Sister Outsider

Sister Outsider

Examining the Intersection Between Race and Sexual Assault at Columbia

Published on October 16, 2014

Columbia has a rape problem. It’s one that most students have become increasingly aware of, thanks to myriad efforts by student activists and a flood of media attention both on campus and across the globe. This activism has led to an intense discourse regarding the University’s perceptions of sexual and gender-based violence, and has inspired a call to reform the judicial proceedings of sexual-assault cases on campus. A great number of students have spoken out about their experiences with sexual violence and the responses that the University and we as their peers have shown them.

These conversations have expanded to include the consideration of some marginalized identities. In the past few months, conversations about how sexual violence affects the LGBTQ community has not only allowed for increased understanding of this intersection, but has also opened some doors for policy reform. Columbia’s new consent-education program now includes discussion of sexual violence toward and among members of the LGBTQ community, and has attempted a less heteronormative approach to consent education. Furthermore, these conversations have shed light on the concerning lack of Counseling and Psychological Services staff specializing in trauma and LGBTQ identity issues.

Sejal Singh, a Columbia College senior, vice president for policy for Columbia College Student Council, and a member of the Coalition Against Sexual Violence, notes that “several consent educators have told CASV that, while some progress was made for this year’s Consent 101, there is still a long way to go in addressing intersections of identity and sexual violence.” She continues, “On one hand, this year, Consent 101 trainers asked students for their preferred gender pronouns and used a same-sex example scenario of unacceptable behavior. On the other hand, Sexual Violence Response never printed the pamphlets designed to direct LGBTQ students to resources. Others noted that the workshop did little to acknowledge the intersections of racial and ethnic identity and sexual violence.”

While some progress has been made to include the LGBTQ community in this conversation, students say the concerns of racial and ethnic minorities remain largely unaddressed. Many women of color at Columbia have expressed that they feel isolated and unwelcome in discussions pertaining to sexual violence and gender-based misconduct.

Kirstin Jones, a senior at Barnard College, is among these women. “I don’t really see myself represented as a black woman in this dialogue,” she says of her experience with the conversations about sexual violence that have taken place on campus through activism and media. “I feel a lot of this discussion is centered around white women. I went to the Stand with Survivors rally, and I didn’t see as many people of color as I thought I would, and I know [this issue] is very prevalent in our communities,” she says.

Others noted that they felt out of place at the rally because of their skin tone. For Naintara Ramoo-Goodgame, a senior at Barnard College and president of the Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters, not seeing people who looked like her at the rally and in the pictures of the event brought up questions of gender and race identity. She asks herself, “Are you a woman before you’re a black woman? Can you ever have a conversation as a black woman?” That is, can a black woman ever be both black and a woman, without being seen simply as a black person or simply as a woman?

She feels that in order to participate in these discussions on sexual violence, racial identity is asked to take a backseat to gender identity, despite ongoing discussions about the intersection of identities through campus media, facilitated programs such as Under1Roof, and student groups such as Respecting Ourselves and Others Through Education. This is not to say that sexual violence perpetrated against women of color is any more horrific than that experienced by our white counterparts. But there are very real consequences for survivors of color that go unaddressed or are dismissed because of their racial and ethnic identities.

Identifying the Intersection

For women of color, conversations about race and gender often treat these identities as mutually exclusive. At Columbia, and across the country, there are circles that address issues of race and those that address issues of gender. However, as the feminist writer Kimberlé Crenshaw argues in her 1991 writing “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” it is the intersecting patterns of racism and sexism that shape the violence that women of color face, thus leaving them marginalized within frameworks designed to speak solely to race or gender.  As Crenshaw explains, “With respect to the rape of Black women, race and gender converge so that the concerns of minority women fall into the void between concerns about women’s issues and concerns about racism. But when one discourse fails to acknowledge the significance of the other, the power relations that each attempts to challenge are strengthened.”

