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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Truth to Power in Black and Blue: An Interview with Black Women Police Whistleblowers Cheryl Dorsey and Yulanda Williams

Cheryl Dorsey
Yulanda Williams




By Sikivu Hutchinson

“The department is meant to tear a police officer down in the academy and then recreate that officer in the image the police department likes.  A subtle form of brainwashing occurs for some.” Cheryl Dorsey, Black and Blue: The Creation of a Manifesto

In the national debate about and outrage over police misconduct, excessive force and accountability, retired Los Angeles Police Department sergeant Cheryl Dorsey and San Francisco Police Department lieutenant Yulanda Williams are on the frontlines pushing back against institutional injustice within their ranks.  As African American women officers in predominantly white, predominantly male departments, they have weathered sexism, racism, and job discrimination in their most pernicious forms.  Dorsey joined the LAPD in 1980 and quickly became disgruntled with the barriers to advancement as well as the rampant violence directed toward African American and communities of color.  Yulanda Williams joined the SFPD after surviving the 1978 massacre of Peoples Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana. In 2016, Williams was the only officer of color to testify against the SFPD’s culture of racism and sexism on a Blue Ribbon Panel on police misconduct. Dorsey and Williams discussed the challenges of “police reform”, the explicit and implicit bias of over-militarized police departments in the aftermath of Stephon Clark’s killing by Sacramento Police, and the contradictions of recruiting more officers of color for a police regime which has a slave catcher lineage.

Let’s talk a little bit about your careers. What inspired you to go into law enforcement as African American women?

Cheryl Dorsey:  I joined the LAPD because I wanted benefits and stability. I came in with the consent decree. I was expedited in the hiring process.  I realized that the LAPD offered more opportunity than the DOJ, my previous employer, however, there were certain positions that were unavailable to me as a Black woman. Coveted administrative staff jobs in research and auditing were unavailable.  Those were the most sought after vis-à-vis getting promoted to sergeant or lieutenant.  They would fabricate reasons for why you couldn’t get them (you didn’t have enough time on the job or needed to be on patrol).

Yulanda Williams: Let me first insert this disclaimer, my responses are based on my own personal experiences as a Black female in law enforcement. I am not speaking for my department.  Initially, I applied for a position with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department but I scored higher on the SFPD position. Although I accepted the position with the SFPD, I was determined to remain an individual based on my experience surviving Jonestown. Throughout my career, I have been known as one of a select group of officers who are not afraid to challenge, speak up about, and document injustices and disparate treatment. These experiences have led me believe that some officers sense there is an urgency to deprogram Black officers; especially if there are questions regarding their loyalty or commitment to “Blue”.  After the commencement of the Black Lives Movement, I was questioned about my commitment by several officers.  Some asked, “Are you loyal to the Blue or Black?” “Are you down with Blue Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter?” These questions focused on loyalty to your culture or your job are not unfamiliar to Black officers I haven’t heard other ethnicities or protected classes complain about having these types of antagonistic interactions.

What were some of the biggest barriers for Black women in your respective departments?

Cheryl Dorsey: From the very beginning, barriers to promotion had been in place.  I was not being groomed as a patrol officer to become a sergeant. Eventually, I promoted to training officer after nine years and sergeant with fourteen years of patrol experience gaining the respect of my peers. Generally, Patrol officers only respect patrol officers.  White girls would get groomed and promote very quickly.  Once you promote to sergeant you have to go back to patrol.  Part of what I do now in speaking out is to try and prepare folks going in to the force to know what really goes down. It would have been nice to have a mentor or ally.  (The story of Christopher Dorner and his situation is not unusual when Black officers find themselves in disciplinary hearings).  There was a lot of hazing in the department when I worked in the Central Traffic division. When the watch commander called the car assignment I shared with another female officer, we were referred to as the “Tuna clipper”. Supervision condoned that kind of harassment.

