Hand in Hand: How White Feminism Enables Rape Culture and Sexual Terrorism on Survivors of Color

When I left my home, I imagined a new life waiting for me at Wesleyan. I arrived believing that I had left the darkness behind me, but the universe instead dug me into a pit of obscurity in which I needed to find my claws in order to scratch my way to the surface. The second month of my freshman year, my mother’s greatest fear came to life: I was raped. That month in 2011, a friend and I headed towards the party at the Psi Upsilon fraternity on Wesleyan’s campus. We walked into the house together but shortly after arriving we were separated by masses of students and solo cups. I wandered through crowds of pledge brothers and beer cans determined to reunite with my friend only to find that someone else had been looking for me as well.

His name was Michael and this was not the first time he had searched for me. He was tall, his limbs long and his frame towering over me. His speech slurred but his eyes were fixated on mine. His hands soon began to mimic his gaze, his fingers gripping the sides of my face holding it in place as he shoved his tongue inside my mouth. I froze wincing at the taste of his venom, but the claps and cheers that erupted from his pledge brothers made me question my feelings. Am I wrong? Should I kiss him back? Is this supposed to feel good? If I push him away will they ravage me too? Is this how hooking up is supposed to happen? Before any of my questions could be answered, his lips parted from mine. He grabbed my hand and pulled me towards the stairs. My body, accustomed to an adolescence ridden with feeling unsafe and uncomfortable, followed him as if out of habit.

I remember lying on the tiles of the Psi Upsilon laundry room. His sweat and stench of alcohol on my chest and neck, my blood staining my face and his hands. I began collecting my clothes, throwing my sweater over my body in haste. The first chance I had I darted out of the house. I remember bolting through the door and feeling the seeds of repression plant themselves in my mind as my feet hit the pavement.

Weeks passed and I thought nothing of the tiles. Those memories were burrowed in the parts of my mind reserved for reminiscences of violence. His smell, his words, his taste, his fingers, my blood, my tears, my skin were all locked away in a place where they would swim and murk together. I turned to humor to deal with my trauma, mocking him and hoping that if I laughed hard enough maybe it will just be that: a joke.

Weeks turned into months, months into years, until the second semester of my junior year arrived and the walls that were rooted in my skull began to crack. I remember the day when the mortar that was sandwiched between the bricks blocking my trauma turned to dust. Psi Upsilon was struck with a lawsuit regarding another incident of sexual assault that took place within the house. The entire campus erupted with anger and soon I could not find a space on campus that was free of the words “rape” and “fraternities.” I could not even escape it in class. During one of these classroom discussions, I raised my hand and spoke about an article I read that stated that survivors of sexual assault often re-write the experience as a coping mechanism necessary for surviving trauma. Rape transforms into just a “bad hook-up.” As class continued, that statement continued to ring in my head.

“Rewrite…Coping Mechanism”

“Survive…Coping Mechanism”

“Trauma…Coping Mechanism”

It rang while I was in class, but it blared when I walked outside. The words slamming themselves against the bone in my skull, my hands shaking as I briskly walked back to my room. I walked past Psi Upsilon when the powerful reverberations of “rape,” “trauma,” “survive” shattered through the wall allowing everything within to ooze through. I remembered his smell. I remembered his fingers and where he put them. I remembered how my throat viciously fought to close up. I remember how he laughed when he saw my eyes water. I remembered how his fingers sprawled over my mouth, his hands squeezing on my face with such force that I thought he would split

“I rewrote…Coping Mechanism”

“I survived…Coping Mechanism”

“My trauma…Coping Mechanism”

There was no wall to hide behind anymore.

I had never felt more isolated then those moments when I realized that I had been raped. I felt like I had no place to go, no space for me, no safety net to fall into. We cannot support each other without recognizing and respecting our differences. We cannot help each other without first acknowledging and understanding our position and privilege on this planet. I cannot stand here and dream of a brighter future without discussing a major hurdle that is blocking us from the world we deserve. I cannot stand here and not talk about the thing that made me feel so isolated when I needed help the most. The hurdle I am speaking of is called White Feminism.

