Consent in Afro-Caribbean Spaces and Beyond
Imagining Culturally Competent Consent
It’s summer in the city, everyone’s wearing less and going out more, and event flyers are popping up each weekend. Recently, a flyer for a reggaetón event listed rules for the event, such as where to park, entry fee, and the last rule: “dont fucking touch anyone without their consent”. For context, a few weeks prior a popular Latinx community member was held accountable for sexually harassing young women. One such instance occurred at this reggaetón event which is likely what caused the consent rule on the flyer. Unfortunately, while the event planners made the statement in good faith, anyone who has gone to a reggaetón, soca, or any Afro-Caribe (short for Afro-Caribbean) function knows that “can I dance with you?” or even “can I touch you here?” is rarely asked. What is more common is a person whines their waist and someone walks up behind them and pushes their crotch onto the other person’s butt. Is this nonconsensual because no one was asked? What are the nonverbal consensual rules Black and Brown folk apply in Afro-Caribe spaces and how do we know when someone has crossed a line?
In order to answer those questions it’s important to know that affirmative consent, when you ask before touching or kissing with someone, became mainstream because universities wanted to limit the number of sexual assault cases at their schools. These universities began to include affirmative consent in their freshman orientation in hopes of limiting the amount of sexual assault cases and improving their school’s reputation. Nothing about affirmative consent considers trauma, many sexual assault survivors are shamed for not saying “no” as if that would have stopped the rapist, nor focuses on healing for survivors. Affirmative consent is meant to support the institution and reinforce the criminal justice system, which fails to prosecute even the most egregious sexual assaults (i.e Brock Turner, the Stanford student caught in the act of assaulting an unconscious woman received no jail time). As Black and Brown radicals, it is our job to think of possibilities for community accountability and care outside of institutions and court rooms, it is our job to make our spaces as safe and consensual as possible for all genders and sexualities. Affirmative consent can feel rigid and out of touch with the Black American and Afro-Caribe cultures of dancing with our hips close and embracing sexuality uninhibited. In other words, affirmative consent can feel white.
Does that mean that Black and Brown people should just throw consent out the window? Obviously not, our issue is the lack of discussion around what nonverbal consent and a nonverbal “no” can look like. The Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault has created an easy and helpful chart explaining what qualifies as nonverbal consent. While that resource is a great template to build on, our consent could be a creolized consent that includes aspects of affirmative consent combined with our cultural ways of relating to each other. In Kreyol, French is mixed with different African languages that the enslaved Africans spoke before colonization. Decolonizing consent by combining affirmative consent (can I touch you here?) and nonverbal consent may be the way forward. There is a painting that hangs in most Black American households called “Sugar Shack” by Ernie Barnes. In this painting, Black folk are grinding with their hips close in a juke joint, which serves as proof that, across the diaspora, even our elders got down and dirty when they danced. It is important to remember that no form of consent is meant to be anti-fun or drive a wedge between us; it’s a way to remain authentically ourselves while respecting each person’s bodily autonomy.
There are many ways sexual education stigmatizes Black sexuality. For instance, the emphasis on pregnancy prevention for Black teenage girls stigmatizes young motherhood instead of increasing resources for young mothers like advocating for free community college in that state or affordable childcare. The culture of sexual shame is virulently anti-Black. There is no issue with Black women dancing sexually, the issue is with Tarana Burke, the Black woman who founded the #MeToo movement, has constantly spoken about how the experiences of survivors who shared the #MeToo were eclipsed by mostly white Hollywood celebrities accounts of sexual assault. Those survivors, Burke among them, being Black and Brown survivors who raised their voices and are still advocating for safety, especially within Black and Brown communities. Analyzing Afro-Caribe consent raises more questions, such as: how has affirmative consent failed Black women in the past and the present? What other aspects of Afro-Caribe and Afro-American culture, like catcalling, are nonconsensual and how can we call-in our community members so everyone can be free to express themselves without the fear of sexual violence? All of this to say, as radicals we understand that the State will not keep us safe, we keep us safe and we have to talk about nonverbal and affirmative consent so that we can merengue,bachata, salsa, etc in each other’s arms with joy and rhythm, without harm.
India Y. Steward