Yulanda Williams: As a newly hired, young Black female officer I was selected to serve as an undercover officer. I was assigned to work the street buy bust operations in various districts (I pretended to be an addicted person attempting to score drugs on the streets with another officer monitoring my activity). It was uncommon for Black women to work in the Narcotics Division as an investigator or as a detail assignment. Finally, after fifteen years of service with my agency, I decided to take the Sergeant Promotional Examination. When the results were documented on the Promotional Eligibility List co-workers questioned my ability to obtain such a high overall score. They attempted to marginalize my accomplishment and smear my reputation, claiming that I must have cheated.  Why is it so questionable when a Black person achieves success? It reflects the institutional racism and bias in the public and private sector and in law enforcement. Nonetheless, I was advised that my experiences didn’t rise to the level of warranting an EEO investigation. You can only handle so many disappointments with city units mandated by federal law until you just walk away discouraged by the process and lack of follow through. 

Yulanda you were initially recruited by the Black Officers for Justice organization which won a discrimination lawsuit against the SFPD in 1973. You then took on the SFPD and the police union over racial and gender discrimination, including a series of racist text messages that smeared you personally as a “n” and a “b”.  You were the only officer of color to testify on a Blue Ribbon panel on police misconduct.  What kind of backlash did that lead to? What has been the outcome of the panel and the DOJ’s findings of implicit and institutional discrimination in the SFPD? 

Yulanda Williams: I stood alone in speaking out and resisting. None of my co-workers who were called out challenged the mistreatment they experienced as a result of the text messages; but they were quick to reap the benefits of my actions. As a result of my testimonies while serving as the President of the Officers For Justice, there have been more women and people of color promoted to higher ranks. That said, there are still folks of color who work in various city departments who contact me sharing their stories of impartial, unfair treatment. As a result of the continued bullying, disrespect, and attempts to defame my character by the San Francisco Police Officers Association, I made a personal conscience choice to withdraw my membership with the union. I had to find an alternate source for legal representation. The San Francisco Police Officers Association frequently made disparaging derogatory comments about communities of color.  Regrettably, this is the tenor of the leadership of most police unions nationwide. Whenever you’re a candid person you are not favored. Oftentimes, as Black officers, those of us who have the courage and character to speak out are not necessarily leading a unit or division. It is difficult when one determines that you are your own person and you must be true to yourself. 

Cheryl Dorsey: The Ombudsman was supposed to be the safe place (but this was not the case).  There was no place to go to report mistreatment or harassment.  You could be reassigned if you spoke out or challenged the PD.  In the LAPD, this is known as “freeway therapy”.

Cheryl, your book Black and Blue: The Creation of a Manifesto, documents and challenges the oppressive race/gender politics in the LAPD.  What has been the national response to your assessment about police corruption and particularly the complicity of police unions in propping up white supremacy, sexism and homophobia in PDs?

Cheryl Dorsey: My autobiography has been well received and has opened up opportunities for me to speak my truth to power. As a result, I am a much sought after police expert speaking on events making national headlines on networks such as CNN, Fox News, HLN, CNN and MSNBC.

Cheryl, in a recent article on police whistleblowers you write, “If citizens really want to urge ‘good officers’ to report police misconduct, they must help create safe zones for officers who report wrongdoing, protect ‘good cops’ from rogue administrators and demand real whistleblower protections that extend beyond the academic.”

Cheryl Dorsey: Whistleblower protection laws are not a real thing.  Chiefs have total autonomy and there is no outside protection.  You have to decide what’s important. It has been my experience that if a black officer desires promotion; one must be quiet, pliable, seen but not heard.What drew me to the LAPD was the fact that a lifetime service pension was attainable after twenty years.  I remained focused, kept my eye on the prize, and I am currently in my 18th year of retirement. However, I nearly became a statistic two-years prior to retirement eligibility. The sheriff’s department which had jurisdiction where I resided notified the LAPD of domestic conflict at my home involving my husband, who was also an LAPD officer at the time. LAPD initiated a personnel complaint against husband charging domestic abuse.  The LAPD charged me with violation of misconduct because I “caused the response of an outside agency.”  I was investigated by Internal Affairs and ordered to a Board of Rights.  I sought the assistance of a black command staff officer for whom I had previously worked to speak as a character reference, but he refused. The white male chairman who was a deputy chief on the LAPD at the conclusion of my Board of Rights decided to give me “mercy”. My job was spared and I was suspended for five days without pay. I was trying to get the attention of news agencies but the PD barred me from allowing anybody to cover my issues. 

6.      Shortly after the police murder of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California legislators proposed a new bill (which has also been championed by the ACLU) that would limit the use of deadly force by police.  California police kill more people than anywhere in the nation.  California has some of the highest rates of officer involved shootings, with Los Angeles leading the pack. What are your views on this bill and its prospects for reducing police violence?

