April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month, according to President Trump…

How are you doing on a physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual level? As TakeAction Minnesota’s Women of Color Organizer, asking this question to leaders at the end of our meetings has become a ritual. Does it break established norms? Absolutely. As each woman answers, her public and private selves merge. Her whole self comes forward.
 
In writing this, I’m trying to do something similar, wrestling with the intersection of sexism and racism and their impacts on our bodies and our politics.  

I have a brief message to everyone who reads on: your compassion and courage is needed in this struggle too. Remember, people in your life benefit from you learning about systems of oppression, and their impact. I urge you to let go of your need to fix it. For the next five minutes I simply ask you to read this and to reflect. 

Here we go. 

When I bring body, mind, heart, and spirit into a public, political meeting, I am counteracting the expectation that these parts of me are to be left in private—I’m going against the grain of society that organizes public life around male, white-dominant culture.  And this is not just true for me. It’s also the lived experience of the women I organize with. 

As women of color, every step we take is against a backdrop of a society whose culture is inherently sexist and racist. Checking in on our how our bodies feel is paramount—there is a collective pain that comes from having the worth of your body debated.

It wasn’t until 1914 that American physicians started to publicly question the prevailing “science” that the Negro body could endure more pain because it lacked “acuteness of the senses.” In the United States, since childbirth has become more medicalized, women have become accustomed to giving birth laying down to accommodate the body of the male doctor. While more white people receive food assistance than people of color, it is people of color, particularly women, who receive the lion’s share of public shame.  In this case, the simple need to feed our bodies is being policed and politicized. Within this discussion is where racial and gender expectations are weaved tightly. 

I’m writing this post from an intentional, explicit point of view, one where racism and sexism meet. From this point of view,  I want to acknowledge that all of us are hurt living in a society that says we have to fend for ourselves, and that it’s our fault our bodies are suffering. Maybe you are sick or hurting now; maybe you’ve come to believe the falsehood that your pain is natural, or that it’s yours alone. 

We all have biological bodies. We all require some level of care. However, only some of our bodies are provided adequate space, time, and means to accommodate such needs. Here’s the thing: when we do not consider all the elements of a human, we are reinforcing the very ideology that says some bodies are more deserving than others.

So when I train women of color around leadership at the intersection of racism and sexism,  I don’t teach selflessness.  I don’t teach time-saving tips. These are tools developed to normalize harassment of our bodies.  Instead, this January, when I trained over 100 women of color about Intersectional Leadership, I landed points around selfishness, around clarity, around being rooted rather than overworked.  I talked about emotional labor—which is real labor, but is too often considered ‘women’s work’ and is devalued. As sisters, we trust each other to focus on what will truly liberate us.  

Now, how do we do this?  

We start by trying to understand how systems of oppression impact all of us.  At a recent training for white women who want to be effective allies to women of color,  we discussed the grounding concepts of ‘self-interest’ and ‘anchoring’.  A person grounded in their ‘self-interest’ asks: How do I interact with these systems of oppression? A person who is ‘anchored’ asks: How have these systems of oppression impacted me?

If you cannot answer this question, you’re not alone.  Many people can’t. 

For example, many women have been trained to perform like white men, and for white men, to win approval through heteronormative white male eyes. Many women have learned if they behave in a certain way, they will be rewarded.  (This instinct is one reason why women voted for Trump.)  Their commitment to this incentive can produce a blind spot, one that makes the impact of the oppression they are also experiencing more difficult to see.  Plus, that oppression is painful.  It’s hard to talk about.  It’s hard to admit.   It may be subtle or obvious.  It may be delivered via impersonal institutions or by people they love.  It’s in facing these ambiguities and this pain where our compassion and courage is needed.  

I am a survivor.  I have survived multiple traumas.  

I was in 7th grade history class, watching a documentary, when my classmate reached under the desk and flicked me between my legs.  He was so clear and I was so lost.  That was over two decades ago. 

My healing of that moment has matured as I grew clear on how my body held that trauma. Funny thing about your body, it will place you back into the moment so that you can practice surviving it the next time: textbook definition of post-traumatic stress disorder.

That was not my first experience with sexual trauma, and it wouldn’t be my last. But I’m sharing it with you because this is the moment I recalled last October when tapes of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women hit the airwaves. 

I’m sharing it with you because this is what I recalled when I heard that President Trump declared that April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month. When I heard this, my stomach turned. My throat closed up. I blinked in disbelief. My body felt weak and sick and angry. 

I’m sharing this with you because telling our stories can reintegrate us.  They can reconnect our physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual selves. They can help us be fully present inside of our ambiguities and in spite of the very real threats that sexism and racism pose for us.  For me.  And for you. 

My story is my own, but it’s not mine alone.  (The truth is, I know way more survivors than I care to admit.) And if we all don’t show up publicly, privately, in our bodies, with our stories we are underestimating ourselves.

We have a far way to go politically, and we need women of color to be fully present and leading the way.  And at every turn, we all need to acknowledge ourselves as whole human beings who deserve to live, live well, and live in joy. 

Here’s a final lesson: Women of color, white women, men of color, and white men benefit from a more egalitarian approach to public life. Every person, regardless of race or gender, benefits from renewed balance. From this place we can change politics, improve economic justice, and heal our environment.

 

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