This is the second post in OSU’s fall blog series on sexualized violence and race. Today’s post is offered by Regina Shands Stoltzfus, professor in the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies department at Goshen College. Regina is also a member of Mennonite Church USA’s Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention and co-founder of Roots of Justice, an anti-oppression organization (formerly Damascus Road). If you are new to this series, you can read the my introduction here. And if you have a story or perspective or question on the topic that you would like to share, leave a comment for Regina or send OSU a message.
This is my truth.
While this piece focuses primarily on the African American context, I must begin by acknowledging the non-existence of a monolithic Black experience; nor is there a monolithic experience of Black women. Having said that, I also recognize Black women have struggled under the weight of a set system of stereotypes and caricatures that limit a clear understanding of the depth and breadth of the collective that we represent and the worlds that we inhabit. I also acknowledge that other women of color and communities of color have stories to tell that are vitally important. My focus on Black women and communities is not meant to negate or erase those realities.
I am a survivor. I am a survivor of sexualized violence. Not many people know my full story; I have been very, very careful to only share the full knowledge of what has happened to my body with people that I completely and utterly trust. There are not many of them.
I began doing antiracism work nearly 25 years ago. The label that I give to the work I do has now moved from specifically antiracism work to anti-oppression work. I try to live what I teach with integrity. This means I try to do antiracism work that is not sexist, homophobic, ableist and/or classist. I try to do anti-sexism work that is not racist. If and when it is possible to be a bit detached, it’s easier to hold those things together. When it is my own story, hard choices present themselves.
I am a survivor. I am a survivor of sexualized violence. As with most cases of interpersonal violence, my story is one of intraracial violence. The perpetrators that violated me (one when I was a child and one when I was a young adult) were both Black men. I didn’t tell for all the usual reasons – fear of more violence, belief that what happened was somehow my fault, and shame. Eventually, as I grew into maturity and learned more about how systems of violence work, I still stayed (mostly) silent about my own story. Here is the choice I made: even as an anti-violence advocate and educator, I chose to downplay and silence my own victimization so as not to perpetuate the stereotype of Black men being the primary perpetrators of violence generally, and sexualized violence specifically.
There are likely those who are reading this who are thinking no, no you don’t have to choose. You don’t have to choose one identity over the other, you don’t have to choose one “issue” over the other. To those voices I say you don’t understand the full weight of history that a Black person’s, a Black woman’s body has to bear, even in 2016.
When trying not to perpetrate one myth, I fell headlong into another by perpetuating the myth of the Strong Black Woman. The Strong Black Woman who is able to bear anything that life has to throw at her. She is able to carry the weight of her world on her shoulders. I did not want to seem to be anybody’s victim. I did not want my own victimization, my own brokenness, to damage the work that I was trying to do in the fight against institutionalized racism. If white people had any weapon, any reason that they could find to not to have to listen to why Black people, people of color needed justice (Black on Black crime, anyone?), I was not going to provide it.
There is a litany of historical fractures between the communities of white women and women of color, many of them outlined in the introduction to this series. They include well-known instances like white suffragette’s outrage against the possibility that Black men might receive the vote before they did. A more contemporary example occurred in 2008 when Seal Press published the first edition of a white feminist text that included stereotypical images of men of color preying on white women. The illustrations were supposed to be funny; they were meant to depict women bravely taking on patriarchy and sexism, yet the illustrations revealed the tone deaf nature of not only the author, but also the illustrator and indeed the publisher. Apparently, no one recognized the illustrations would be problematic, and that they fed right into the age-old stereotype of Black men as vicious brutes that white women would well be advised to stay far, far away from. For these and many other reasons, many African-American women refuse to call themselves feminist, even though we/they believe, as the quick and dirty definition of feminism spells out, feminism is the radical idea that women are human. (I am on the fence; I use feminist as a description because often it takes less energy to explain why the label is problematic for Black women. Pick your battles, right?)
Many years ago, when I was in my twenties, I worked for a women’s labor organization. It was my first paid work that involved social justice. I worked with smart, driven intense women, most of them only a few years older than myself. Most of them were white.
