Taking my experience as a sexual assault survivor to better understand racism

In some ways, this latest post from Heather Denkmire carries echoes of a couple other recent posts, so I’ll link them here: Me Too by René Goddess Johnson and How about we examine what’s really likely with Kavanaugh? by Samuel James. -BGIM

If you’re anything like me—and most women (of color and white) I know are—you’ve survived some kind of sexual violation. My own history includes 12 traumatic sexual abuse, assault, and harassment experiences, eight of which were with boys (teens) and men with backgrounds similar to Brett Kavanaugh.

Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony echoed my own experiences closely, and I knew boys from my preppy Connecticut high school who told me they participated in assaults like those described by Julie Swetnick. Since the 2016 elections, I have been careful about my intake of the news, as Donald Trump’s vile behavior is also very familiar. To say that mid-September through early October was difficult for me is putting it mildly.

Many people came together to object to Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and they are still protesting. There were amazing and powerful protests of Kavanaugh by survivors like me, and survivors with very different stories, and people who know and love survivors, or simply people who have empathy and understanding. But in these protests, we white women have done harm to women of color.

It’s true that it wasn’t only white women protesting Kavanaugh, that’s for sure. And, believe me, I’m not suggesting the protests were a mistake. But, just like with the women’s march—see I’ll pass on “Unity” and the Women’s March and Black Girl In Maine’s The path to unity requires honesty, or Beyond the march—too many of us white women were driven to outrage because of our own experiences and the potential impact on our own lives, which, regardless of our intentions has the impact of telling women of color their lived experiences effectively mean nothing to us.

Let me explain what I mean here, and I’ll tell you how I use my own experience to try to comprehend what it must be like for a woman of color seeing the protesters dressed as characters from the Handmaid’s Tale, or (understandably!) crying about losing ground in women’s rights.

Let’s start with this article by Melayna Williams, “For black women, The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopia is real—and telling. In her piece, Ms. Williams points out that the show “doesn’t offer a vision of an America where democracy has collapsed. Instead, it shows white women subjected to the conditions under which their country was born. The thing that, tellingly, has proven the most alarming to audiences.” The characters are “find themselves captive, were bred against their will, and were tortured and even killed for attempting escape,” as Black women were for centuries.

The way we white women are full of rage and fear because Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned is reasonable. What is harmful and not reasonable is for us white women to act like all women’s bodies have had safe and affordable access to medical care and only now are those rights being threatened. Black women have not had the same access to abortions and other necessary medical care that we white women have had. For example, Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than are white women.

So, if you are a survivor of sexual violence as I am, and you see or hear another survivor like Dr. Blasey Ford go public with her experience, how does it feel when people don’t believe her? How does it feel when a survivor’s accusations are treated as if they are not evidence? How did it feel when you saw people demand Dr. Blasey Ford offer up more proof, more proof than her own lived experience? How many times are harassment, abuse, and assault survivors told they must’ve misunderstood? (Some claim they believe Dr. Blasey Ford was assaulted but think she must be mistaken about who the violent teen boy was.)

Now imagine being a woman of color saying to us white women, “My life is not protected by the current system like your life is protected. The current system causes me harm every day.” And our response is, “Why are you bringing up race?” (I hear, “Quit complaining. Quit making a big deal about nothing! You’re missing the important point!”)

Imagine being a woman of color saying to us white women, as Melayna Williams did, “White supremacy, weaponized to protect white women’s bodies, is not new. Liberal and conservative women have collectively struggled to acknowledge the ways in which mainstream feminism has served to undercut and erase the voices and struggles of women of colour.” And our response is to say women of color should work toward unity with us white women? Would we tell Dr. Blasey Ford she ought to shake hands with Brett Kavanaugh and make nice?

No. I’m quite sure the white women activists who are puzzled by the anger women of color at their Handmaid’s Tale costumes, or at their suggestion that people “take a knee” to protest rape culture would never tell Dr. Blasey Ford that her lived experience is not evidence, or that she ought to find common ground with Brett Kavanaugh.

When it comes to our activism, fellow white women survivors, we must listen to the truth tellers, the women of color who are understandably saying, “No. I will not work with you.” We must work to understand why. We must listen to the women of color who are telling us to acknowledge the harms we’ve perpetrated against them. We must change. We need to believe her when she tells her story. We must not cause harm to women of color in the way abusing, assaulting, harassing men have caused harm to all of us.

