Friday, May 25, 2012

No Justice: A Look at Domestic Violence Against Native American Women

By Carmen Rivera

In the United States, Native American women are the demographic group that is most often the victim of violence, both domestic and otherwise. Many officials are
calling for expanded forensic nursing research in Native American communities
and thus, an increasing number of people are doing both traditional and
onlineforensic nursing programs. However, the real cure to this endemic problem may not be increased investigation efforts.

According to the Dart Center for Journalism, one in three Native American women will be
raped within her lifetime. And, according to reporting done by the
Organization for Women
, Native American women are victims of violence at rates that are three and a half times that of the national average for women.

A study done by the National Institute of Justice, entitled Violence
Against Indian Women
, demonstrates that many assaults of Native American women are related to the perpetrator’s abuse of alcohol. Additionally, few victims seek assistance. Women who were surveyed as part of the study stated that if they were a victim of
violence, they would be uncomfortable seeking help from authorities because they
would not want to ostracize their spouse. This is often because many tribal
authorities, and sometimes even abuse counselors, are known to be abusers
themselves, and therefore these individuals would have no interest in addressing
the problem.

Additionally, according to women who participated in a focus group, there is
limited awareness
of the extent of violence within the Native American community, because there exists a cultural dissuasion from openly discussing it. This limited awareness also prevents women from reporting violence or seeking help. Lastly, there is no infrastructure for men and perpetrators of violence to seek counseling
or assistance
, something that the women who participated in the study stress is also important going forward.

Moreover,this cycle of violence is exacerbated by poor or ineffective law enforcement,
particularly because of the jurisdictional problems related to Native American
reservations. Reservations have their own police force, that is expected to
respond to complaints about violence or assault. However, according to the
National Organization for Women, many of these officers do not take Native
American females’ complaints seriously, nor do they not follow up on them.
Moreover, according to law, reservation police are only able to prosecute fellow
Native Americans – which means that if a non-Native American were to abuse a
female, it would become a federal case. And, in fact, seventy percent of
violence committed against Native American women is committed by non-Native

Yet, the federal government seldom takes the initiative to prosecute these
individuals. This failure to prosecute has reached such epidemic proportions
that Attorney General Eric Holder recently formed a federal task force, the
Violence Against Women Federal and Tribal Prosecution Task Force as a way to
address the problem.

In recognition of the particular problems facing Native American women, congress
has added language to the Violence Against Women Act to specifically assist
Native American women by giving tribal prosecutors more power. The new language
in the act would also add protections for female members of the gay and
transgender community and female illegal immigrants. However,
to the Huffington Post
, because of these provisions, Republicans are currently unwilling to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, and claim that such additional measures are the result of Democrats’ “scheming.” Therefore, whether the act is ultimately reauthorized is an open question, as is the level of commitment by the Federal Government to stop this problem.

Carmen Rivera is a freelance writer who is passionate about building universally safe communities. Shoot her an email if you ever want to discuss an article

"Return" of the Welfare Queens: Feminism, Secularism, Anti-Racism

The percentage of white feminists who are concerned about racism is still a minority of the movement, and even within this minority those who are personally sensitive and completely serious about formulating an activist challenge to racism are fewer still. Barbara Smith, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the American imagination, Black women are the poster children for disreputable irresponsible motherhood and Latina “illegals” a close second. From birth to adolescence every girl of color must navigate a political climate in which Ronald Reagan’s racist welfare queen caricature casts long shadows. Ending its noble boycott of covering black women, the L.A. Times recently served up some red meat for welfare queen watchers. The front page featured an extensive profile of 27 year-old Natalie Cole, a jobless unmarried unskilled black mother with four kids. Entitled “Caught in the Cycle of Poverty” the article trots out an expert from Harvard who sagely proclaims that “poverty is bad for kids”; offering no further analysis on how the richest most militarized nation on the planet pimps out its children. Instead, we are regaled with Cole’s hot mess of personal failure and pathology. Coming from a long line of young single mothers, by the time she was 17 she was raising two children. She can’t be bothered to do a résumé or use birth control to avoid having a fifth child. The prayer "God in heaven, hear my prayer keep me in thy loving care" is taped to her bedroom wall. Needless to say she will not be getting her TLC, Oxygen or Lifetime reality show anytime soon.

