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.