“Sexual violence committed against women of color is often seen as insignificant and/or acceptable and is justified by stereotypes of women of color that serve to portray these women as ‘unrapeable.’”

This is a reality that Jones also experiences. When asked about how her gender and racial identity have impacted her awareness of sexual assault on campus, she says, “For me personally, I feel that it’s scary to be on this campus. I feel unsafe at times. I feel that a lot of the stereotypes that come along with being black—we’re exoticized and hypersexualized—make me feel targeted a lot.” Her experiences are not without statistical backing.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, women of color are statistically more likely to experience rape or attempted rape than the national average. The lifetime likelihood of being the victim of rape or attempted rape for women in the United States is 17.6 percent, but that number varies drastically when looking at minority racial groups. For white women that number remains at 17.7 percent, while for black women it increases to 18.8 percent. Moreover, the rate of rape and attempted rape drops significantly for Asian-American and Pacific-Islander women to 6.8 percent, whereas for Native-American/Alaskan-Native women and mixed-race women, there is a dramatic spike to 34.1 percent and 24.4 percent, respectively.

And these alarming statistics only tell part of the story. They raise many questions about what it means to be a woman of color in the United States and how this identity shapes our experiences with violence. And yet, the mainstream narrative continues to depict white women as the most vulnerable victims of such violence and people of color as the most likely perpetrators. According to a statement about racism and rape made by the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, “portraying men of color as sexually voracious and preying on innocent white women reinforces a cultural obsession with black-on-white stranger rape, at the expense of the vastly more common intra-racial acquaintance rape.” Additionally, the University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention & Awareness Center website notes that “sexual violence committed against women of color is often seen as insignificant and/or acceptable and is justified by stereotypes of women of color that serve to portray these women as ‘unrapeable.’” That is, women of color often see their rapes and attempted rapes invalidated, despite experiencing violence statistically more often than white women.

“I don’t really see myself represented as a black woman in this dialogue.”

These are notions that Cami Quarta, a junior in Columbia College, sees in the active participation in discourse within Columbia’s campus and beyond. Quarta, a sexual-assault survivor whose attacker was found responsible by Columbia and whose story was reported via a CNN video last April, says that “the issue of what constitutes safety and what constitutes danger, especially since we are embedded in Harlem, goes back to the idea that rape happens on the streets and in the metro, when more often than not rape is committed by people you know. It’s intraracial.” Additionally, she says that the typical narrative around sexual assault “perpetuates racist notions of who perpetrators are and who gets classic victimhood status.” Not only does racism add a second dimension of violence, but a third dimension comes through the silencing of narratives from people of color.

This silencing even occurs in the way that national statistics on the rates of rape and attempted rape are reported. For example, people of Middle-Eastern descent are often considered “white” within the ethno-racial pentagon (the five ethnic and racial categories that are frequently used in the United States for various forms of data collection:  Caucasian/Anglo-American, African-American, Asian-American, Native-American, and Hispanic/Latino). For Haya, a student who asked to remain anonymous over concern for personal safety and privacy, there was plenty to say on this issue. “It’s almost funny that I’m considered white because I’m not so white when I go to the airport, or when this country makes getting my visa difficult. I’m not white when I walk down the street, when I speak with an accent, and I have zero white privilege,” they say.

And when it comes to feeling represented in coversations about sexaul assault, Haya says the statistics available are not sufficient. “I do not identify as white, nor do I know a single Arab who would. So the fact that there is no way for me to know about the rate of abuse and sexual violence that my people face in this country and on these campuses, because we are lumped into this category of ‘white,’ is incredibly frustrating for me,” they say.

Many of the women interviewed for this piece brought up the Stand with Survivors rally that was held on Low Steps on Sept. 12. Specifically, they expressed that this event highlighted their exclusion from the campus dialogue on sexual assault. Ramoo-Goodgame noted that she could identify very few women of color at the rally either as survivors or as allies. She went on to say that although the rates at which black women and white women experience sexual violence are similar, she feels black women “are completely absent from these conversations.”

