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Who Gets to Be Safe at HBCUs?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

In this week’s episode, co-host B.A. Parker reflects on the unique experience of attending an HBCU and discusses sexual assault and violence within those insular, familial communities. She talks to journalist Clarissa Brooks, who wrote a piece for the Cut about Phylicia Rashad’s tweet regarding Bill Cosby, about the difficulties Black women face when reporting sexual assault and harassment, particularly against Black men. Parker also speaks with Anita Hill about her new book, Believing, what it has been like to become a symbol of a cause, and what advice she’d give to young people.

The Cut

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I’m a third-generation graduate of an historically Black university. An HBCU, if you will. And what I loved about attending an HBCU was the community. The traditions. Being cradled in a space where people looked like me and were all trying to figure out the same things that I was, aside from the Australian kid with a softball scholarship.

And when October comes around, there is always this … anticipation in the air. Because that means it’s homecoming season. Throngs and throngs of current students, former students, partygoers, ancient alumni, and usually a random hip-hop artist descend onto HBCU campuses for football and cookouts and step shows. It’s this wonderful, nostalgic, happy place.

But there was a stat that always stuck with me in college: The largest amount of sexual assaults on HBCU campuses take place in October … the same month as homecomings.

*Please note, this episode talks about sexual violence and harassment.

This past summer, discussion about sexual assaults on historically Black college campuses gained attention all because of a tweet.

Legendary actress Phylicia Rashad was weighing in after her Cosby Show co-star Bill Cosby was released from prison. In 2018, Cosby was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand. He was released on a technicality after an appeal.

Ms. Rashad tweeted, “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted — a miscarriage of justice is corrected!” And some HBCU students were concerned, because Howard University recently announced that Ms. Rashad was gonna be their dean of the College of Fine Arts.

CLARISSA BROOKS: When I saw the tweet, I wasn’t surprised by it.

When journalist and Spelman graduate Clarissa Brooks saw the tweet, she wrote an article for the Cut about HBCUs and their response to sexual assaults.

CLARISSA: Rashad’s support of him, and later Howard’s statement … it just felt like the perfect time to talk about, okay, “this is how I can talk about this in a way that feels safe.” And also to help people realize that HBCUs have a very long history of neglecting survivors. That just doesn’t get talked about because HBCUs are seen as this very nostalgic safe haven. It is that, but also they’re still institutions that harm people and make money.

B.A. PARKER: Yeah, there is a weird dichotomy of it on a macro level — this safe space, however, for a selected population within that safe space, it isn’t necessarily safe. 

CLARISSA: Yeah … yeah.

Howard University made a statement after the Rashad tweet. “Survivors of sexual assault will always be our priority … Howard will stand with survivors and challenge systems that would deny them justice. We have full confidence that our faculty and school leadership will live up to their sacred commitment.”

CLARISSA: Their statement was a lot better than their statements they put out in the past, but that’s because the school has politically progressed because they’ve had so much backlash, not because they would ever fire Rashad. So I think that statement said to me, they are moving politically in a different direction, but they are still trying to keep, they’re just trying to be on the right side of whatever PR they have to run.

Rashad ultimately deleted the tweet and wrote an apology to the university for what she said. But that doesn’t negate the university’s past.

In spring of 2020, Howard settled with six female students who filed a suit against the university claiming they experienced discrimination in violation of Title IX. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education. It covers sexual harassment and violence.

Now, the six Jane Does reported that they’d been sexually assaulted by male students and a university employee. The lawsuit alleged that Howard mishandled the women’s reports and permitted an alleged abuser to remain on campus, enabling him to assault a second woman.

Meanwhile, Howard argued that the school did not need to act in response to knowledge of sexual violence unless a student experiences rape or harassment for a second time after she reports the first instance to the school.

Yeah. Now, it’s not that unusual for any university to mount a … questionable … defense against a Title IX case. And so many people who are sexually assaulted don’t even get to that point. Because speaking up no matter where you go to school is hard.

CLARISSA: But with Title IX at HBCUs, it moves a bit differently because you are not only holding the legacy of the person who assaulted you, but the school. And going against your HBCU was just not something that HBCU students are taught. You’re kind of indoctrinated into what I would say is like a family dynamic. When survivors have sued or gone against Title IX offices, it is seen as a betrayal of that family dynamic that HBCUs build. It builds up this idea that like, “This is your family, this is your home.”