Cheryl Dorsey:  I find little comfort in this bill. It is nothing more than semantics. Interpretation is still left to the officer's discretion. The problem remains in that great deference is given to a police officer's version of events and it is impossible to argue what is purported to be "in someone's head" ie. fear, danger, etc. Personal financial officer accountability much like the Baltimore City Solicitor enacted into their policy when civil suits arise from (injury) deadly force would be a great next step.

7.      What are your views on reform strategies like community policing and de-escalation?  Do they actually work and are they beneficial for communities of color who are under siege with high rates of police violence and police murder?

Cheryl Dorsey: The system does what it was supposed to do. Police chiefs have great autonomy.  The president of the National Association of Police Chiefs recently apologized to communities of color without articulating what changes if any would be implemented to address policy substantive change and officer accountability.  If police chiefs don’t see anything wrong with what their rank and file is doing then you’re not going to have change.  It is my belief that some police departments are corrupt and it’s top and down. Police chiefs seem obligated to protect that organism because that is where their loyalties lie.  They want you to not get on these jobs and make it easy for you to be eliminated.  If you understand that the system is corrupt you need to bring your head game.  I don’t believe that everyone gets indoctrinated.  Infiltrate the system and promote and you don’t have to sacrifice to do that.  Changes on any department will come from within. The best way to change a system is to become a part of that system. I suggest young people join the police departments where they live and become a part of the resolution. Don’t wait for them to do better. Stop expecting that they will treat us right. Just like the KKK has infiltrated the ranks of police departments around the nation as evidenced by an FBI report - black folks need to do the same. For more on my advocacy visit www.sgtcheryldorsey.com

Yulanda Williams: Reform efforts are receiving national pushback. Change is not easy. It is difficult and virtually impossible to reform police agencies without addressing internal problems such as racism, sexism, white supremacy, privilege, cronyism, and nepotism. Some pose this question, “how can you clean up someone else’s house if your own house is still dirty?” The only way to change is if we have more people of color and greater diversity to challenge the hierarchical culture of police departments across the U.S.  I am a member of the Barbershop Forum where we visit institutions and talk to young people to develop more trusting relationships with the community. Many of our people are criminalized at birth, and my approach is to respond to our communities in a meaningful, culturally sensitive way. My legacy is going to be as a woman who stood up for justice. You can’t buy me. We have a responsibility as officers of color not to allow ourselves to be bought by any particular group or system. Our integrity is our most precious commodity.


Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of  the novel White Nights, Black Paradise and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars Her new speculative fiction-sci fi play NARCOLEPSY, INC. debuts at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June.







Friday, March 23, 2018

The Christian Fascist Driven Public Health Crisis: Gutting Abortion and LGBTQI Care




By Sikivu Hutchinson

When George W. Bush was in office he provided a robust platform and bully pulpit for Christian conservatives, creating the Faith Based Initiatives office, letting his “born again” status guide imperialist Middle East policy, condemning abortion and same sex marriage, and cozying up with prominent white evangelicals. Shortly before Bush left office, liberal religious leader Jim Wallis proclaimed in Time Magazine that the Religious Right’s era was over and a “new age” of progressive faith-based politics was nigh. Evangelicals, Wallis declared, were “leaving the Religious Right in droves”.  

Has Wallis had a sit down with his white middle American evangelical brethren lately?

In the years since his lofty claims Religious Right Christian fascism has come roaring back with a vengeance, renewing its voice and impact under the white supremacist ethos of Donald Trump.  Outpacing Bush, the Trump administration is shaping up to be the most militantly fundamentalist Christian-aligned administration in American history. Case in point is the newly minted “Conscience and Religious Freedom” division of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights, the administration’s latest and most insidious weapon to dismantle abortion rights and LGBTQI rights.  

Trump’s appointment of Catholic attorney and notorious abortion foe Roger Severino to head the division is exhibit A in the advancement of a far right, Christian fundamentalist agenda to reverse Obama-era civil rights protections.  Severino joins Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson in Trump’s mob of fundamentalist ideologues masquerading as civil rights defenders.  His crusade to defend “religious freedom” as the preeminent right (he’s dubbed it the “first right”) has elicited backlash among LGBTQI activists and community-based organizations fighting against the systematic denial of health care to transgender patients.  According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender survey, transgender adults routinely experience health care discrimination by providers. Religious providers have often claimed that they oppose serving transgender patients on the grounds that they would be forced to do gender transition surgeries. However, a Center for American Progress report found that most trans patients were discriminated against by health providers on the basis of their gender identities rather than surgery.