My job presented a classic dilemma for Black women – do I fight against racism or sexism… because I don’t have the time, energy or resources to work against both… and that leaves me barely any enough time to work against other systems of domination, even as I became more and more aware of how these structures are interrelated, interconnected and feed off of one another. In the midst of all of this, I was building my commitment to working in the larger peace movement as a person of faith – yet the larger peace movement during my coming of age was not dealing seriously with its own racism and sexism.
As I participated in peace gatherings and initiatives both within denominational and ecumenical contexts, there was one constant – I was always one of few Black people involved. The women’s movement work I became involved in was largely white as well; an added dimension that served to further fragment the way in which I could be involved in liberation movements was that the feminists I knew were mostly anti-religion (often for good reason, I might add). That I was a committed Christian who was actively involved in a worshipping community seemed a puzzlement at best to many of my feminist friends, and caused a questioning of my commitment to justice for women at worst. And of course, there seemed no recognition among these mostly white women of the racism within their movement.
One of the primary arguments women of color have with white women over feminism is the deep knowledge, forged by experiences, that our lives are different from white women’s lives. When we are asked to be in solidarity over our womanhood, it often comes at the expense of ignoring, downplaying our racial identities. These identities, they shape the way people see and respond to us; for our very protection we must be aware and thinking about living in racialized bodies.
Our fathers, partners, brothers and sons are portrayed in media (news and entertainment) as the ones to be afraid of – the rapists and the murderers. Black boys are seen as men instead of children. Witness the shootings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. One was playing in a park. The other was walking home from the store with candy and tea. Both were seen as threats.
While the sagas of well-known cases like the Scottsboro boys and Emmett Till illustrate how framing of Black men as dangerous brutes has a long tradition, lesser known is the history of women of color sexually victimized by white men without fear. These histories give evidence to the complex interplay of race, gender, sexuality and their corresponding intersected oppressions. Both sides of the coin play into the violence of stereotyping Black men, women and children.
The policing of Black bodies is very American. Black men and women, boys and girls, are often, and have long been, stereotyped as animals. Google tweets about Michelle Obama and actress Leslie Jones for very recent examples of this. This imaging, this stereotyping, accomplishes two things. It reduces our humanity and therefore automatically increases the potential for violence to be directed at us. If we are not human, then you don’t have to treat us as you would want to be treated. Animals belong to humans – for companionship, for entertainment (circus and zoos) and to be used for work. This is what made the slavery found in the Americas so brutal. It was chattel slavery – Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that the enslaved were “well-fed and housed” notwithstanding. Enslaved women were property with an added advantage – they could be, and were raped, and the bonus from the rape was the production of more enslaved people.
The stereotypes surrounding Black bodies affect body autonomy in ways that one may not immediately identify as gendered violence or sexual assault, but they fit the description well. Take, for instance, the 20th century technological advances utilized during a routine gynecological exam. Dr. J. Marion Sims, lauded as the “father of modern gynecology” perfected his techniques, and refined instruments like the vaginal speculum by “practicing” on unanesthetized enslaved Black women. Sims’ practice was not hidden, and apparently went unchallenged, because it was common knowledge that using a Black woman’s body – for unpaid labor, for the production of more enslaved bodies, for scientific experimentation – did not require any measure of consent.
Think about that. He practiced his craft on women who could not consent to the invasion of their bodies. He did not think about the pain they must have been in as he opened them up, invaded their private parts. He did not have to think about their pain because he had no reason to believe they were people. No one was going to come after him to tell him what he was doing was illegal – it was not. The women he experimented on were property.
In the 19th century, Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman better known as the “Hottentot Venus” was put on exhibit in Europe as a freak of nature because of her greatly enlarged buttocks (due to a medical condition) and elongated labia, but – she also served as a representation of Black women’s (freakish) bodies. While alive, profits were made off of her exhibition; she had to fight to receive a portion of the money being made off of her very flesh. Baartman died in 1815, yet her skeleton, brain and genitals remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974, when they were finally returned to South Africa in 2002.
This story, again, an old one, illustrates a myth that carries over into the present day. A recent study of medical students and interns showed a disturbingly high belief that Black people do not feel pain to the same degree that white people do, and subsequently may receive less pain medication. I don’t think it is an unfair stretch to say that this belief is also related to a belief that people think Black people require less compassion. Does the idea that we don’t feel pain as much contribute to the amount of violence that is visited upon our communities? Does believing that we don’t feel pain make it possible to inflict more pain, and then to not care that it happened?
