This post kicks off our fall series on sexualized violence and race. In turning our focus to the intersections of sexualized violence and race it is my hope that we do not allow ourselves to believe that we are exploring a side issue or engaging in a conversation that is only relevant to survivors who are also people of color (even though a conversation like that would be worthy of our attention). Understanding what sexualized violence is, who it affects, how it is perpetuated throughout Western and North American cultures and what is needed to resist it requires reflection on race just like it requires reflection on theology and religious practice or on psychology and trauma. Sustaining this conversation is necessary and important, and it will take the entirety of this series to start to stitch together our varied understandings of why that is. Today, I offer a (far from comprehensive) collection of musings, thoughts, concerns and questions that will hopefully start us thinking together and prepare the way for us to receive what is offered by the wonderful folks who have agreed to contribute to this series.
Josie Duffie, a black woman from the U.S., recently published a piercing account of what it was like for her to find out through a DNA test that she is genetically 44% European. Through the generations, none of the members of her family have themselves been European, which suggests that what the results of her DNA test revealed is the degree to which rape by white men was an atrociously common experience for her not-so-distant ancestors. Duffie’s account gives a name and a face to a reality that historians have documented well: rape of black women by white men was grotesquely common during the years of slavery in the United States. Incensed by what she learned, Duffie writes:
“The women must have known rape was coming. Dread has a taste, you know. It must have crawled up their throats. But by all accounts there was no fight. What would be the point? The sharp cut of a whip across your back? What a man like that wanted, he got. No one could save the women. If he wanted it, then eventually his pale hands would be forcing open her thighs. Eventually he’d force himself inside.
And afterwards just empty air space, him pulling up his pants, clinical. Before he retreated to his bed with his wife, did he instruct the slave to go back outside to where she slept? And where she slept – was that a thin layer of straw or grass? Or was she one of the unlucky ones, stuck with just a plank of wood?”
For those who were enslaved, sexualized violence was not something in addition to slavery. For enslaved women especially, it was as fundamental to slavery as forced labor and physical abuse. In her book Enfleshing Freedom, theologian M. Shawn Copeland uses first hand accounts from enslaved women to show the inseparability of slavery and sexual violence and to give voice to the strategies enslaved women used to resist white slave masters’ advances. Copeland reports one formerly enslaved woman remembering that when her mother was working in her mistress’s home, “while (Mother) was alone, the boys [the mistress’s children] came in and threw her down on the floor and tied her down so she couldn’t struggle, and one after the other used her as long as they wanted, for the whole afternoon.” Sexual violence against enslaved women was so pervasive that mothers made a practice of teaching their girls how to resist. Copeland includes the narrative of a formerly enslaved woman who remembered her mother teaching her that, “I should never let anyone abuse me. She would say, ‘Fight, and if you can’t fight, kick; if you can’t kick, then bite!’” But, resistance earned enslaved women further abuse. In 1841, Madison Jefferson, who fled and escaped her own enslavement, reported to the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society that when her mother resisted the sexual violence of her white slaveholder, he,
“used to tie mother up in the barn wid a rope aroun’ her arms up over her head, while she stood on a block. Soon as dey got her tied, dis block was moved an’ her feet dangled, you know, couldn’t reach de flo’. Dis ole man, now would start beatin’ her necked ‘til the blood run down her back to her heels.”
Think about how many of Duffie’s grandmothers must have been raped by white men for her to have no white family members and be genetically 44% European. Consider that only a fraction of rapes result in pregnancy and the amount of sexual violence her grandmothers must have experienced is staggering.
During the slave era of the U.S., sexualized violence was a tool used by white men to control and subjugate black women considered inferior due to their racial identities, and so in the bodies and lives of those women sexualized violence and racialized violence converged. Sexualized violence and racialized violence were, in that context, one in the same.
Today, though circumstances have changed, this is still true for many women of color whose experiences of sexual violence are so saturated in racism that sexualized violence and racialized violence cannot, in their narratives, be pulled apart and treated as separate issues or as separate kinds of actions. These two forms of violence can occur in the bodies of women of color as a single act when racial violence is expressed through sexual means or when an act of sexual violence is fueled by both racial hatred and gender hatred at once. In such cases, acts of sexualized violence become acts of racial aggression, and vice versa.
The inseparability of racialized violence and sexualized violence is by no means unique to the experiences of black women in the United States, though this is the context I’m focusing on as I write today. Consider the extreme risk of sexualized violence for women crossing the U.S.-Mexico border or the pervasiveness of sexualized violence in the residential schools Native children were forced to attend in both the U.S. and Canada.
It is also not only in the bodies of women of color that the intersection is made visible. After slavery was abolished in the U.S., black communities were terrorized for decades by lynching. Both black women and black men were lynched by white mobs, but the majority of those murdered by lynching were black men accused of making sexual advances toward white women. And, it’s pretty safe to say that the vast majority (if not entirety) of those accusations were fabricated or grossly exaggerated.
This reality can be analyzed a number of ways. Seen from one angle, it seems that white men’s determination to be the sole possessors of white women’s bodies led white men to protect their “right” to exclusive access by killing black men who so much as glanced in a white woman’s direction. Sometimes, white women made accusations on the same grounds themselves. It also appears that some white women became consensually involved with black men and then turned on their lovers in order to preserve their own standing in the white community when their secret was found out. In any case, once slavery was abolished lynching black men on the false charge that they posed a sexual threat to white women became a standard way for white communities to reassert the explicit racial dominance they had lost at the resolution of the Civil War. (For more on this, Amy Louise Wood’s book Lynching and Spectacle is a good place to start.)