And going against that is something you don’t do publicly. You may feel it privately, but it’s definitely not something you do publicly. So a lot of the critiques of, like, “You can’t say this about Howard,” or “You can’t say this about Phylicia Rashad,” those type of protections around Black elitism don’t affect me as much because one, I mean, as much as I can critique Spelman, you can’t tell me anything about it. Right? I really love this place that gave me my best friends, gave me the best experiences of my life.

While making this story, I’ve managed to disappoint a number of friends and relatives, because they think I’m stabbing HBCUs in the back. That I’m shaming a place that’s done a lot for me. But this isn’t a calling out so much as it’s a calling in. I love where I come from so much, it should be okay for me to say, “I love you, but what you’re doing is destructive and hurting the people who need you the most.”

Because as Clarissa reminds us, this is what’s at stake:

CLARISSA: Queer folks are being assaulted. Black trans folks are being assaulted. Black women are being assaulted. And that now also holds political weight, but when we live under this world of patriarchy, cis Black men are always going to be prioritized. I’m always just thinking about the fact that if we don’t ever talk about it, it’s never going to change.

But after you’ve been assaulted, who do you talk to if not the Title IX office? If you were awake for any of 2020, you’re aware that young Black people do not feel safe or protected around law enforcement.

CLARISSA: Being in school, most survivors are not asking for police. On campus, even outside of it, we’re just like, “I just need some boundaries. I need some space. I need my own time to heal. I don’t want to see this person on campus. I just want to be able to go to school safely and process what’s happened to me in a way that feels good for me,” and that is never involving police. But also the difficult thing is the barrier to resources is police, right?

So you can’t get class accommodations. You can’t get extensions on deadlines for school without a note. And a lot of times that note comes with a police report. “Here’s a report from campus safety,” who are also often retired cops.

To intentionally go to the police and file a report against another Black person can feel traitorous for some. And HBCU students are trying to find another way.

PARKER: What was your blog called?

MARIE THOMAS T: It was called A Book About Niggas.

PARKER: Hello. 

MARIE: Hello!

Marie Thomas is a writer and recent graduate of Spelman College.

MARIE: It was cool, though. I just wrote about these different things, and they would get really popular. In a day, 1,000 people around campus had read it. I wrote about my own sexual-assault experience.

A few years into her studies, Marie says she was raped by a student at Morehouse College, the esteemed all-male HBCU that’s directly across the street from Spelman, which is all-female.

MARIE: I knew my rapist before he raped me. So I was like, But I knew I knew him. Why am I freaking out? I don’t have time to freak out, I’ve got shit to do. So those are often my own thoughts.

PARKER: Did you still have to see them on campus afterwards?

MARIE:: Yeah, because I never told on him. I remember, after it happened, telling my friends and obviously they panicked. But given just the details of the situation I was like, “No one is going to believe me. I’m just not going to tell on him.”

No one’s going to stick up for us if a Black man rapes us, because that’s Black business and that’s in-house and how dare we put our brothers in jeopardy or hold them accountable for something they may have very well done to us. It’s like this thing that has so many layers.

Not even a year and a half later, I’m scrolling on Twitter and I see this viral tweet. A girl who was in a completely different state than Georgia, which is where my rapist and I were at the time, said his name and said that he had raped her. And I just remember thinking that it was my fault that he raped her because maybe if I had told on him, it would have made it harder for him to rape someone else. And I just remember feeling this excruciating guilt, like, This is my fault. If I had just said something, if I just told on him, it wouldn’t have been so easy. It would have been harder for him to rape someone else. Like maybe he would’ve just raped me. That was my thought process.

It was during this time that Marie began to share her story, never publicly naming her rapist but making her experience known. She wrote about it on her blog and shared it in her senior thesis, which was about the harmful narratives placed on Black men and the history of rape culture.

MARIE: It was liberating because it was a way of processing my rape and not being silenced by it, because I was writing about it and I knew someone else who’s going to read it — this professor, she is the shit.

Marie had one professor that she trusted enough to read her story, but asked the professor not to report it. Because as much as Marie trusted this person, it was the institution that she didn’t have faith in when it came to supporting her.

PARKER: Do you feel like there are safe spaces to report if you’re sexually assaulted?

MARIE: [long pause] Um, no, I don’t. Especially if you’re a Black woman. When I was sexually assaulted, I felt like the only people that heard me were Black women, more specifically Black women closer to my age.

PARKER: If you were to have reported what happened to you, what do you feel like the burden would have been placed on you having to disclose it?