Haya remarks that these issues of exclusion are not limited simply to notions of race and color. “As an Arab, gender-nonconforming, queer person I feel that all of my identities are almost completely excluded from this discourse,” they say. Even the language that is used in this dialogue is very exclusionary to Haya and their identities. Haya continues, “From my personal experience, which is not the experience of every queer, nonwhite, gender-nonconforming person, I have found that I do not feel welcome because my narrative does not fit the popular discourse in a way people can easily empathize with. I don’t feel invited into these spaces because of the language that is used and the lack of representation of people who look like me.” This environment is largely a product of normalized notions that white, heterosexual, cis-female victimhood is one of the few, if not the only, legitimate experiences with sexual violence, and it creates obstacles for people who belong to these marginalized groups seeking validation in their stories and support in dealing with trauma.

“It’s not ‘Oppression Olympics,’ and that’s what’s really frustrating on my end, because my oppression is not worse than another’s oppression,” Alicia Morejon, a sophomore in Columbia College, points out. But at the end of the day, she can’t help but react negatively when she sees racial oppression as it relates to sexual violence being glossed over. She wonders, like many others do, why her solidarity as a woman has to stop at her womanhood. “Woman” is only one of the countless identities that a person will have at any given time and in any given space, and one does not cease to experience racism in the world simply because one also experiences sexism.

“I’m not so white when I go to the airport, or when this country makes getting my visa difficult. I’m not white when I walk down the street, when I speak with an accent, and I have zero white privilege.”

In fact, these issues are compounded to create unique experiences for each individual. This is especially true when you consider that women of color fall under not one, but two oppressed groups that have historically had conflicting political agendas. Consider, for example, that the enfranchisement of women happened long before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This is a form of disempowerment; when we are forced to divide our identities for the purpose of discourse, we are forced to ignore the full extent of racism—since it does not concern itself with women’s issues for the sake of including “all” people of color. And, we are also forced to ignore the full extent of sexism—since it does not concern itself with race issues for the sake of including “all” women.

“It’s frustrating because the solidarity amongst women is great, but for women of color, even within our communities of color, we have two oppressed identities that really make it very hard to have our voices be heard,” Morejon says. If we truly wish to have solidarity for all women, it will be important that we have spaces where women and gender-nonconforming people, who also claim other marginalized identities, feel the endless spectrum of their realities included in the notion of what it means to experience gender-based and sexual violence.

Some people are more easily identified within these marginalized communities than others. However, phenotype is not the end-all, be-all attribute that determines how race and ethnicity shape experiences with sexual violence. Cami Quarta is Latina, and identifies strongly with her ethnicity and the culture that comes with it. Yet Quarta has light-brown hair and fair skin. She acknowledges that this is a point of privilege. “I engage in this discourse publicly with ease because I look white,” she says. “But at the same time, on a personal level, I find it much harder to talk about these things within my community, because different cultures talk about violence in different ways. I also know that I’m not affected by violence in the same way as other people within my own culture.”

A Forgotten Invitation Or a Persona Non Grata?

It is difficult to point to a single reason that explains why the absence of women of color in discourse about sexual violence is so profound. Yet every person interviewed for this piece agreed that this absence is not simply caused by women of color choosing to not participate; there is a general sense that these women feel their voices and narratives are not welcome.

“People of color, queer and gender-nonconforming people, especially on this campus, are very active in multiple spaces, and if there are no people with these identities in the space you are in, even though, statistically speaking, these minority groups should exist in this space, then you know that there is something that makes these people not feel invited to these spaces,” Haya says. This is especially true when you consider that queer people of color are significantly more likely to experience sexual violence than people who only identify as queer and not of color, or of color but not queer. According to a 2013 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs on hate violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected communities, LGBTQ and HIV-affected people of color were 1.5 times as likely to experience physical violence compared to white LGBTQ survivors.