The new HHS civil rights office bolsters the reactionary direction of state and regional public policy in red states on abortion and LGBTQI rights.  Last year, political pressure forced the closure of Planned Parenthood facilities in Wyoming and North Dakota—making them the only two states in the U.S. without clinics.  Closures of Planned Parenthood facilities in the Southwest and Midwest are especially harmful to the socioeconomic stability of working class and low-income families of color for whom access to abortion services, birth control and health screening are life and death matters.  
Following this trend, the Mississippi legislature recently passed a bill that would ban abortions at 15 weeks, making it the most draconian anti-abortion law in the nation. Applauding the bill, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said that it would cause the state to be the “safest place for an unborn child” in the country. Bryant’s lie is all the more enraging when one considers that Mississippi has consistently been ranked last in health care provision and has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation.

Moreover, this deepening reproductive health care imbalance between blue states like California and the Northeast and red states in the South and Midwest will only exacerbate regional wealth, health, and social welfare disparities.

Going against the Trump tide of Christian fascism, the California Assembly recently voted to approve SB320, which would allow funding for medication abortion at public universities. If passed by the full California legislature, SB320 would provide abortion access to students and make it easier for them to continue their education and graduate from college.  SB320 is especially important due to the high concentration of working class and low-income women of color who attend public universities and often rely on their schools for primary care. For example, African American students in the Cal State system have the highest rate of food insecurity and homelessness.  These socioeconomic factors make it more likely that they will rely on health care at K-12 public schools and colleges.  In addition, the disturbing proliferation of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) in working class communities of color also makes passage of the bill imperative for public school students.

The Supreme Court is currently weighing a case (NIFLA vs. Becerra) brought by CPCs that challenges a 2015 California law requiring them to inform clients that they aren’t medically licensed practitioners. Under the law, these fraudulent facilities must also apprise women of “all family planning and pregnancy-related services” including abortion.  According to a new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 61% of those utilizing abortion care in 2014 were women of color, making the crackdown by HHS and red state legislatures all the more perilous for the socioeconomic future of communities of color.

Trump’s strategic alliances with professional antiabortion crusaders and Christian fascists will fundamentally reshape the U.S.’ public policy and medical climate for decades to come.  This makes it all the more important for gender justice educators and activists of color to work strategically with young women of color in schools, communities, cultural centers and statehouses to fight for reproductive justice and LGBTQI health access as non-negotiable human rights.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (2011), Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, (2013) and the novel, play and film short White Nights, Black Paradise (2015), on Peoples Temple and the 1978 Jonestown massacre. Her forthcoming novel Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe, is due in the fall of 2018. Twitter @sikivuhutch


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Grinning Skull Short Film by Sikivu Hutchinson






Set in Los Angeles in 1946, Grinning Skull focuses on three women of color washroom attendants wrestling with the decision to unionize, bucking racism, sexism, and class discrimination at the Pacific Electric Railway subway terminal. Testing the limits of solidarity, they come face to face with years of collective rage, resentment and suspicion, forging a final alliance in the claustrophobic netherworld of serving ‘Miss Ann’.  Grinning Skull debuted as a stage play at L.A.'s Robey Theatre at the 2017 Paul Robeson Theatre Festival at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.  Starring Camille Lourde Wyatt, Cydney Wayne Davis and JC Cadena. Watch the film trailer above.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Future of Feminism Girls of Color Conference 2018




On May 24, 2018 student leaders from Dorsey, King-Drew, Fremont, Miguel Contreras, Gardena and Hamilton High Schools will present and lead on feminist of color intersectional activism focusing on sexual violence, misogynoir, criminalization, educational justice, fighting transphobia and homophobia and cultural stereotypes.