All of this contributes to the setting up of two contentious societies, divided along the color line just as W.E.B du Bois argued it would be. And so, if you are a Black woman who has suffered an assault – what would you do? Would you trust the system that at every turn tells you that you are not worth protecting? A system that blames your partner, your brother, your son, your father for all the ills of the world?
These ideas are embedded so firmly into white consciousness that white people can commit heinous crimes and blame them on Black people. A society needs to perpetuate two “truths” in order to make this system work so well, and those two false truths are an overwhelming belief in the goodness of white people, and overwhelming belief in the criminality of Black people. Such societal belief systems allowed Susan Smith, for instance, to drown her children in a lake, blame it on a mythical Black man, and be believed. The fear of Black men preying on the white community and specifically taking white women is so ingrained that laws against miscegenation (race mixing) were created, and white communities were warned against integration by waving the specter of white daughters being sullied by brutish Black men.
This stands in stark contrast to Rosa Parks’ legacy becoming completely mythologized, turning Parks into a meek, soft-spoken woman who was “too tired” to give up her seat on the segregated bus in Montgomery Alabama in 1955. The reality is that she was a politicized, conscious Black woman whose activism was part of a long term community strategy, and a woman who cut her organizing teeth on the defense of Black women that had been assaulted by white men.
Parks and others had organized on this issue because white men were assaulting Black women with the knowledge that they would not be charged, tried or convicted for their crimes. They weren’t viewed as crimes at all. Even Park’s now iconic refusal to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus is tainted by the race/gender/class matrix. Fourteen-year-old Claudette Colvin had been chosen originally to be the test case that would lead to the Montgomery bus boycott. However, Colvin’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy put a stop to her participation – civil rights subjects had to be seemingly above reproach in every way.
While it is important to note that white women suffer under patriarchy, Black women’s circumstances are markedly different. The 19th century “cult of true womanhood” in America that placed white “ladies” on a pedestal pointedly did not include Black women or other women of color. The ideal (white) woman that the cult of true womanhood celebrated was delicate, refined and devoted to the proper upkeep of a home – even if it meant Black domestics were actually doing the work. This lady was the moral conscience of the nation, even though she was considered intellectually and physically inferior to men. This “angel of the home” had a place – below white men, yet above Black women and men. In contrast, the Black female figure so idealized as “Mammy” for her ability to care for white children and families was simultaneously characterized as ignorant and incapable of providing decent care for her own family.
And if a Black woman wasn’t Mammy, she was Jezebel, a woman driven primarily by her sexual desires; constructed to justify white men’s sexual abuse of Black women. As white women were upheld as the model of sexual purity, many Black women who did not fit into the Mammy role (meaning those who were not fat and dark-skinned) were placed neatly into the Jezebel slot. The belief the Blacks (women and men) were hypersexual being stemmed from cultural assumptions about Africans, even before the period of the slave trade. To the European gaze that understood itself as the norm for humanity and the example of ‘proper’ behavior, African cultural norms in terms of dress, celebration and marriage customs were classified as primitive and lewd. Additionally, by the time of the slave trade, the naked Black bodies of men, women and children were frequently on display within a culture where nakedness implied sexual immorality. Slave women were also frequently pregnant; even young girls were encouraged to become “breeders” in order to ensure the constant supply of future slaves. This evidence of sexual activity within the slave community served to solidify the notion of uncontrollable sexual appetites.
From these observations began the myths of the Black male super stud and potential rapist, and the Black woman Jezebel with an insatiable desire for sex, and therefore could not be raped. Rooted in the Jezebel myth, the myth of the Welfare Queen continues to perpetuate the notion that Black women have irresponsible and insatiable sexual appetites that result in the birth of many children that she is incapable of caring for.
The weight of this history and the reality of many Black women’s lived experiences means there is a lot of work to be done if we are to be in coalition with white women in working against sexualized violence. It does not feel good to be accused of not caring about sexualized violence when so much of our history is littered with acts of violence against women, men and children, and we have been told the same thing that other victims of violence have been told – that it is our fault, that it really didn’t happen or it wasn’t that bad, that we should just get over it already.
I am a survivor. This is part of my truth. I long for the day when my whole truth can be told and held by a community that I can be certain won’t use my story against me. And I wish I were brave enough to not have to wait for such a day.