Race and the “Model” Survivor

by Nikhil Umesh

Inline image 1
Photo: by Ishmael Bishop

At the start of this fall semester, hundreds of community members sat on the green grass in front of Wilson Library as June Beshea began to recite the names of Black girls and women. June organized this #SayHerName vigil to honor Black women and girls, both trans* and cisgender, murdered by the police. Hearing the words  “police” and “Black women” in the same sentence might surprise many folks because we typically only hear about cisgender Black men as victims of policing. Black cisgender women, Black trans* women and gender-nonconforming folks aren’t thought of as experiencing violence and trauma at the hands of police.

The narrative of a “model” victim isn’t specific to policing, but is also heard in conversations around imprisonment, immigration, domestic violence and sexual violence. As we have seen conversation around sexual violence increase on our campus, I’m wondering:

  • Is there a “model” survivor?
  • What are that person’s identities (race, class, gender etc.)?
  • Where do we get these ideas about a model survivor?
  • Who do we leave out in this narrative?


At the #SayHerName vigil in August, Black women were not only asking those very questions, but bravely providing answers — the reality of what’s actually happening on the ground. Speaking truth to power, they called on students, faculty, and staff to interrogate their collective imagination of the “model” survivor. Because for much of this time, the media as well as violence prevention and response efforts have situated cisgender white women as the model.

If we want to understand why we associate “rape” with “white woman” we should explore how historically and to this day, race and gender have been intimately woven together. The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence accurately recounts some of this history that could help us untangle the mental roadblocks we have when it comes to thinking about sexual violence:

The history of rape in the United States is a history of racism and sexism intertwined. Rape was an important tool in white colonists’ violent efforts to repress Native nations. During slavery, both white and black men raped black women with impunity. After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, white mobs lynched numerous black men based on trumped up charges of sexual assault of white women, and the specter of lynching terrorized the black community.”


As a South Asian masculine-identified person, I’m implicated in this history, irrespective of whether I want to be or not. Indeed, we all are. I know that the ways I am stereotyped, whether as a “model minority” or how I’m desexualized, is intimately tied to the objectification, pathologizing, and hypersexualization that women of color face.


In addition to the historical basis for why we imagine cisgender white women as the “model” survivor, the numbers also paint a picture that pushes us to ask why women of color have been erased from the conversation. For instance, NAESV reports that 19 percent of black women, 24 percent of mixed race women, and 34 percent of indigenous women are survivors of rape. Here at UNC, the results from the spring 2015 Association of American Universities’ Campus Climate on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct survey makes clear that women of color experience sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, stalking, and sexual violence on our campus at higher or similar rates to white women.


There isn’t an easy answer to shifting our ideas of the “model” survivor. Here are 3 things you can do:

  1. Learn more about history. Imagining cisgender white women as someone who requires our protection at all costs also necessitates the stereotype of Black men as the pathological rapist. This history isn’t far from home. Lynchings that terrorized Black people in North Carolina and throughout the South, oftentimes in the name of white women, are proof of this. Focusing on cisgender white women in the movement to end sexual violence can’t be thought of as a minor slip. There’s a history, legacy, and reason for why this is the case.
  2. Listen to the stories and experiences of women of color. (Of course, this does not mean demanding women of color do the labor of educating us on sexual violence in a way that can be retraumatizing to them.)
  3. Shift conversations around sexual and interpersonal violence so that anti-racist and anti-colonial principles are central to them. Given that the #SayHerName Vigil centered on the experiences of Black women and girls at the hands of the police, we are obligated to consider how police interact with violence prevention efforts. A document such as the #SayHerName Brief by the African American Policy Forum is instructive in this area. We must ask: is the criminal punishment system up to the task of ensuring the safety and wellbeing of people of color?


We owe it to ourselves, and women of color, to do everything in our ability to shift the types of conversations around sexual violence that we’re having, to make sure they have an intersectional analysis that doesn’t treat race as some “extra” component. Because people’s lives and wellbeing, on this campus even, depend on it.


Nikhil was born in Bangalore, India, though spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. Before joining the staff at Student Wellness, he was an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill where he studied Environmental Health Science. As a Program Assistant, Nikhil will be working closely with the recently founded Delta Advocates program and on campus messaging regarding healthy and supportive relationships. As a former UNC student, he is looking forward to working with young people on creating community-wide strategies to address, prevent, and end sexual violence and rape, while maintaining a focus on support systems that center the lived experiences and needs of survivors.