Info: www.womensleadershipla.org

Friday, December 29, 2017

Bad As She Wants To Be: An Interview with Black Guitar Visionary Malina Moye



By Sikivu Hutchinson 

When Eric Clapton declared recently that “maybe the guitar is dead” he clearly didn’t consult Malina Moye, the maverick left-handed axe slinger who is inspiring new generations of electric guitar players to rock on.  Featuring her signature fusion of rock, funk and blues, Moye’s eagerly awaited new album, “Bad As I Wanna Be”, is set to drop in March 2018Over the past decade, Moye has received acclaim for her trailblazing work and was named one of “The Top 10 Female Guitarists to Know”, by Guitar World Magazine.  In a career that’s spanned the globe, she’s performed for the Queen of England, played in the Experience Hendrix Tours, and been featured at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's tribute concert for music pioneer Chuck Berry.  Her “Led Zeppelin meets Sly and the Family Stone, with a little bit of Hendrix thrown in”  2014 record “Rock & Roll Baby” (which featured funk icon Bootsy Collins and was dubbed “insanely good” by Guitar Magazine) garnered three Billboard charting singles on various charts in the Top 40.

Moye describes her upcoming album as acelebration of self [and the cover] image personifies an empowered woman who is her own super hero.”  As one of the only internationally renowned African American women rock guitar players, Moye is acutely aware of the role racism, sexism, and white supremacy play in stunting the careers of women of color in the music industry.  Despite posthumous acknowledgment of the influence of rock guitar pioneer Rosetta Tharpe, there are no black women or women of color on Rolling Stone’s “Top 100” guitar players list.  And for the largely white male gatekeepers of RS, only a few white women merit inclusion in the pantheon of blues and rock “gods” who have sold mega millions, influenced scores of musicians, and indelibly shaped global pop culture.  As Moye notes, “Because of where we are as a nation, it’s obvious there are still underlying prejudices in America's DNA. I feel sometimes it's important to start a conversation about issues like the absence of diverse women in certain areas of the music industry. It’s about redefining the status quo and being unapologetically you.”

In a hyper-segregated industry that has long thrived on ripping off black folks’ invention of rock music, Moye is constantly innovating, collaborating, and wrecking respectability politics. During our recent interview about her new album we discussed her upbringing as a musical prodigy, the need to mentor black women and girls of color, and the perennial question of “Why (it) is that our people feel rock is not part of our black culture?”

How did you start playing electric guitar and what messages did you receive about playing this “male” instrument when you were growing up?
 My mom and dad were big influences.  I grew up in a musical family and my dad gave me a guitar at seven years old but I didn’t really take to it until nine.  He gave me a right-handed guitar, but that didn’t work for me because I was left-handed, so I flipped it over and learned how to play it upside down because it felt more natural.  My technique is rare. I actually play with the guitar strung in reverse (upside down) like Albert King famously did in the 60s, and like today’s Eric Gales and Doyle Bramhall, who are also upside-down lefties, on the Experience Hendrix tour.



Even in the beginning, I was so focused at nine years old.  I was walking my own path and following my own beat.  I told my parents that I wanted to do music, turned professional at twelve, and started a band with my brothers.  I was told that I was obsessed, but, in my mind, this was just normal.  My cousins wanted to watch cartoons and they said I was always like, ‘hey, we have to rehearse’.  We would perform at night with the band and go to school in the morning. 

I was born in Ohio but grew up in Minnesota in the late 80s.  The Minneapolis sound merges funk, rock and soul and it is my DNA as a musician, especially growing up listening to Prince.  In Minneapolis, the musicians would add distortion to the guitar which followed funk rhythm and bass lines, with elements of synth-pop. I remember my mom driving my band to one of the Minneapolis clubs as kids where I asked one of Prince’s horn players to record on my album.  The guy was so blown away that he brought his entire horn section to the studio and I had all the horns play on my album. That’s what made me realize everything is possible—when people responded positively to what I was doing at such a young age. Growing up as one of the only black kids in school and in the community, I learned how to embrace being different than everyone else while going after what I wanted. This alone has helped me navigate in the current rock music industry and I’m thankful for it.

Who were some of your superheroines growing up? My mom Scelesteen is no joke.  She didn’t take shit from anybody and she told me that you can do anything in this world that you want to do.  She was ruthless, amazing, and full of love, but she went through so much in life. If the house was burning down she would say ‘we can have a pity party for five seconds’ and then we would have to keep it moving. My grandmother was also another major influence in my life.  She made sure that everyone ate and everyone knew love.  We were never made to feel like we were poor and didn’t have anything.  I also admire Sheila Nevins, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and any woman who actually stands up for herself and makes something work. 

