Howdy. Ian here. Those of you who know me well, or have read some of my material, might have witnessed me speak of how rape culture has personally impacted me. I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I’ve tried to process the trauma through counseling, talking about it with family and friends, and poetry and prose.
But today, I want to talk about the word “fast.”
(Note: If you’re not Black, please understand that this post was primarily written for Black readers, particularly in the United States. However, the inherent misogynoir behind the term is probably not limited to our communities in this country.)
“Don’t Give the Boys Any Ideas”
By the time I was 14 years old, I’d already endured a few years of being screamed at by my aunt for being attracted to guys at my school. I’d also already been molested once by one of my cousins; my instincts led me to conclude that I’d be blamed for his actions, so I never bothered to tell anyone. But starting when I was around 13, the steady barrage began. The first comments seemed “innocent” enough. “Don’t concentrate on boys; worry about your studies,” she said, when I was already an almost straight-A student in eighth grade. Soon, it graduated to “Boys only want one thing” and then to “You don’t want them thinking you’re easy.” How I dressed was carefully policed to keep me “modest.” I was told that I needed to be a “good Christian girl,” be chaste, be pure. “Don’t give boys any ideas,” she said.
The first time I heard the word “fast,” I was in a Sunday School class at the church I’d been forced to attend, after being pressured into leaving one I really liked. As the only teenager who regularly went to this church, I was consequently the only adolescent in my Sunday School lessons. One Sunday morning, it was just me and my teacher in the basement of our church. Once again, I heard an important admonition about how young women were to dress and behave. “The Bible teaches women to dress modestly,” she said. “You don’t want to show a lot of skin. You don’t want to be like these young women out there, acting fast, being fast after the boys.”
Okay, sure. I was being “fast” when my cousin cornered me in the bathroom when I was 12, right?
I couldn’t help but involuntarily time travel back to my childhood when R. Kelly’s abuse of girls and young women was publicly revealed. Just a few weeks ago, New York Times contributor Tressie McMillan Cottom spoke about R. Kelly in her own op-ed piece, “How We Make Black Girls Grow Up Too Fast.” In what seemed like a haunting similarity to my own adolescence, McMillan Cottom related a story from her teen years in which family members discussed Desiree Washington, the 18 year-old woman who’d been raped by boxer Mike Tyson. At 15 years old, in the summer of 1992, she had to listen to her own cousin “defend a convicted rapist to a room full of black women.” She added that her cousin insisted she was different, implying that “There are hoes and then there are women. As a teenager I could go either way. But as a relative I could go only one way: I would not be a ho.” Her chilling conclusion:
“It was then that I learned black girls like me can never truly be victims of sexual predators.”
That was the exact same lesson I learned in my childhood, when I was almost as old as McMillan Cottom. Far before I’d end my decades-long efforts to pass as female, the world treated me as a young Black teenage girl. Thus, others around me imputed to me all the beliefs and expectations that came with being seen as a young Black teenage girl. That meant the onus was on me to avoid being too “loud,” “smart-mouthed,” or “overbearing.” And of course, it also meant that I shouldn’t be “fast.”
Its Roots in Anti-Black Stereotypes
In a July 13 Washington Post piece, writer Jonita Davis referred to a Georgetown University study concluding that “Black girls…are adultified, sexualized and deemed overly aggressive from a young age.” Reading this statement, I immediately remembered a few harmful stereotypes frequently perpetuated about Black women: the “angry Black woman,” its close cousin the “Sapphire caricature,” and the “Jezebel.”
I could go on about how Black women are impacted by the “angry Black woman” image when they’re harshly, unfairly penalized for voicing their responses to racism, police brutality, misogyny, income inequality, transantagonism, and other injustices. Nevertheless, I want to focus on the “Jezebel” stereotype, created by White colonialist ideologies to justify the assault and exploitation of Black women while simultaneously reaffirming a “cult of White womanhood” based on, as Everyday Feminism contributor Jennifer Loubriel put it, the “four virtues of piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.” While White femininity was tied to, defined by, and valued for its “purity,” Black women were painted as promiscuous, hypersexual, lewd, and even barbaric.
These ideologies are how men like Thomas Jefferson, one of our former presidents, could keep raping Black girls and women, rationalizing that it was “natural” and that they “wanted it” or “tempted” the men in question. Yes, I said “girls.” As Washington Post contributor Britni Danielle disclosed in a July 2017 piece, Sally Hemmings was only 14 years old when Jefferson began assaulting her.
Let that sink in.
Consider: I was also 14 years old was when I was admonished not to be “fast.”
Cultural “Stockholm Syndrome”
Yet it is also Black internalization of the “Jezebel” stereotype that has led to the current state of affairs in which Black girls and women are blamed for being victims. Paige Matthews described this internalization in a series of tweets from August 7. For me, this tweet summed it up perfectly:
Y'all sexualize little Black girls. Y'all enforce toxic ideas of "virginity" on them. Y'all call little Black girls "fast" for existing.
— Paige Matthews (@WickedBeaute) August 7, 2017
Notice, again, that Matthews used the word “fast.”
Science is confirming that trauma can be passed down through DNA. Teen Vogue writer Lincoln Anthony Blades discussed how this phenomenon plays out in Black people in a May 2016 article. If even our physical genes can carry the harmful legacy of slavery and institutional racism, it is no surprise that the same negative effects that be also transmitted culturally over multiple generations. Internalized anti-Blackness and misogynoir could be seen as byproducts of a collective case of Stockholm syndrome. We are conditioned, from birth, to hate ourselves and each other. That hatred includes blaming our own women and girls for being victimized and pressuring them to conform to gendered expectations. It also includes devaluing the lives of Black trans women, who are accused of “tricking” cis men and thus blamed for their own murders.
So whenever you use the term “fast” for a Black girl or woman, you’re perpetuating that same hatred.
And you just read the words of a Black trans man still living with its trauma.
Danielle, Britni. “Sally Hemings wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his property.” The Washington Post. Accessed August 19, 2017 at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/sally-hemings-wasnt-thomas-jeffersons-mistress-she-was-his-property/2017/07/06/db5844d4-625d-11e7-8adc-fea80e32bf47_story.html?utm_term=.87e58da0bbed
Davis, Jonita. “A study found adults see black girls as ‘less innocent,’ shocking everyone but black moms,” The Washington Post. Accessed August 19, 2017 at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2017/07/13/a-study-found-adults-see-black-girls-as-less-innocent-shocking-everyone-but-black-moms/?utm_term=.5c83e396aedf
Loubriel, Jennifer. “4 Racist Stereotypes White Patriarchy Invented to ‘Protect’ White Womanhood,” Everyday Feminism. Accessed August 19, 2017 at: http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/07/protect-white-womanhood/
Matthews, Paige. “Y’all sexualize little Black girls. Y’all enforce toxic ideas of “virginity” on them. Y’all call little Black girls “fast” for existing.” [Tweet]. Accessed August 19, 2017 at: https://twitter.com/WickedBeaute/status/894610907443200003
McMillan Cotton, Tressie. “How We Make Black Girls Grow Up Too Fast,” The New York Times. Accessed August 19, 2017 at: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/07/29/opinion/sunday/how-we-make-black-girls-grow-up-too-fast.html
Pilgrim, Dr. David. “The Jezebel Stereotype,” Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University. Accessed August 19, 2017 at: https://ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/jezebel/
Pilgrim, Dr. David. “The Sapphire Caricature,” Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University. Accessed August 19, 2017 at: https://ferris.edu/jimcrow/sapphire/