MARIE: I think I would have not graduated in a timely manner. I think I would’ve been more socially ostracized than I already was. I don’t think I would be really believed by a lot of people. I probably would have been shamed by certain faculty members and by my peers.

When I reached out to Spelman, they wouldn’t comment on the sexual-assault concerns, just sent me a link to their Title IX rules.

CLARISSA: I hear from a lot from survivors at HBCUs that administrators really crossed the line when it comes to reporting Title IX cases.

Clarissa Brooks again. And she shares a story told to her from an HBCU student.

CLARISSA: It was a case at Morehouse where the Title IX director at the time literally said, “I know this person and he didn’t do this.” Right. Because they grew up in the same city. She knew his mom. With these cases we often see this boundary crossing and that familial-ness being used to tell survivors, well, “I know this person,” or “The person that assaulted you wouldn’t do this.”

In a way that they think they’re talking to their family, they think they’re talking to their younger sibling or just a young person who is strained and just needs to get over it and do what they need to do to graduate.

Because historically Black colleges are so ingrained in Black American culture, there is this familial environment. That can just as easily protect a rapist and make a victim feel alienated.

CLARISSA: Title IX offices are not places that prioritize student retention, when they know that they can get other students to come in. You would think that they would care about that retention rate, but I think also with the rise of more Black politicians in the world, the application rates at HBCUs are skyrocketing. Spelman actually currently has a housing crisis because they accepted too many students.

So even if a student leaves, it can feel like they never even mattered. So what is the ideal? What do students want when it comes to justice, and why won’t the universities listen? There are growing talks about restorative justice and student-led safety pods around campus.

CLARISSA: People already do this. We just don’t call it “pods.” When I’ve been in crisis situations where folks need support, I will get a call. People already do this. “We’re at a party, somebody is getting aggressive.” Safety pods can show up and support people and deal with things on a level that works for each person in each community.

But the burden still lies on the student and not the school. And that’s the thing I keep coming back to. Just like I come back for homecoming every year. In asking these institutions to do better by survivors, we’re only asking them to do what they’ve been saying that they do all along: Provide safe spaces for Black people to be their best selves.

After the break,

[sounds of photos clicking during the ’91 hearing] 

JOE BIDEN: Professor, do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

I ask someone what it’s like to stare down the wall of disbelief.


Anita Hill.

ANITA HILL: I had African Americans who were very, very, very hostile to my testimony. People who are openly hostile to me personally in public because they felt that I had betrayed the race, in essence.

As I thought about what it must be like as a Black woman to publicly accuse another Black person of abuse or harassment and the weight that must carry, there was only one person I could think of to talk to.   

PARKER: What is the responsibility that comes with being Anita Hill?

ANITA: I think people don’t quite understand that when we become a symbol of a cause, a responsibility goes along with it. And for me, the responsibility is that I do whatever I can in my power with the skills that I have, with the information that I have, with the resources and contacts that I have to make sure that people understand and that they do something about the problems.

In her new book, Believing, Anita Hill navigates her 30-year journey to end gender-based violence. It’s been that long since she testified about the sexual harassment she endured while working with Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

PARKER: Do you feel that there were times then, and even times now, where you were viewed more as a symbol than as a person?

ANITA: Absolutely. When people only see you in one setting, they forget that you are a whole person, that you have a job, that you have a family, that you are human. And in some sense, it is dehumanizing, and it does carry a certain kind of responsibility. What you have to do as that person who has at one point in time been a symbol is claim your own humanity. And for me, claiming my humanity meant using all of me to tackle the problem of gender-based violence in America.

And tackling gender-based violence means talking to everyone.

ANITA: I hear from young Black men who want to support the women that they care about who have been abused, who want to eradicate abuse from our community. They want to be part of the solution, but they also fear that given our history of racism they will be wrongly accused, that just by virtue of being Black males they will be seen as predators. And there is an entire history of that.

Racism has gripped all of us in this terrible position so that women can’t talk and men can’t be supportive. Even people who want to be a part of the solution are still unable to participate because of the racism that exists in our systems, and particularly our criminal justice system.

Back in 1991, before becoming an activist, Anita was a private citizen. But the testimony placed her in a cultural firestorm, both in regards to gender and race. But what she didn’t anticipate were the number of Black people who believed she was sullying the name of the known conservative attorney Thomas.

ANITA: Even today I get young Black women who ask me, “How can I possibly bring a complaint against someone who is a member of my community, who is a member of my race, without being accused of bringing shame onto the community?”

There’s no answer for this. Except to anticipate a feeling of isolation. Just be ready for it.