Who are some of your primary artistic influences? Growing up with musical parents, I listened to an eclectic palate of music spanning several decades. At home, we played Mahalia Jackson, Prince, Tina Turner, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Michael Jackson. Recently, I’m loving Eminem and Bruno Mars.

What challenges have you encountered in the music industry vis-à-vis racism and sexism?
Certain avenues are not available to you when you’re the first person doing these things.  But one of the great things is now folks can create and control their product.  Money gives you access to do certain things.  Take Rosetta Tharpe, who was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is now being considered the actual architect of rock music. There are few black women in rock overall and even fewer who are playing electric guitar. For instance, some great players who should be recognized more are Kat Dyson, Diamond Rowe, and Jackie Venson. We have to redefine the status quo.  I want to play my part and help folks rethink how black women are perceived in entertainment.  Ask yourself, which women, let alone black women, are in the top twenty on the rock charts? I want to encourage mainstream rock artists to diversify by putting other unique artists in front of their shows as support acts whom their audiences ordinarily wouldn’t see. That [kind of exposure] trickles down to playlists and to radio; and maybe it will make the old guard rethink their programming.  It’s important to start a conversation about the lack of opportunities and representation to provide vehicles for girls of color to play music.  They’ve cut arts out of schools and underfunded music training. In order to make those avenues happen we need to educate and force the conversation. So, with Rosetta Tharpe being inducted, maybe now black women and women in general will start to be included in the rock genre much more.

What advice would you give to young women of color about navigating the racism and sexism of the music industry? I really take to heart what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said about your life’s blueprint: “[you should have] a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth and your own ‘somebodiness’. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”  Everything that you do, do it in truth and try to be the best at what you do, and just know that God will always make a way.  There are other people ahead of you who’ve made their way, which sometimes shows you that you can at least grasp an opportunity.  It’s important to mentor and raise up young people that are coming up.  If you see other kids that are killing it, highlight them, put them on your Instagram, because that is the new medium. Find like-minded individuals and don’t let anybody make you feel like you don’t matter. The hardest thing in the world is to ignore what people think—good or bad. Do what you know you are put here to do and show up.  When they tell you that you can’t do it, still show up.  Make “No” fuel you, and accept all of those life lessons which are part of your journey.  If you see me with my axe doing me, that means you can do you too. My mantra is, ‘Discover your super power and celebrate yourself.’

Malina Moye’s album “Bad As I Wanna Be” will be released in March 2018.  For more information check out www.malinamoye.com.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of the novel and play White Nights, Black Paradise, on Black women, Peoples Temple and the 1978 Jonestown massacre. Her forthcoming novel Rock ‘N’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe, is due Summer 2018.



Monday, December 25, 2017

#MeToo in Our Schools? Hearing Black Girls in the Sexual Abuse Backlash

Dorsey High School, December 2017

By Sikivu Hutchinson and Ashunda Norris

In 1991, African American law professor Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas transformed her into a feminist icon in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace.  Building on Hill’s legacy, women in corporate America, state and federal government, college campuses, and the entertainment industry have exposed perpetrators, challenged victim-blaming, and mainstreamed a #MeToo movement that was initiated by Tarana Burke, a black woman. Yet, when we turn on the TV and see debates about this brave, new heightened consciousness, the faces and voices of black women and girls are often missing.  This is despite the fact that approximately 34-50% of African American girls have experienced child sexual abuse.

As educators and mentors in Los Angeles schools, we see how they have become fertile ground for unchecked sexual harassment and sexual violence.  In an informal survey conducted at three South L.A. high schools by the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP), a majority of girls of color felt unsafe on campus and had experienced some form of sexual harassment.  Some felt victimized by a jock culture that encourages boys to openly rate girls’ bodies, sex partners, and desirability, spilling over into toxic social media attacks.   As a result of these experiences, respondents said that they felt less confident about themselves and did not feel supported at school.  For many girls, going to school in an environment where sexual harassment is normalized can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and self-harm.

