Watch the people celebrating Bill Cosby’s release carefully

Watch the people celebrating Bill Cosby’s release carefully
Phylicia Rashad, now the dean of Howard University, tweeted ‘FINALLY!!!!’ after it was announced that Cosby would walk free following his conviction for sexual assault being overturned

When news broke Wednesday that Bill Cosby had been released from prison after the Pennslyvania Supreme Court overturned his sexual assault conviction, social media erupted with a range of reactions. Many were celebratory, from those convinced that Cosby was innocent all along, despite his having been accused of sexual violence deur 60 women en admitting to drugging women with Quaaludes for sex.

Many other reactions expressed rage at an unfair system and deep sympathy towards Cosby’s alleged victims, who endured years of media harassment and victim-blaming all to see their abuser walk free. Others also extended compassion and love towards people who are victims of sexual violence by those other than Cosby, but who have been re-traumatized both by this highly public case and by this seeming evasion of justice.

According to CNN, one of Cosby’s accusers, Victoria Valentino, said in a statement: “I am outraged! Outraged! Stunned! My stomach is in knots. The work that we have done to uplift women has been overturned by a legal glitch. We now have a serial predator on the street.”

Perhaps no reaction was as explosive as Cosby’s former The Cosby Show co-star, actress and dancer Phylicia Rashad’s, who celebrated his release on Twitter. Sharing a picture of Cosby, Rashad tweeted: “FINALLY!!!! A terrible wrong is being righted- a miscarriage of justice is corrected!”

Rape apologia is never acceptable, but Rashad’s statement is even more shocking considering her position as the dean of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts. Rashad’s position of immense institutional power means that she is responsible for hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students at the historically Black university, which I also attended. And not only does Rashad have institutional power inferred upon her by Howard, but she has immense cultural power which she gained through her undeniable talents.

This combination of power and influence makes her a figure that students look up to, but also one who can make their lives a living hell if she chooses. She can withhold invaluable industry connections, she can influence grading and graduation processes, and she can even influence the disciplinary process when and if a student goes to report sexual violence perpetrated against them by a faculty member or fellow student. And after her recent tweets, any student would wonder whether she might dole out retribution if she felt as though a victim had unfairly accused someone else.

When Rashad places herself so jubilantly on the side of a man who has been accused of sexual assault by 60 women and has admitted to drugging women, she places herself universes away from the needs and best interests of all her students — especially those who are survivors or who are more vulnerable, due to their class status, gender identity, race or living situation, to being victims of sexual assault.

For me, this situation is triggering and familiar. Like Cosby, my rapist — who went to Howard — admitted to raping me. I was lucky. Title IX suspended him and I got some small closure. I went on to become a somewhat healed working adult, who started a fund for current and former students at Howard who have experienced sexual violence.

Had I been assaulted while a student of Dean Rashad, I can’t say that I would have ever come forward. Because I would have feared her retribution and her judgement. I would have wondered what she could take away from me, what she could withhold, considering her public platform and her power. I would have been terrified of all the other people who she could turn against me too, especially in an industry where one’s entire career depends on connections. I most likely would have stayed silent.

There is no way of knowing what Dean Rashad will or will not do to her students who come forward about sexual assault. But based on her reaction to Bill Cosby’s release today — a man who, I must reiterate, has been accused by 60 women and has admitted to drugging women for sex — I’m not optimistic.

I cannot speak for the students who are currently under Dean Rashad’s guidance. But what I can say, as a former student of Howard, is that I would not have felt safe under her guidance. I would have felt crushed by it.

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