I mean, there’s a moment in Anita’s book Believing that frankly made me cry. Because it showed just how dejected Anita felt during the hearings. Closed off from the world that was also vilifying her. She found comfort in, of all things, an ad published in the New York Times.

ANITA: “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves” was how the ad is titled. That basically told a story that wasn’t being told in the coverage of the hearings. And that was the story of the silencing of African American women, the abuse of African American women and the denial of protections for African American women who had experienced violence. It was affirming in the sense that I had been portrayed as a villain and my experience had been denied. And there was a body of people who had studied and understood the experience, and they were willing to go on the record just to say, “This is the experience of African American women in this country throughout history. You should listen to this story.” And that really was just enough to keep me going.

And after her initial testimony, she started getting phone calls and letters, people wanting to share their stories of sexual assault and harassment with her. It almost felt like too much at first. She didn’t even know if she wanted to take an active role in the public conversation about harassment.

ANITA: I did have misgivings, as I said. I was deeply wounded and I just wanted my life back. I felt like I deserved to have my life back. But then I realized there’s that responsibility to others. And even to yourself understand what is happening in the world and understand your role in it. And so over the years, really, my role has grown, even until, you know, a few years ago, when I started doing work inside the school where I teach.

PARKER: Do you feel like you’ve gotten any of your life back in the past 30 years? 

ANITA: Uh, I have the life I have.  

PARKER: That’s a diplomatic answer. 

ANITA: Do I have the life that I thought I was going to have? No. But I wouldn’t change anything. I have a life that is meaningful and purposeful and it’s intentional. I didn’t just stumble into this. I made decisions to be where I am today. And having made those decisions, I don’t regret it.

I know Anita doesn’t regret it. Her work has helped countless people deal with unspeakable traumas. But I can’t help thinking of the cost that comes with that.

A woman gets sexually harassed by her co-worker, speaks up about it. And is nationally villainized on one side and canonized on the other. All with the purpose that it doesn’t happen to someone like me one day. And for three decades, she’s still … fighting.

PARKER: For survivors to see their assailants at work or at school on a regular basis is constantly triggering. And you and Judge Thomas have remained a part of the cultural conversation for 30 years now. Is it frustrating to be forever linked to this person and your harassment after all these years? 

ANITA: No, I don’t think about Thomas so much as I think about the larger problem. He is one actor in the bigger problem, and maybe that’s why it’s not so frustrating, but I also encounter people who don’t even remember what his name is. The problem is the way we treat people who have been abused. The problem is the way our systems have failed people who have been abused.

PARKER: What’s it gonna take for any kind of policy change? I think a lot of young people, we thought with the Kavanaugh hearings, We can’t be on the wrong side of history again. Like, what’s it gonna take?

ANITA: I honestly think it’s going to take a president who, first of all, makes the declaration and the commitment to ending the problem. It’s going to take leadership in our schools to realize that the stuff that’s going on in our workplaces is not only injuring individuals, but it’s also damaging them, to their core operations, even their bottom line. That’s what corporations understand: their bottom line.

PARKER: I’ve watched your documentary. And as well, as I saw the Kerry Washington film, and what I could never get over, especially as a young woman, was watching someone in her truth and on the right side of history being met with a brick wall. How would you advise someone today on approaching that brick wall of disbelief?

ANITA: The first thing I would ask is what kind of system are you going into? Because they aren’t all the same, although I don’t know one that’s perfect. The second thing I would say is know who your support is going to be, because it can make all the difference. But I want them to go in fully informed about what it is they’re going to experience.

PARKER: Because one of the students that I talked to, she didn’t feel confident in the systems that were around her. However, she did make the choice in her senior thesis. Her senior thesis was about the treatment of Black men over history and sexual assault. And in that space talked about her own sexual assault and shared it with her professor And that was the only way that she could do that for herself, because she wasn’t going to report it. She just wanted to have someone hear her and believe her. 

ANITA: I have so much respect for her. And instead of telling people — survivors and victims — how they should act, we should listen to them. I mean, this is someone who made her own choices about how to act given all of the risk. And I would applaud the student. She found a way to say what happened to her and to be heard.

MARIE: Not to be corny or anything, but I had to write it down someway.

Marie Thomas again.

MARIE: Okay. I said, “Much of my strength comes from my display of vulnerability. I believe I am honest about myself. Someone out there is going to see and together we defeat shame and guilt by knowing we are not alone.”

If you’ve been affected by sexual assault, you can find resources at

Who Gets to Be Safe at HBCUs?