This raises the question of why it is that women of color do not feel welcome in the spaces that challenge sexual violence, if they are so disproportionately affected by it. The same names and faces—white, cisgender women—seem to be at the forefront of activism surrounding sexual assault. Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a senior in Columbia College, can attest to this. “I cannot tell you the number of people I know who have wanted to be heard by the media but were denied the opportunity to speak,” she says. “I, personally, hate talking about my story, and yet I am asked to speak on it time and time again because, unlike my peers, I am a white cis-female and I fit the narrative of what a survivor of sexual violence is and should be.”

Last spring, TIME magazine reached out to students wanting to interview someone about the movement against sexual violence on Columbia’s campus. However, when the reporter said TIME’s style rules prevented her from referring to one student by their preferred gender pronouns of “they, them, theirs,” allies of this student also felt that they could not partake in this interview, knowing that a fellow survivor’s experience and identity were being altered for the sake of publicity. After pressure from student activists, the reporter and survivor were able to come to a solution that both were comfortable with, and the students spoke to TIME, which published a cover story in May about sexual assault on college campuses.

“I engage in this discourse publicly with ease because I look white. But at the same time, on a personal level, I find it much harder to talk about these things within my community, because different cultures talk about violence in different ways.”

Even when survivors of color do manage to get their voices in the media, they are often reduced to their experiences with sexual violence as opposed to the efforts they exert toward ending it. “Nowhere has my opinion on my political activism been included in a piece about my political activism. Ever. I have said them to interviewers, and they have not included that, only my assault,” Quarta says. That is, Quarta says she is never given the opportunity to reflect on her position as an activist, but rather only as a victim. She continues, “Sexual assault has been happening for forever, and the reason it is getting so much attention now is because women have been stepping forward and expressing their opinions and building a movement, and yet that is not what is reflected.” Quarta went on to explain that when the media does this, it is a perpetuation of the violence, since it profits off of the experiences of survivors as opposed to shining a light on their activism. This portrayal of victimhood only further discourages survivors, she says, particularly those who have already been dissuaded from reaching out for support.

What’s more, women of color often find it difficult to speak on these issues of sexual violence within their own communities. When you consider that sexual violence is more often than not perpetrated by somebody the victim knows, it is likely that the people who hurt women of color also look like them. The percent of rapes and sexual assault cases reported is already very low (only 40 percent of sexual assaults were reported in the last year, according to RAINN), but women of color may have additional reason to not report their incidents to the police. They face not only a fear of what will happen when their stories “go public,” but also the fear of perpetuating the criminalization of black men.

Subjecting their private lives to institutional oppression is often a terrifying prospect for women of color. For example, there is a strong sense that public intervention in personal issues will only invite racist practices into the home. Mari*, a Columbia student who has not reported her story for many reasons and wishes to remain anonymous here for concerns over safety, recounts, “I wasn’t raised to believe that those institutions were there to help me. I may benefit from them as residual consequences, such as keeping criminals off the street, but I wasn’t taught that they were there to help me. Nor was I raised to believe that making a scene would help you because doing so only makes what you’re going through public. Once that happens you lose all control.”

This is something Ramoo-Goodgame finds to be true in her own experience. “Everyone who is part of a minority group is always concerned [with] how their ethnic or cultural community is portrayed in the larger community. The ways social and media images depict people of color, we are already on the edge with how our communities are portrayed,” she says. So for her and many members of her Afro-Latino and black community, bringing these private issues into the public sphere is like airing out dirty laundry. When these issues are brought to light in communities of color, it is no longer about a single individual committing crimes of sexual violence against another individual. Suddenly, an act of violence committed by a man of color against a woman of color confirms racist stereotypes about the danger that these communities pose to society. This creates another way in which women of color who are also survivors of sexual violence are silenced and have their unique struggles ignored as a result of the conflicting agendas of their intersecting identities.