Blogger Cate Young defines white feminism as:

“A set of beliefs that allows for the exclusion of issues that specifically affect women of color. It is “one size-fits all” feminism, where middle class white women are the mold that others must fit.”  

White feminism constantly has me asking, where do I belong? Are safe spaces meant for me?

To ask people of color to separate their race from themselves in order to “focus on cis, white women’s issues” is a cruel, dehumanizing and racist request. Yet white feminists constantly demand and expect this. I cannot tell you how many times I, and other survivors of color have heard “Why bring race into this? Why are you making everything about race?” I cannot strip away my blackness, nor would I ever want to. It is a part of who I am. It is my beauty. It is my strength. It is a legacy that breathes within me from ancestors past and one that exhales a future of resilience and power.

Unfortunately white feminism is very mainstream and because of that, survivors of color are not able to receive the help they need. By expecting us to fit this mold, white feminism excludes real, serious issues that plague survivors of color. Survivors of color are pushed to the wayside only to be picked up for promotional photos and token friendships.

Statistics confirm that 80-90% of perpetrators come from the same racial background as the survivor in all violent crimes. That being said so many survivors of color never speak up because they feel as if they are letting their community down if they do so. Black survivors feel like they are endangering the black people in their community and enforcing awful stereotypes if their assailant is of the same race.

It took me so long to call my rapist a rapist because I felt so guilty. I felt like I had betrayed my community because I had been raped. I felt so unwanted. I felt like calling him a rapist would enforce stereotypes. I felt like I was endangering the very community I had fought so hard to protect. This is a reality most survivors of color face, it is one that is brutal and painful. So you can imagine why we would not feel safe talking about our experiences in spaces that are not made with us in mind. White feminism wants us to strip away our race, a task that is impossible because we cannot separate what is so tightly intertwined. After experiencing such a traumatic event, Black survivors do not have the time or energy to explain the basic burdens of systematic racism and misogynoir to people who will use Google to steal from cultures but not to learn about them.

“She was asking for it” It’s a term we are all familiar with regarding cases of sexual assault. That sentiment is heightened when it comes to Black survivors. In this society Black people are not given the privilege of innocence. We can see this in the fact that Hillary Clinton once called black children “super predators” that have “no conscience, no empathy” and that they must be brought to “heel.” We see this in how young black survivors are often ridiculed when they come forward about their assault. Look at what happened to the girl who was sexually assaulted by R. Kelly on camera: We laughed at her, in fact on Amy Poehler’s new show Difficult People, a joke was made regarding baby Blue Ivy Carter stating “I can’t wait for Blue Ivy to be old enough for R. Kelly to piss on her.” Apparently, jokes about abusing children are always okay when the child is not white.

As we develop, even our growing black bodies are blamed, scrutinized and hyper-sexualized constantly. “That girl is so fast” they say, “her body’s growin thick and right.” A long tumultuous history of being demonized and hyper-sexualized since birth, leads black survivors to feel as if no one will believe us and even worse, that we somehow deserve what we got.

Black girls are even demonized for our voices. Constantly told that we are too loud, too ghetto. White feminists constantly tone police Black women, telling us that we sound too angry, that our words are too controversial. We are expected to carry the burdens of systematic racism on our shoulders while donning smiles to make white women comfortable. Tone policing robs us of our voices and undermines the very real validity of our words. That expectation is evil and leaves women of color not only out of the conversation, but excluded from safe spaces and a safe present and future. Our voices are constantly picked at and ridiculed but never listened to. We live in a world where women of color, especially dark-skinned women of color are constantly told to be quiet, to be smaller, to keep waiting until white feminists are ready to use our bodies and our cultures for their personal gain and entertainment. You can only imagine the heavy weight of silence that digs into the pores of survivors of color. That sinking, suffocating, piercing feeling that makes you want to clench your fists and scream—But what’s the point when no one chooses to hear you?