The article was especially timely, tragic, and enraging because I recently found out that one of my most inquisitive students is pregnant at 16. Several of my Women’s Leadership Project alums, who worked their asses off to become the first in their families to go to college, speak of friends that have had children shortly after graduating from high school. As budding feminists they are overly familiar with the “validation” pregnancy supposedly provides working class young women of color inundated with media propaganda that hyper-sexualizes black and Latina bodies and demonizes abortion.
In this South Los Angeles school-community only a small fraction of the student body goes on to college and many youth are in foster care, often having to raise themselves. Small evangelical store front churches grossly outnumber living wage job centers, God and Jesus are touted as some of the biggest “cultural” influences, and high teen pregnancy rates are a symptom of the expendability of “other people’s children” (to quote education activist Lisa Delpit). Thirty years ago scoring a living wage job with benefits was still a possibility for a South L.A. teenager with only a high school diploma. Now, having a college degree is the bare minimum for getting a decent paying job. However the regime of mass incarceration has made the barriers to college-going even higher for youth of color. One in six black men has been incarcerated and in some instances whites with criminal records elicit more favorable responses from employers than do black or Latino applicants with no records. Mainstream media focus on the staggering unemployment rates of men of color has eclipsed attention to the economic downturn’s equally devastating impact on black women. Deepening segregation, diminishing job prospects due to the gutting of public sector employment (23% of black women are employed in public sector jobs) and mental health crises have pushed more women of color into the church pews, or, alternative spirituality, with a vengeance.
So what does the intersection of non-theism and feminism mean within the context of the New Jim Crow? And what might secularist feminism mean for women of color when the vast majority of them still view feminism as a “white” thing, chronically disengaged from critical issues of economic justice? These were some of the issues I cared about coming into CFI’s first ever Women in Secularism conference. The event was organized by DC CFI director Melody Hensley, who did an excellent job of bringing together a cross-section of writers, activists, and academics to discuss the politics of sexism, theocracy, women’s rights, and secular organizing. I was pleased to finally meet atheist feminists like novelist Alyson Miers, author of Charlinder’s Walk and Atlanta radio host Charone Pagett in person. Nonetheless, the overwhelmingly white audience highlighted the quantum leap that remains in making humanism, secularism, and atheism culturally relevant to communities of color.

One of the highlights of the conference was Wafa Sultan, a physician, internationally renowned activist, and L.A. resident. Sultan spoke movingly about her experiences with misogynist violence and repression in Syria, detailing her niece’s tragic suicide after enduring an abusive forced marriage. Like the Bible, woman-hating is embedded in the very language and doctrine of the Koran (she alluded to most of the occupants of Islamic hell as being female). Sultan insisted that if Americans can lob bombs and send drones to Middle Eastern countries they should certainly be allowed to develop secular schools there; an item that is clearly not high on America’s militarist agenda. While powerfully condemning Islam, she sidestepped the issue of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East vis-à-vis how Western occupation has historically aggravated Muslim fundamentalism rather than spur secular movements and women’s rights in countries like Iran and Iraq. She poignantly compared living under Islam to hell then proceeded to criticize American women for “complaining” about their civil rights (and ostensibly cozier existences). Her dismissal was jarring in a nation in the throes of white Christian fascist/Tea Party/American Taliban backlash—which ape the very fundamentalist traditions white nationalists demonize in the “primitive” Middle East—against women’s rights, LGBT equality, undocumented immigrant rights, and economic justice. Perhaps sensing the cognitive dissonance her scold elicited she circled back and expressed solidarity with American women at the end of her talk.

Sultan, Greta Christina, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Elizabeth Cornwell from the Richard Dawkins Foundation discussed the benefits and drawbacks of religion on a panel that delved into everything from anthropology 101 to organizing strategies. Discussing the need to organize across political interests Greta gave props to the Secular Students Alliance, referencing the appeal of LGBT advocacy to younger activists seeking to coalition-build. On the subject of why male non-believers greatly outnumber women non-believers in most societies, Cornwell stressed the gender specific needs of women vis-à-vis caregiving and childrearing. She argued that women are effectively compelled to seek the social and community protections provided by organized religion. Greta argued that men didn’t need the comforts of religion because they already enjoyed gender, race and class privileges in a stratified society. Hence, women who break away from social and cultural conventions risk greater ostracism and moral stigma than do men (such as being labeled a slut/fallen woman or bad mother).