Dorsey HS, December 2017


Sexual harassment in schools often takes the form of catcalling, touching, ogling and being called out of one’s name.  Terms like “bitch”, “ho”, “ratchet”, “thot” (that *h* over there) are frequently used to demean African American girls in ways that echo their specific history of institutionalized rape and dehumanization in the U.S. under slavery.  As a form of sexual harassment, use of these terms reinforce a violent culture and climate that is normalized by a “boys will be boys” mentality. This mentality is often cosigned by teachers and administrators.  As a result, girls find that simply walking around campus becomes a minefield fueled by widespread ignorance about behaviors that qualify as harassment.      

Shania Malone, a member of the WLP, and a senior at Dorsey High School who is openly bisexual, says that she has been harassed by a female student. Malone also shared that she attempts to take preventive measures to curb sexual comments. "I usually wear my backpack really low to cover my butt. I also wear clothes to cover up my shape and curves."  Serenity Smith, another senior at Dorsey, related that she has been made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe at school. Young men frequently joke about her body. "They think they can say stuff like: 'I'll blow your back out, your ass is looking mighty fine today, and your pussy is showing today' and not get into trouble because their behavior is justified."

The sexualization of black girls at very young ages contributes to an atmosphere where sexual violence against them is viewed as inconsequential.  If black girls are stereotyped as “unrapeable”, then everyday sexual harassment is something that “they bring onto themselves”.

A recent Georgetown University study on cultural perceptions about black girls concluded that they are widely viewed as more mature, less innocent, and less in need of protection than white girls. Racist, sexist perceptions such as these contribute to higher rates of suspension, expulsion, and incarceration among black girls.  According to the African American Policy Forum, black girls are routinely overpoliced in public school environments. On a national level, black girls are suspended nearly six times more than white girls, and are more harshly disciplined for lesser or similar offenses than white girls. Further, the Human Rights for Girls advocacy organization has concluded that exposure to “sexual abuse is one of the primary predictors of girls’ entry into the juvenile justice system.” These factors, coupled with a culture that condones sexual violence against them, make many black girls feel that they have nowhere to turn when they are victimized.

Dorsey senior and WLP member Tayah Hubbard stressed that many black girls feel like they won’t be believed if they tell someone they’ve been sexually harassed or abused.  For Hubbard, “black girls are told ‘oh you’re strong and you can get through it.” Hubbard sees a connection between the dearth of social services, after school programs, and counselors in predominantly black and Latino schools and the high numbers of students who are pipelined into prisons instead of college. 
Hubbard and her peers in the WLP recently led sexual harassment prevention workshops with classmates of all genders.  But although new sexual harassment policies are being touted on Capitol Hill and in the State Legislature, sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention education that speaks to the specific circumstances of girls of color is not part of the curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  The #MeToo movement has disrupted the national status quo of silence and invisibility around sexual harassment, yet, when it comes to validating the experiences of girls in communities of color, the silence is still deafening.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist high school mentoring program for girls of color
Ashunda Norris is a filmmaker, poet, community builder and teacher whose most recent work as a filmmaker has screened internationally, including Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya. Her writing has appeared in The Rush Magazine, L.A. School Report and DC Metro Theatre Arts




Wednesday, December 6, 2017

White Nights, Black Paradise: A Staged Reading


"A remarkable novel about a fascinating history...The book does justice to the survivors and victims of Jonestown by forcing the reader to recognize what mainstream discourse has gotten terribly wrong about the tragedy. I encourage anyone who cares about history and the truth to read this book as it goes beyond what existing scholarship would have you believe!" Anita Little, Religion Dispatches
 
"White Nights, Black Paradise" renders visibility to everyday black women's struggle with race, gender, religion, morality and poverty. The stories of Taryn and the other black members of the Peoples Temple that Hutchinson vividly brings to life makes it clear that while many blacks submitted to the ideal salvation of the racial utopia Jim Jones pushed, this submission of sorts represented black peoples' epic struggle and fight with finding a voice and life in a racially hostile homeland. This is an important and beautifully written story that restores the humanity of the followers of Peoples Temple." Kamela Heyward-Rotimi, Duke University

  
"Brilliantly woven." African Americans on the Move Book Club

"Hutchinson not only provides perspectives underrepresented in the history of the Peoples Temple, she crafts a compelling piece of historical fiction that will grip you until the very end...She has written a valuable work for anyone interested in the intertwined histories of religion, the left, and the African-American Freedom Struggle in this country, one providing important insights for anyone concerned for the future of the progressive movement in America.David Anderson, LA Progressive

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