We are told to be grateful to get any help at all even if it is not enough. I remember when I met with Director of Title IX at Wesleyan, a meeting where I left shaking because he told me that I needed to learn to be grateful that my rapist was expelled. This was right before he victim blamed me for other assaults that would occur on campus. Even when we fight to make things better, the burden and the blame of the systematic oppressions that plague us, always fall on our shoulders. Gratitude is expected and if you don’t show it you are berated. Because girls like me are human beings viewed as disposable entities. When we get one sliver of justice, one drop of humanity we MUST show our appreciation and we are to do so by continuing to stay silent and expecting nothing more from a society that deems us as worthless.

This is why my project “Reclamation” needed to happen. I was being consumed and terrorized by the spaces that surrounded me: The fraternity where I had been raped. The co-ed fraternity that I was once a member of demonizing me for being a rape survivor. The Wesleyan administration undermining me. I felt like I had shrank, my frame crashing and melding together until there was nothing left behind but fear and loneliness. I had no space for me, so I decided to make my own. I needed to take over the spaces that were torturing me and rewrite them for myself. I created in order to survive.

Creating allows me the chance to regain control of situations and experiences I had no control in. My path towards healing really came when I started to find and use creative outlets for my pain. I could be unapologetically angry, loud, forceful, poetic and proud. I could take up as much room as I wanted because through my creative outlet, I was able to make my own world, one where I felt I mattered. Creating, whether it be through writing, photography, drawing or performance art, allows for me to regain control over situations where that control was robbed from me. For years these spaces had consumed me until I felt like I was nothing but an exoskeleton of depression and anxiety. But those two days that I shot Reclamation, I was the most powerful woman on the planet.

There was this moment while we were shooting. I was standing in front of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity, one of my models standing by my side. The sun is drenching my face with light and in that moment I felt so beautiful, I felt strong, I felt happy. I hadn’t felt those feelings in so long that at first they felt like foreign entities invading my body, and for the first time in so long, I said to myself “You deserve this. You haven’t felt this in a while but you deserve every moment.” I never in a million years would have thought that I would feel so powerful and beautiful, that I would be giving myself messages of self-love and care 20 feet away from the house I was raped in. It dawned on me that what Michael did to me, was a complete representation of himself. That rape described him as a person. Even though it was one of the most traumatic, disgusting experiences of my life, that rape has nothing to do with me as a person. How I get back up, how I persevere, how I grow and continue to love afterwards, will always be a representation of myself.

I look around this room and I see a real chance at a brighter future. But in order to get there, we must destroy white feminism. We must create more safe spaces for survivors of color. We must provide funding for creative outlets for survivors. We must listen to one another and appreciate our differences and experiences. Nothing will stop me from continuing to create. Nothing will stop me from continuing to speak out. Nothing will stop me from continuing to be there for survivors of sexual assault, just like the incredible, beautiful people who have been there for me. Fighting rape culture is a painful and difficult task but we can do it if we truly do it together. I stand by survivors, especially survivors of color and I will always stand by them and the choices they make to heal.

So tell me, where will you stand?

 

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Too Much

Why is it that I am always deemed “too much”

“Too Loud”

“Too thick”

“Too independent”

‘Too outspoken”

“Too different”

The words “too much” hang from your lips like a weight

When it is my flesh that wishes to drip from those lips instead

I want to be just right

I want to rest evenly on your lips

Perfectly coat the ridges of your skin

I want to melt perfectly

To transform into just the right amount for you

Because I have a habit of loving those who cannot appreciate me

Loving those whose fingers tremble at my frame

“This body is too much”

This body is too much for love but perfect for bruises

Dark blue and royal purple patterns spread like the kisses I long for

Yet when I am alone I am perfection

I am beauty

I am just the right amount

When I am alone your insecurities are not here to paint me

Your limits are not here to claim me

I was not made to be handled

By frail men with shaking hands

I was made to be cherished

Nurtured

Admired

Your fears and fragile masculinity deem you too weak for the task

So I must do it myself

I’ll rub my own lips across this skin

Caress my own fingers along the waves of my frame

Listen to my own voice that bears too much weight for you

My love for myself will always surpass my love for you

Because self love is key to surviving

In a world that does not know what to do with a frames and sinews like yours

Self love is the key to thriving

In a world that was not ready for you

I refuse to dim my shine because my light blinds you

Like the sun I will always rise

Powerful

Beautiful

Radiant

Forever smothering your decrees of “too much”