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The racist garbage in the back of my brain

Every time someone shares the image of the cartoon supposedly depicting Serena Williams,* it hurts. It’s like a stab. Stop! Stop showing that to me! I don’t want to see that ugly racism!

I’ve written about the internal, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual process I’ve been going through over the years, working to shed my own racism and step out of the fish bowl of whiteness. One thing I refer to quite often is “the ugliness” or the “racist thoughts I know I shouldn’t have.”

I’m going to write “out loud” the things I have frequently discussed with white people offline. Maybe it’s the rules of whiteness (see Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility for more on that) keeping me quiet even more than fear of harming any more people of color.

As I said, seeing the image that’s supposed to be Serena Williams is jarring and upsetting. In a similar vein, watching documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s 13th that have clips from The Birth of a Nation make me physically uncomfortable. I have sometimes fast-forwarded so I wouldn’t have to see the vile caricatures of Black people as subhuman.

Why are they so awful to see? Of course, seeing people depicted as less than human just hurts my heart. No one did anything to deserve such violent and disgusting treatment. Words fail me when I try to express how wrong I think the images and ideas are.

They are also awful to see, I now understand, because they’ve been a part of the way I have seen the world. The way I see Black people was built on racist imagery and ideas like that comic. To be clear, I was never exposed directly to The Birth of a Nation. I have no memory of being exposed to overtly racist imagery or ideas, although I’m sure I was exposed to them (think antique stores with “kitsch” like a “lawn jockey”). If anything, I was raised in the era of Black is Beautiful. (I won’t go on a long rant about my background here. Just know that I’m being entirely honest when I tell you that no one I know ever used the N-word, ever, unless they were explaining something awful that happened and even then I don’t remember them saying the actual word. The racist garbage in my brain didn’t come from overt racism expressed in my presence.)

Here’s what I found out about myself, and I feel very sure I’m not the only white person who feels this way: I found out that when I looked at Black people I was immediately thrust into the mental gymnastics of keeping the racist imagery (that I didn’t even know was in my head!) out of my mind. I saw full lips, and oh my god without even realizing why I was in turmoil inside, I felt uncomfortable and it turns out I was trying to not see Black face or other “old-fashioned” racist images. I saw groups of Black people laughing loudly and moving freely with expression and something felt not-quite-right but I didn’t know why. It turns out there was a part of me—a part that I recognize now isn’t actually me—that associated those louder sounds and freer movements with centuries’ old stereotypes (similar to the horrific comic that’s supposed to be Serena Williams). I swear, I didn’t even know I knew about these stereotypes until I started getting curious about why I couldn’t just be normal around Black people.

I looked into the old, old stereotypes. I’m talking about during slavery and post-slavery, into reconstruction and into Jim Crow. I’d examine them and I found they were there, hidden in corners of my awareness that I didn’t really know was there.

Guess what? With practice, I’m finding I can get them out of there. It hasn’t even been that long (a few years) and most of the time, I can interact with Black people without feeling oddly nervous or overly friendly. It’s because I saw the ugliest garbage was taking up space in my being and it didn’t belong there.

I still don’t want to see the comic that’s supposedly about Serena Williams. It really does hurt my heart that Black people are still subjected to such disgusting treatment, and it hurts my heart that we white people are still so damaged that we don’t see Black people as fully human. But I’ve experienced waves of liberation, and I’ve had deeper connections with people of color, including Black people, since I sorted through what racist trash was cluttering up my brain and began the process of getting rid of it.

I don’t know how to change the world so white people realize how wrong that comic is, but I do know that I can change how I interact with the world and I can help my white friends do the same. That’s not nothing.

* Editor’s note: If you have somehow managed to miss the story about the Serena Williams cartoon, here is a take on it by The Root. We don’t wish to give the cartoon any more play than it has already gotten, so we aren’t posting it here, but do be aware the image appears in the article linked to above.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Photo by Geralt on Pixabay

This white woman’s inner work

In this post on Black Girl in Maine, Shay Stewart-Bouley writes to white people: “You aren’t going to read 75 books, amplify marginalized voices online, donate money, attend rallies and occasionally have an uncomfortable encounter and earn a good white person badge. That’s not how any of this works. Instead, your mission if you accept it is to strike at the heart of white fragility both internally and externally.”

What does doing “internal” racial justice work look like? I wrote a bit about doing internal work here, and here, but in this post* I’m going to experiment with going inside some aspects of my experience in a train-of-thought way. (This won’t be a post that offers solutions.)