It’s Not All Black and White

Women of color do not experience sexual violence in the same way as white women. Latina women don’t necessarily experience sexual violence in the same way as Asian women. Even though they may very well experience violence as a result of both racism and misogyny, different minority groups are affected in different ways and have different ideas about what it means to cope with this form of violence.

“This needs to be translated into how we see the political pushback. Like SlutWalk. In many communities of color, women don’t want to be referred to as sluts because this is what they are are always seen as,” Quarta says. An event such as SlutWalk may therefore not be empowering to black and Latina women, whose stereotypes of promiscuity and “sassiness” often render their experiences with sexual violence “less valid.”

Given these circumstances, it is clear that what may empower women who do not have these intersectional identities may simultaneously disempower those who do. This is why students say identity-specific circles are necessary to provide support for the various needs that survivors of color—and any other marginalized group, for that matter—may have. “We need to have a conversation on campus about how different communities experience violence, and how different communities respond to violence. And right now, that’s not happening—at least not outside survivor and activist circles,” Singh says. More than just creating inclusive and supportive dialogue among peers, these conversations about how marginalized communities experience violence helps shape the way institutions support these survivors.

“Different minority groups are affected in different ways and have different ideas about what it means to cope with this form of violence.”

A recent example of this is the increase in conversations on campus about psychological support for queer survivors of sexual violence. These conversations raised awareness about the lack of staff at Counseling and Psychological Services that specialized in the needs of LGBTQ survivors and have led to a push for increased availability of specialized staff to Columbia students. And yet, currently far too many students feel that CPS is not an adequate resource for them because of the lack of resources that are available to students of color. According to Haya, “CPS staff is not equipped to talk with me, even those who specialize in queer and gender issues, because they cannot speak to my issues as an Arab, or even as a Muslim queer”—as if those were somehow incompatible—“because they blame my suffering on my supposedly ‘oppressive’ culture.”

The quality of life survey results released last year by the University Senate show that many students of color and LGBTQ students can relate to Haya’s experience. Many feel that their experiences are treated with a focus on simply one identity as opposed to the multiple facets that make up a whole person. If we, as the peers and allies of survivors, do not speak to the different ways that survivors experience violence, then we not only invalidate their experiences, but also make obtaining the necessary support for healing that much more difficult.

Let’s Talk

Women of color cannot remain pushed to the sidelines of this conversation any longer. Columbia has become a ground zero for nationwide discussions of sexual violence, and as Morejon notes, “Our privilege of education and our brand as Columbia University help us to bring attention to the issue of sexual assault on a national level.” Thus, to ignore the survivors of color affected on our campus only further normalizes the marginalization of people of color across the country.

We need to have active conversations and safe spaces where people with these identities can speak and be heard, and not have their experiences overshadowed by traditional and racist narratives that strip them of their survivorship and victimhood.

Such an event was attempted last spring. When V-Day announced that its production of the Vagina Monologues would feature an all-women-of-color cast, there was such a strong backlash that many women of color felt utterly disillusioned. “Most of the time I feel like I’m in the MoMA,” Ramoo-Goodgame says when asked how she felt about the backlash. “Like I am an interactive installment. It’s as though you can ask, pick, or pry on why I am here, what my existence is for, what I am supposed to be teaching you. And for one day the museum doors were closed for the installments to speak to each other and learn from each other, and everyone was banging on the door, demanding for this to be reversed. …  As soon as it became time for my culture to have a moment of introspection, it wasn’t supposed to happen. There was something unnatural about women of color expressing their sorrow in a public place.”

To expect women and survivors of color to put their healing on hold in order to appease the interests of those outside of their communities—namely those who identify as white—is violent in and of itself. We as students must show solidarity among all women, whether they fit the notions of classic victimhood status or not, by allowing the spaces needed for their healing to exist, even if that means having to sometimes take a step back.

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