I spoke on a panel about the intersection of feminism and non-theism with fellow bloggers/writers Rebecca Watson, Jen McCreight and Ophelia Benson. Having received a slew of Internet hate mail and rape threats, Watson called out male atheists who love to rail against Islamic patriarchy and female genital circumcision whilst paternalistically denying sexism in the New Atheist movement. McCreight challenged the audience to push back against sexist exclusion of the views of women activists and writers who speak out on women’s rights and the politics of diversity. But more than simple diversity radical intersectionality demands that the movement go beyond the canned mantra of religion versus science toward an anti-racist anti-sexist anti-heterosexist vision of secular social justice.

In her book Women in the Church of God in Christ Anthea Butler discusses how “church mothers” sought sanctification as a form of social agency within sexist Black Church hierarchies. An alternative to ordination, sanctification allowed black women to “negotiate for and obtain power both within the denomination and without it…Church members pursued sanctification through…fasting, prayer, scripture study, and other disciplines, creating moral and spiritual authority.” In short, church mothers in COGIC created meaningful spaces to compensate for their exclusion from official channels of power and authority. They also negotiated morality in a context in which Black women’s bodies were constructed as the criminal sexual racial other set against the backdrop of white innocence, reason, and Western civilization. No Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty. During the panel I framed this history vis-à-vis the explosion of fetal homicide, race-selection abortion, and other anti-family planning laws that disproportionately criminalize women of color as pathological breeders. Despite being less than 9% of the U.S. population, black women are the largest segment of the skyrocketing female prison population. Black children are six times more likely to have a parent or guardian in prison. And colorism plays a role in black female sentencing and incarceration rates as well. According to a recent study done in North Carolina prisons dark-skinned black women were more likely to receive and serve longer sentences than lighter-skinned black women. The War on Drugs, draconian Three Strikes laws, suspension and expulsion policies that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline and the gutting of the social welfare safety net have deepened black and Latino criminalization.

But these are not secular issues that are privileged in traditional humanist feminist discourse. As labor activist Siobhan Brooks notes in her article “Black Feminism in Everyday Life,” “(my mother) did not relate to white feminism because the poverty of women like her was never an agenda for them. I think largely the white mainstream feminist movement rarely considered issues of class regarding motherhood…Growing up I knew better than to get pregnant because of my mother’s warnings about how I would end up on welfare, like most of our female neighbors who were single mothers. Many hadn’t completed their education. My mother did not hold these views because she claimed to be feminist; she held these views because she knew firsthand the interlocking systems of racism, poverty, and sexism.” For Natalie Cole and all those "other people's children," humanist feminism has got to be down for this radical challenge.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, Forthcoming Fall 2012

In Godless Americana, Sikivu Hutchinson challenges the myths behind Americana images of Mom, Apple pie, white picket fences, and racially segregated god-fearing Main Street USA.  In this timely essay collection, Hutchinson argues that the Christian evangelical backlash against Women’s rights, social justice, LGBT equality, and science threatens to turn back the clock on civil and human rights.  As a result of this climate, more people of color are exploring atheism, agnosticism, and freethought.  Godless Americana examines these trends, providing a groundbreaking analysis of faith and radical humanist politics in an era of racial, sexual, and religious warfare.    

“So much conversation regarding atheism and humanism gains no 
traction, and does little to push beyond areas of comfort and well 
worn arguments.  Sikivu Hutchinson's work offers an important 
corrective to this.  With clear and sharp insights, Hutchinson pushes 
readers to recognize and tackle the patterns of thought and action 
that limit any real ability to respond to issues of race, gender, and 
sexuality from a transformative and humanist perspective.  Read her 
work, but fasten your seat belt first!" 