Now. What do we call premeditated, culturally sanctioned torture and murder that is justified on sexual grounds? Because sexualized violence includes all forms of violence that are sexualized in thought, motive, structure or deed, we call that sexualized violence. The lynching of black men in the United States was sexualized violence.
And what of those white women? They too were experiencing sexualized violence at the hands of the men who claimed to protect them. They too were oppressed in the patriarchal structure of white society. The fact that white women faced rejection by their communities for choosing to love a man of color is itself evidence that white women’s bodies were not their own. But, rather than recognizing that the same system of white hetero-patriarchy that caused their harm was responsible for the vicious evils of slavery and lynching and resisting the entire system wholesale, white women largely chose to resist only that part of the system that most obviously disenfranchised them – sexism – and ignored the part of the system that they stood to benefit from in terms of social power – racism. Rather than moving into solidarity with the women of color their husbands raped, white women often punished such women of color as if the enslaved women their husbands raped were responsible for the sense of shame and powerlessness their husbands’ acts brought them.
Duffie’s account of learning her genetic ancestry and the sexualized violence it suggests tells us something further. The destruction of sexualized violence is not wholly contained in the bodies of the ones most directly harmed. Generations after Duffie’s enslaved grandmothers were raped, her writing reveals that the impact of that violation is still clearly felt, and it is felt as a contributing factor to the systemic racism that impinges upon Duffie’s life today.
Today, rooted in the history of enslavement in the U.S., systemic racism justifies sexualized violence against black women by labeling them sexually aggressive and promiscuous, unworthy of respect or protection from white men and the society built according to white hetero-patriarchal ideals. Conversely, that same paradigm justifies sexualized violence against white women by labeling them sexually pure, fragile virgins who need white male protection to survive and therefore owe white men the prize of their sexual availability. Women of color are disproportionately harmed by the intersection of racism and sexualized violence, and the sexualized violence that white women (and men, and people who are trans or gender queer / genderful) experience is also deeply shaped by racial identity and white supremacist racial oppression.
And so, in the racial dynamics of sexualized violence, we have ourselves a tangled, complicated, heartbreaking mess that suggests at least one thing for sure: when predominately white communities attempt to resist sexualized violence with a sophisticated gender analysis and no mention of race, we (and I use “we” because I am a member of such communities) are unconsciously repeating our own ancestors’ costly mistakes. We are unconsciously choosing not to see and acknowledge the dynamics of sexualized violence that call our racial privilege into question, and this choice effectively silences and ignores our sisters and brothers of color, whose experiences of sexualized violence cannot be spoken without mention of systemic racial injustice.
Our Stories Untold is guilty of being rather silent on race. In our 4 years of storytelling and consciousness-raising, while we’ve mentioned race here and there, we have not sustained a focus on the racial dynamics of sexualized violence until now. We have no excuse for it. It is a failing on our part and one that we are committed to addressing.
As long as we are not regularly talking about race, I suspect Our Stories Untold is not a community that feels safe for many survivors of color to participate in. And, to me, failing to be a space in which it is safe for survivors of color to speak up is the same thing as failing to be a space that is supportive survivors of sexualized violence in general (because – and, this should go without saying – otherwise, we are sending the implicit message that white survivors are more legitimate than survivors of color). And, if we are not offering and inviting and cultivating tools for understanding how systemic racism shapes sexualized violence in different ways for both white survivors and survivors of color, we’re not offering an accurate or full bodied analysis of sexualized violence and strategies for resistance.
I am excited to say that we have a fantastic collection of folks who are going to be offering their thoughts and stories on sexualized violence and race each week this fall. So that you have a sense for the kinds of posts you might see, here are the prompts we sent to writers to reflect on:
- How has race impacted your own experience of sexualized violence or the way you engage the subject and the people whose lives it impacts most?
- What are the ways that conversation and activism around sexualized violence tend to privilege white experiences of sexualized violence, and how ought this to be addressed?
- What does an intersectional, anti-racist approach to resisting sexualized violence look like? What does it act like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like?
- And, what are some of the critical issues that need attention in our cultures? For example, how, in the current cultural climate that damagingly mistrusts women who claim to have been sexually harmed, do we responsibly address the history of white communities lynching members of black communities on false charges of sexual advances made at white women, as well as the ways that this history continues to shape and motivate racial violence today?
- How does the fact of police brutality against people of color and the transformative leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement impact whether and how we rely on police and the judicial system for accountability and safety in situations of sexualized violence?
- Perhaps, particularly relevant for Mennonites in this moment, what do we make of the fact that no public conversation about former EMU vice president Luke Hartman’s reported abuse of Lauren Shifflett has acknowledged that he is a person of color or attempted to analyze the ways that systemic racism might have been at play in the reported institutional cover-up of his behavior?
We have space for another writer or two to join the conversation. If you have a story to tell or a perspective to share, or if you know someone else we should hear from, get in touch and let us know.
Otherwise, with open hearts, stay tuned…
 M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 35.
 Ibid., 44–45.
 Ibid., 35.