Collins, the stereotype of the “promiscuous black woman”, used pre-Civil War as justification for white slave-masters raping slaves, still exists to this day. This helps to explain why sexual and physical assaults against black women are less likely to be believed, as the blame falls on the supposedly seductive victim. Given this societal and judicial bias, it is not surprising how many of Kelly’s economically vulnerable victims and their families accepted payments and lawsuit settlements in exchange for their silence. R Kelly systematically abused and exploited black girls from working-class backgrounds as, holding less power than any other societal group, he knew it was unlikely that their stories would be believed.

The music industry, which allowed Kelly to abuse the vulnerable, is also trying to evade accountability. Affiliated artists Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper have insured their reputations by removing collaborations with Kelly and releasing apologetic statements retrospectively as if they were oblivious to the well-known allegations before the docuseries. Despite pressure from the #MuteRKelly campaign, the petition for which raised over 75,000 signatures, RCA only dropped Kelly from its label following the huge popularity of “Surviving R Kelly”.

Even this is for show. Kelly is still profiting from past releases with the label and has experienced a sixteen per cent increase in streams since the series aired. These tepid responses in the music industry against Kelly are a far cry from the Hollywood actresses’ fashion-inspired show of solidarity for the #TimesUp movement at the 2018 Golden Globes in the wake of the Weinstein exposé. It goes to show that despite having a voice on the docuseries, the survivors of Kelly are still deemed less important than Weinstein’s white victims.

In order that #MeToo works for women and men of all races and economic status, it is imperative that the intersectional factors of race, gender and economic status and the effects this wields on victims of sexual abuse are considered. While black women were finally given a voice and could see themselves represented in “Surviving R Kelly”, the music industry must fully renounce Kelly to atone for the many years of complicity.

Eloise Barry

Image Credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images.