Until they are distant

Like specs of dust that collect in the winds before sunset

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NO

I hate that “No” can’t be an option

That the word cannot leave my lips

Without your fists clenching

My lips quiver

“No” begging to escape

But your entitlement forces a lie to sneak out instead

“I have a boyfriend” I must say

Even though no such man exists

Because a non-existent man’s claim to me

Will always bear more weight than my existent desire

What makes you think I was made for you?

Owed to you?

Exist for your gaze, fingers and tongue?

Parts that you weaponize and jab in my direction

“No” should be enough

Because I have my own gaze

My own fingers

My own tongue

My own desire that was built without you in mind

I exist and will always exist without you

But I hate how quickly my existence can be wiped out when you hear the word “No”

I hate that “no” is never enough for you

That hatred keeps building

Keeps bubbling and fermenting in the pits of my stomach

Until one day you approach me

Hungry for me, never letting go

Until I finally push you down

Press my heel onto your neck

Deeper and deeper

As you scream

“No”

“Please”

“Stop”

Deeper my heel gets

Plunging and ripping that pitiful neck

I will only listen to your “NO”

When someone comes to claim you

I smile and pierce you harder

Because I know no one ever will

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For Malcolm

 

I was born on your birthday

May 19th on a Wednesday

I never had a father

But Instead I had your picture hanging in my bedroom

Your books on my shelf

There was never a time in my life where you were absent

Where you weren’t spoken of

Where you weren’t present

“Our beautiful Black Prince” my mother used to say

Rubbing her fingers on the frame of your glasses

Years passed and I got older

Years passed and things got harder

Years passed and as time accumulated, my sense of self-worth diminished

Self-worth ripped out of my scalp by the mayonnaise troupes

Deeming my Afro ugly and unprofessional

Self worth beaten out of my flesh

Left bruised and battered by fists that see me as an object for their exotic entertainment

Just when I believed there was none left, the remaining drops of self worth oozed out of my flesh one night in October

A brisk night in the October of my freshman year

Behind the bricks of the Psi Upsilon frat house

When a frat brother decided to rape me

He smeared my blood and drops of self worth on the walls of the frat house

Erecting tombstones on the parts of myself that no longer were

I ran

I ran into the night alone, reminders of the death that took place stained on my shirt and torn on my underwear

For years I grieved

For years I suffered in silence

For years I felt so guilty about what he had done

Guilty for his violence

Guilty for his insolence

Guilty for his teeth, his fingers and his lips and how he used them as weapons

Because that is what society tells survivors to do

Trains us to do

Forces us to do

That we must internalize any injustice and act of violence and see it as a reflection

But you never taught me that Malcolm

You never told me that Malcolm

When I saw tombstones pitched over the fragments of my self worth

You heard a heartbeat

You felt a pulse

Three years later and you urged me to report

You taught me the everlasting power embedded in my voice

You taught me the ever more stifling power of my silence

I remember you once said:

“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman.

The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.

The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”

I had the right to be angry

I had the right to speak out, rage foaming, spurting from my mouth

You taught me how to utilize my rage Malcolm

How not to be afraid or guilty about my feelings

I had your picture on my bedroom wall the day I chose to report my rapist

You encouraged me to dial the number

But most of all you encouraged me to look at myself the way you look at me

You saw no tombstones

You saw no weakness

You saw no shame or filth under my bruised skin

You only saw strength in my melanin

You only saw beauty in the curly crown upon my head

You only saw power in my fists

Because of your guidance I step out into the world as the woman I am today

I am outspoken

I am determined

I am vicious

I will take each step with my fists raised

My mouth open

My teeth baring

Because you taught me to declare my right to this earth

To declare my right as a human being

To be given the rights of a human being in this society on this earth

You taught me to fight for what’s mine

Because I am worthy

Because I matter

Because this body was not put on the planet to be the object of someone’s sadistic form of entertainment

Today I honor you by honoring myself

By loving myself

By fighting for myself and those like me

BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY

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Growing

I’ve had two births

The first being the origin of my formation, a ball of cells sprouting limbs, lips and eyes in the darkness.

