It was over a plate of ribs at my aunt’s dining room table when I learned that being a woman is about what men are allowed to do to you. I was 15 years old. Mike Tyson was the most famous boxer in the world.
For the black people I knew, he was the pinnacle of the black sports elite. He had been born poor and worked his way to riches and fame. But it was 1992 and he had just been found guilty of raping an 18-year-old named Desiree Washington in a hotel.
“Y’all act like she’s a woman,” my cousin said. “She is — excuse me, Auntie — a ho.”
That’s what I remember most, next to the ribs. My cousin was defending a convicted rapist to a room full of black women, all but one related to him. The elder women shook their heads. The elder men left the room, knowing a fool’s errand when they saw one unfolding.
My cousin was feeling himself. Young and approaching fatherhood, he stood his ground. Desiree Washington was a ho, bringing down a black man who had made it.
“What was she doing in the hotel room?” he asked.
“She could have been butt naked in that room and it shouldn’t matter,” I replied.
He explained how I was different from Ms. Washington mainly by telling me that she was a ho, and implying that I was not a ho by what he left unsaid. 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.
I was not angry, but I was hurt. “What if your girlfriend is pregnant right now with your daughter?” I asked. “A girl?”
“No daughter of mine would be raised to go to a hotel room. I ain’t raising no ho.”
It was then that I learned black girls like me can never truly be victims of sexual predators. And also that the men in my life were also men in the world. Men can be your cousin, men can be Mike Tyson, and men can be both of them at the same time.
That resonated with me recently as new accusations against the R&B singer R. Kelly emerged. For decades, he has faced allegations of child molesting, sexual violence and abuse (in 2008 in Chicago, for instance, he was found not guilty of child pornography charges). This month, the families of two young women have accused Mr. Kelly of holding their daughters against their will, which one of the women has denied.
Whether or not the accusations are true, Mr. Kelly’s history with women is still soul-crushing: He surreptitiously married the singer Aaliyah when she was 15. He admitted to having had sexual relations with young women whose age he cannot or will not verify. And he has portrayed himself as a Svengali too likable to be a sexual predator. As we once did around our big family table, millions of his fans colluded in that portrayal.
I was older when R. Kelly became the sexual predator du jour. Still, I heard the stories. I lived in Chicago for a year in the early 2000s, and the rumors were everywhere. I heard about the McDonald’s near a middle school where he supposedly liked to troll for young women who could go either way.
I remember the stories about Aaliyah. That was before the internet when we had to work much harder to spread salacious innuendo. And I fought with friends, men who I adored and respected, when videotapes of R. Kelly having sex with what appeared to be an underage girl were being peddled on street corners.
At a house party, the men laughed when I announced I didn’t want us to watch the video, but they finally acquiesced when I displayed the telltale signs of female rage. It was as if a “crazy woman” was a fair reason not to watch child pornography, but my request was not. I still remember the one guy whose comment about the girl on the cover of the videotape cut through the nervous laughter.
“Look at that body. She almost ready,” he said.
That’s the kind of comment I have heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times, from men and women, to excuse violence against black women and girls. If one is “ready” for what a man wants from her, then by merely existing she has consented to his treatment of her. Puberty becomes permission.
All women in our culture are subject to this kind of symbolic violence, when people judge their bodies to decide if they deserve abuse. But for black women and girls that treatment is refracted through history and today’s context.
New research corroborates what black women have long known: People across gender and race see black girls as more adultlike than their white peers. In her book “Pushout,” Monique W. Morris shows that teachers and administrators don’t give black girls the care and protection they need. Left to navigate school by themselves because they are “grown,” these girls are easily manipulated by men.
This cycle of neglect and abuse is mostly ignored in social and education policy because the violence is often sexual and it happens to girls whom society views as disposable. We rarely focus on how programs are failing black women and girls, or how we could intervene to help.
When President Barack Obama created a task force for young black men in 2014, it took months of demands by black women for a similar task force to be created for young black women. Even then, the girls’ task force did not receive equal attention or funding.
Watching men I love turn a girl into a woman and a woman into a ho has never left me. That conversation at my aunt’s dinner table was not the first time I felt deeply afraid, but it left a cut that will never heal. It’s the kind of wound that keeps you alert to every potential doorway through which you might enter as a friend, sister or woman, but leave as a bitch or a ho.
People of color are similarly hypervigilant when we navigate a white social world. We screen our jokes, our laughter, our emotions and our baggage. We constantly manage complex social interactions so we aren’t fired, isolated, misunderstood, miscast or murdered. We can come home, if you’re lucky enough to have a home, and turn off that setting.
But for black girls, home is both refuge and where your most intimate betrayals happen. You cannot turn off that setting. It is the dining room at your family’s house, served with a side of your uncle’s famous ribs. Home is where they love you until you’re a ho.
Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd), an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the author of “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 30, 2017, on Page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: Learning Who Gets to Be a Victim.