A recent story about a viral video showing white middle school football players simulating sexual assault on a black team member, complete with racist captions and profanity, encapsulates so much about the intersections of race and sexual violence, social media and information dissemination, the role of school officials in promoting safe environments, and the importance of bystander intervention. If we take a step back, we can see that some parts of this attack – such as capturing it on video and sending it instantly to thousands of people – are very new. The connections between hypermasculinity, racism, and sexual assault (whether simulated, attempted, or completed) go back centuries. Sexual abuse of black women and men was commonly used as a tool of control during slavery, and this continued through the Jim Crow era with sexual harassment of black women and fears of black men’s sexuality manifesting in violence towards them. Today, these same dehumanizing attitudes are reflected in videos like the one in a Virginia locker room.
This incident demonstrates the failure of many institutions and individuals to prevent sexual violence or respond to survivors. Schools must ensure that students are safe from violence, particularly violence rooted in sexism, racism, homophobia, and other oppressions, and that students who are survivors receive the care and justice they deserve. This could include policies like supervising locker rooms, proactively training students and administrators in healthy behaviors and respect, and promoting bystander intervention. Likewise, students – particularly teammates – should have the knowledge, tools, and willingness to intervene as active bystanders. While the entire team did not participate in the attack, there were witnesses who remained silent. There were students who heard about it and did not tell anyone. And many students forwarded the video. While the vast majority of people are not perpetrators of violence, we all must play a role in ending violence within our schools, workplaces, and communities.