I’m a middle-aged white woman with a nice smile. As I’ve become less visible in our culture, carrying more weight and showing my age, I’ve noticed a decrease in some of the special treatment I used to get when I was younger and thinner.

When I started learning about white privilege, I became hyper-aware of the good treatment I receive in public spaces, even as a relatively less-visible older woman. I’m also able-bodied, cis-gendered, and come from an upper/middle-class socioeconomic background. The world generally treats me well. Sometimes, when I’m out in public being treated well, I feel a nervousness.

This is what it’s like: I feel an emotional shakiness. Maybe twinges is the right word? There’s a wordless sense that I’m going to lose something valuable. In my body it’s a whispery bad-butterflies in my tummy kind of feeling. Anxiety. My nervousness is that part of me doesn’t want to lose what I have.

Some of me likes trusting the police will look out for me and assume the best of me. Some of me likes that I’m frequently called on first when a group of us is waiting for [insert any group-waiting activity like boarding a ferry or purchasing something at a store where the line isn’t well-formed]. It’s convenient and nice to know most servers will defer to me and give me what I want. Store clerks won’t assume I might steal something.

Why do I feel like I might lose this? Realistically, our whole social structure of white supremacy isn’t going to change overnight. I’m not going to lose my nearly-top-of-the-heap social status overnight. Plus, in some ways, the ideal would be everyone gets to be treated as well as most white people are treated. Why do I feel scared or uncomfortable? Part of it is that I’m working on finding ways to change these structures. I am actively working to change a system that benefits me. It’s confusing!

There’s nearly constant cognitive dissonance. I know it’s not right that I get all this good treatment, this assumption of innocence that people of color don’t get to have. The nerves are probably related to shame, too, that I get this and other people don’t. Not that it’s my “fault,” but as I benefit from the good stuff, people of color don’t. What do I do? Do I walk around saying “don’t treat me so well!”

And then, there are my own emotional/spiritual sickness issues of too frequently putting other people’s needs first. I’m working on those issues, too. So should I celebrate the fact that I expect to be treated well? Should that be an example of how I move in the world in a positive way, that my needs matter?

As I said, I’m not talking about solutions in this post. I’m only talking about how much of my mind and emotional energy goes into sorting through these confusing feelings. I feel the fear, the anxiety, and the shame. I feel the enjoyment of good treatment by strangers when I’m out in public. Feeling all of these mixed up feelings is a part of what I have to do to clear away the garbage and get to being just human.

Part of this noticing all of these mixed-up feelings has led me to realize how much of my racial justice work has to be done on a spiritual and emotional plane. I can’t think my way into not being complicit in white supremacy. I can’t even act my way into changing. Like an addict who wants another hit, I like being treated really well and believed the lie that it doesn’t hurt anyone. In many ways, it goes against the ugliest parts of my nature to change the system. My addiction to white supremacy wants me to keep coasting.

For me, and I recognize this won’t be the case for many other people, I need to turn to prayer and meditation to help clear the garbage out of my head. The fear of losing my status is something intellectually I know is foolish—I want the system of status to be dismantled and I’m working on being a part of that change—so I use my spiritual tools to release me from the bondage of self, of fear, and I let go.

Usually I don’t try to put into words how things are changing inside of me, but they absolutely are. I have no gifts like spiritual leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh or Rev. angel Kyodo williams who can use words to describe spiritual transformations. But I want other white people to know that the messy emotional expression I just did in this post is only one part of the inner work I do. I have the over-thinking (thinking enough?), hyper-awareness (absence of denial?) and I have new peace.

I can be with my advantages, notice them, and always be on the lookout for ways I can share them. Racial justice work is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes I’m a mess inside, sometimes I’m grounded and okay. As long as I’m continuing to learn and practice in my everyday life, I’ll be doing more good than harm.

* As a writer for Black Girl in Maine Media’s blog, I was tasked with writing about racism without centering on whiteness. Through that work, I realized I haven’t yet found a way to do that. In the introduction to Robin DiAngelo’s new book, White Fragility: Why it’s so hard to talk to white people about racism, she says she’s going to center on whiteness because she hasn’t figured out how not to do it while also using her position as a white person to bring important issues to wider audiences. I suppose that’s where I am, still, in my own racial justice work. In this post, I’m writing mostly to white people. I welcome readers of color, of course, but, again, what I say may cause harm because I haven’t learned how to not center on whiteness. As I said: yet.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang from Unsplash