My mother spent the first thirteen years of my life hugging me, coating me in her love because “that’s how girls like you grow strong and powerful.”

My father did not care to watch me grow.

No night passed without my mother reading me a bedtime story.

She used to leave Tupac albums under my pillow and markers on the table when I would come home from school.

She would pull me out of class on Fridays to take me to the beach. We would build castles and giggle as we molded sand between our toes.

“Mommy is always here Karmen. Just like mother earth, mommy is always here.”

I cannot help but feel closer to her when I hear the oceans wave’s crashing on the sand.

When I was eleven years old, my mother and I went to a family friend’s concert and his bandmate tried to get me to sit in his lap.

He made me feel dirty as he rubbed his thigh and asked me to be a good girl and come closer.

I told my mother and her eyes turned to glass.

Playing in my room, I can hear her on the phone, screaming and yelling. The only sentence I could understand was “He does it again and I will destroy him.”

Our family friend kicked his bandmate out.

My mother ran her fingers through my hair, sternly gripping my face as she told me: “Your body is yours mi hija. They’ll try to claim it because you are woman and they’ll try to bruise it because you are Afro-Latina, but they will never possess you.”

I stopped growing when I turned thirteen, my mother’s brain tumor stairing back at me from the x-ray.

The size of a golfball, it snuggled up close to her frontal lobe, gleaming white like a miniature moon.

Sometimes I still feel uncomfortable when I look at the night sky.

After they removed the moon from her brain, she started changing.

Suddenly I was not good enough.

I stopped being mommy’s little girl and became mommy’s source of regret.

“Your father was so smart for leaving you first. Now I am stuck with you.”

I could not tell where she began and her brain injury ended.

Her words always hurt more than the fists that followed.

I could not tell where she ended and I began.

In eleventh grade, I told my mother that I needed money for SAT tutoring. The next day I came home and our couch was gone. Staring at the empty space in the living room, my mother walked towards me and placed eighty dollars in my hand.

The umbilical cord between us gained strength, its wrinkly flesh beaming as it wrapped around my neck.

The last morning we spent together, she sunk her teeth into my face.

Gnashing my cheek, her saliva bubbled in the flaps of my exposed skin.

I felt the cord around my neck snap as my feet slapped the pavement, running until the home we shared together was only visible in memory.

Running, I was reborn.

Reborn because for years I had stopped growing, stopped forming, stopped being.

I had no chance of growing an identity between my mother’s fingers.

I was molded so her desires became mine.

I cannot recognize my growth without remembering all that she sacrificed.

I cannot recognize my skin without remembering the teeth marks and scratches she had imprinted.

My freshman year at Wesleyan, I struggled with my rebirth.

I did not know how to exist without belonging to someone else.

The first time I heard my voice was in Professor Clifford Chase’s Creative Writing class.

I started growing when the words in my notebook compensated for all the words I used to swallow.

Depression ruled me when I stopped growing. Anger dominates my body after rebirth.

The anger only seems to fester, lurking in the tar-like guilt in my abdomen.

Anger only growing because I cannot unleash it.

My mother can never serve as a target for my anger because she is just as much of a victim as I am.

I wish I could target her illness with my rage.

Spit on it, gnash it with my teeth and pummel it with my fists while screaming “I was just a kid.”

I cannot target or express anything without hurting the woman who loves me to her core.

I am reborn.

My body is supposedly mine.

My thoughts are supposedly mine.

I am born again but I cannot help but feel some familiar comfort settle in my stomach as my lover degrades me.

I am born again but I cannot help but feel at home when he raises his fists.

I am born again but I still see her face in my tears.

I am born again but I still miss her hugs.

I am born again and fear continues to grip me in the night when I look at the moon, wondering if one day it will take me too.

 

 

 

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