Who Will #SayHerName? Tawana Brawley & Justice for Women and Girls, By Kayla Howard, Spelman College

****Trigger warning- this article discusses sexual violence and rape.****

The role of the state in providing justice to women and girls is vital, as it has a direct causal relationship with the ways in which we realize our own agency in everyday life. The legislation addressing the lives of girls often fails us and ultimately leaves us vulnerable to the exploitation of society. The intersections of race and gender only intensify the mistreatment of girls by the government because black woman fall at the bottom of the totem pole. Tawana Brawley serves as an example of the ways in which racial and gender bias is materialized into our lives. Brawley’s case is a pivotal moment in history and its impact often goes unacknowledged by our generation. 

Tawana Brawley was a young 15-year-old black who was violently attacked and raped. She was found with feces smeared on her body and white supremacist language etched into her skin. The accused – white local government officials. This did not take well and she was accused of committing the horrific attack against herself. Despite whether or not her attack was faked or real, the legal proceedings that surrounded the case were incredibly negligent. 

From the very beginning of the case, she was treated as the perpetrator and was never given an opportunity to explain herself, as the public’s perception of her attack had already been determined by external sources. The mainstream media immediately took hold of the story and doctored the situation to fit the interests of those with power. They drastically downplayed her attack to make it seem less horrific. The New York Post described cotton being stuffed in her body parts as a form of “protection”, as opposed to a malicious act against her body. When her hair was ripped out, they made it a point to mention that it was not her real hair, but rather hair extensions woven into her naturally short hair. Her personal life was quickly made public in an effort to ruin her reputation, in turn making her an unbelievable victim. 

They publicized the story of her mother who fled arrest. Her relationship with her stepfather, from whom she had previously been run away and been beaten. Though Tawana was merely a young girl, they discussed her relationship with her boyfriend, which in turn established her as sexually active. In the eyes of society, black women cannot be raped, especially if they are sexually active. Patricia Williams who wrote a popular piece on the Brawley case stated, “If anyone believed that some white man even wanted her, no one will believe that she is not a whore.” In the end, her case was nearly completely dismissed, making an example out of what happens when girls come forward about their violent experiences. Cases like Tawana Brawley’s have shown us time and time again that the state is unable to deliver justice, ultimately serving as a deterrent for current and future victims of violence to come forward.

The state’s inability to deliver justice has long been a reality of our society, however it can serve as a site of reform because of the sheer power it has on the agency it grants women. Our level of trust in the government impacts our willingness to seek refuge in cases of violence. So, it is imperative that law enforcement and the legal system be a viable safe haven for women, so we are not forced to resort to silence or hegemony. The limitations of using the state to deliver justice is facing the reality of the grandeur of the feat. The government is made up of people, whose views have seeped into mainstream society. The realities of our legal systems and thus, society are based on the mostly monolithic gaze of straight, white, Christian, wealthy men. Reforming the judicial system means destroying an antiquated understanding of the world, which will be difficult, but well worth it in the long run.