 -- Anthony Pinn, author African American Humanist Principles and The End of God Talk: An African American Humanist Theology

Silence, Sexual Violence and Young Women of Color

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In April thousands of schools did outreach for Denim Day, a global observance that honors sexual assault survivors.  This Denim Day my Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) students from Gardena and Washington Prep High schools in South Los Angeles conducted classroom trainings on gender equity and sexual violence; challenging their peers to critically examine the media, school, and community images that promote sexualized violence against women of color.  WLP is a feminist humanist mentoring and advocacy program based at Gardena and Washington Prep.  Like most South Los Angeles schools these two campuses are predominantly black and Latino.  They have high foster care, homeless, and juvenile offender populations and will be among the most deeply impacted campuses if the Los Angeles Unified School District proceeds with a plan to phase out health education requirements.

Health education is a frontline social justice issue in our schools.  Much of WLP’s curriculum focuses on HIV and STI contraction, intimate partner violence, and sexual assault.  Women of color have some of the highest sexual assault rates in the nation. Yet, when the girls in our workshops were asked to speculate about why our communities have disproportionate rates of sexual assault they trotted out stereotypes like “mixed race women are more likely to be raped because they are the ‘prettiest’ and “black women get assaulted more because they have ‘big butts.’ The association between black women’s anatomies and sexual violence was pervasive.  It brought home how deeply our young women are impacted by internalized racism and sexism.  And it underscored how hyper-sexual media depictions of young women of color normalize sexual violence.

Youth of color do not have the language to talk about the pain of sexual violence.  As a survivor growing up in the 70’s and 80’s I certainly didn’t.  Coming of age in an era in which they are stereotyped and criminalized as hard, swaggering, and nihilistic youth of color don’t “play” as victims. So when the WLP students began their presentations they encountered ridicule and bitter denial in some classes.  There is still widespread belief among girls that women bring sexual violence on themselves because of the way they dress, act, talk or walk.  Consequently, much of our training focuses on the culture of everyday misogynist violence that makes it acceptable for young women to call each other “bitches” and “hos.”  In fact, at the beginning of one presentation with a particularly resistant class, a girl sitting in the front jokingly referred to WLP 12th grade leader Liz Soria as a “bad bitch.” When Liz checked her she apologized, but the cold reality is that our girls are drowning in a 24/7 corporate media culture that serves up gang rape in videogames like Grand Theft Auto and state-sanctioned “rape” via the right wing family planning and abortion rights backlash.
Some girls claim they use the terms “my bitch or my ho” playfully.  In their view this neutralizes the negative connotations of these words, ala the way some young people use the word “nigga.” Of course, most girls of color use these terms to put “bad girls” who are deemed promiscuous and unruly in their place.  There is no consciousness that black women have always been deemed “bad” in the eyes of the dominant culture; as less than feminine, as bodies for violent pornographic exploitation, as essentially “un-rapeable.” For example, under slavery the rape of a black woman (regardless of whether the perpetrator was black or white) was not a punishable offense. And it was not until the mid-20th century that the rapes of black women were even seriously prosecuted.  Thus, while white femininity is the beauty ideal and hence the human ideal—exemplified by the tabloid media’s obsession with missing white women and white girls who become nationally eulogized as “our daughters” the face of victimhood—the “bitches” and “hos” of the inner city symbolize the disorder and ungovernableness of urban America.

Unable to see themselves and their lives as valuable girls of color slam each other girls for being “ratchet” (the new term for an unruly promiscuous girl) and sloganeer violent misogynist lyrics without a second thought.  But as the WLP students work through definitions, case studies, and scenarios of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the classroom they often see attitudes begin to shift.  Debunking the myth that rapists are strangers lurking in dark alleys, rather than fathers, step-fathers, uncles, and cousins, the trainings often elicit identification from students who have never had this experience validated.  WLP frontally addresses homophobia and the stigma surrounding male sexual assault victims, particularly in hyper-religious black and Latino communities. Getting young men and women to examine the destructiveness of traditional norms of hard, aggressive, invulnerable masculinity is also a key part of our outreach. 

I consider myself fortunate to be working with young women who are building a movement to change our local and national culture of misogyny.  Ultimately silence—as the old HIV/AIDS activist saying goes—still does equal death.

Sikivu Hutchinson is program director of the Women’s Leadership Project and the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.