Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Silence Still Equals Death: Sexual Violence and Young Women of Color

By Sikivu Hutchinson
April is sexual assault awareness month.  It also marks the global observance of Denim Day for sexual assault survivors.  Black and mixed race women have some of the highest sexual assault rates in the nation. Yet, recently, when young women of color in my class spoke on the disproportionate number of women of color victimized by sexual violence, they initially 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.’ This intersection of internalized racism and sexism is most potent when youth grapple with how representations of young women of color in the media normalize sexual violence.
The normalization of sexual violence breeds silence in the classroom.  In the clockwatching ten minutes-before-the-bell-rings clamor of my peer health workshop of 11th and 12th graders there is silence, deafening and thick as quicksand. I have asked them a question about the widespread use of the words “bitch” and “ho” to describe young women of color on campus.  Several boys are holding forth in response. They are the same four opinionated boys who have been the most vocal throughout these sessions, always ready with a quip, a deflection or, sometimes, serious commentary that reveals deep wisdom. They are bursting with perspective on this topic, but the girls in the room are silent. Some twist in their seats, some study the tops of their desks in calculated boredom, transporting themselves outside of the room, slain by the language of dehumanization. Finally a few girls chime in and say they use the terms casually with friends, as in “my bitch or my ho,” supposedly neutralizing their negative connotations akin to the way they use the word “nigga.” Some claim the words are justifiably used to describe “bad girls” who are promiscuous and unruly, not realizing 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. When I wondered aloud whether white women call themselves bitch and ho as terms of endearment I got uncertain responses. My guess is that they don’t, not because white women are necessarily more enlightened and self-aware than women of color on gender, but because white femininity is the beauty ideal and hence the human ideal. Despite the misogyny that pervades American culture there is inherent value placed on the lives of white women. Every aspect of the image industry affirms their existence, and the spectrum of culturally recognized white femininity extends from proper and pure to “sexually liberated.”

This is exemplified by the tabloid media’s obsession with missing white women and white girls. Plastered on websites like AOL, relentlessly rammed down our collective throats in titillating morsels with whiffs of sexuality and scandal, poster child Caylee Anderson and company are a metaphor for Middle America’s Little Red Riding Hood fetishization of white femininity. Tabloid narratives of imperiled white females highlight the suburban virtues of white Middle America and not so subtlely evoke the social pathologies of the so-called inner city. Indeed, the spectacles of grief, mourning, and community outrage trotted out on CNN and FOX not only program viewers to identify with the injustice that has been done to the victim and her family, but to her community. In the world of 24-7 media these victims become our girls, our daughters, while the “bitches” and “hos” of the inner city symbolize the disorder and ungovernableness of an urban America whose values must be kept at bay.

In many regards this is part of the same “post-feminist” trend that tells women to sit down and shut up, to internalize the values of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, and stay in their place. A generation of Bush militarism and corporate reign over media has turned sexualized violence against women into a billion dollar industry, as illustrated by global romance with gangsta rap, violent video games and Internet pornography. Yet the desensitization of young black women to these trends is perhaps the most painful. When I talk to my students about the staggering rates of sexual assault and intimate partner abuse in black communities they are quick to judge themselves and their peers for inciting male violence. Unable to see themselves and their lives as valuable they slam other girls for being “hoochies” and sloganeer violent misogynist lyrics without a second thought. Awareness about the relationship between pervasive violence against black women in the media and male behavior is lacking.  This year Women’s Leadership Project students will conduct training in classroom 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. But unless we change the self-hating mindset of many young black women, silence—as the gay HIV activist saying goes—does equal death, and we are poised to lose another generation to a media-colonized sense of self-worth.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

College, Media Lies, and Gender Politics

Commentary By Sikivu Hutchinson

Recently former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum called President Obama a snob for having the audacity to suggest that going to college should be a priority.  As a privileged white male college graduate on big government’s payroll Santorum’s message to youth of color is: why go to college when there are unskilled sub living wage jobs selling oranges, cleaning houses, washing cars and shoveling French fry grease awaiting you in the ghetto?  Santorum’s anti-college diatribe comes in an era when the need for a college degree has increasingly been questioned by both right wing policy makers and mainstream media.  Yet, college-going continues to be one of the bedrock civil rights issues for youth of color in the U.S.  Over the past several years the wealth gap between black and Latino households and white households has widened.  Over the course of their lifetimes college graduates earn nearly one to several million more than do high school graduates.  However, in California, Latino youth have the lowest college going rates among youth of all ethnicities despite the fact that they comprise over 50% of students in California schools.  While college-going for African American students has increased college completion for youth of color overall remains abysmally low at major colleges and universities.  Historically, colleges and universities that have few African American students and few culturally responsive on-campus resources have lower black graduation rates.  According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “Curriculum differences also play an important role in graduation rates. Carnegie Mellon University and Cal Tech are heavily oriented toward the sciences, fields in which blacks have always had a small presence. It continues to be true that at many high-powered schools black students in the sciences often have been made to feel uncomfortable by white faculty and administrators who persist in beliefs that blacks do not have the intellectual capacity to succeed in these disciplines.”
For youth of color who are the first in their families to go to college these challenges are compounded by the disproportionate number of black and Latino students who are in foster care, undocumented, homeless, and/or formerly incarcerated.  Only 44% of LAUSD graduates go on to four year colleges.  And the percentage of South Los Angeles high school graduates who do so is significantly lower.  Due to budget cuts, inept professional development and institutional racism, culturally responsive college counselors, A-G college preparation courses, and highly qualified teachers are in short supply in high poverty schools.  During a recent college forum at Gardena High School four activists from the Women’s Leadership Project and FUEL, CSU Long Beach’s undocumented youth advocacy group, discussed the importance of knowing how to prepare for and navigate college.  All of the young women on the panel were the first in their families to go to college.  The panelists discussed study groups, mentors, taking the time to meet with professors during office hours and tuning out the distraction of social media and peer pressure.  Although the college-going rates of women of color outpace their male counterparts, college-educated black and Latina women continue to face steep obstacles in the job market vis-à-vis sexual harassment, employment discrimination (particularly within the private sphere), and pernicious wage gaps. Indeed, although black men have higher overall unemployment rates than black women, rates for black men improved at the end of 2011 and worsened for black women due to deep cuts in public sector jobs.  The panelists addressed confronting sexist low expectations in school-community climates that normalize misogyny, teen pregnancy, and the model of black and Latina women as self-sacrificing caregivers.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

WLP Presents: Women of Color College Forum

On March 16th Gardena High School's WLP held their first annual Women of Color College Forum. Current college students discussed their experiences negotiating the college landscape. They addressed the specific challenges young women of color face getting to and staying in college, and provided details on their success experiences as emerging young leaders for social justice. Check out clips from our forum featuring panelist Marlene Montanez, Imari Moses, Mayra Borunda, and Clay Wesley.

Janeth Silva on the WLP Retreat

Janeth Silva is a senior and member of the Women’s Leadership Project at Gardena High School. She is co-founder of AB-540 Crew, a club advocating for the educational equality of undocumented students at Gardena High School. Janeth has recently been admitted to Cal State Los Angeles, where she plans on pursuing a degree in education. Janeth recently participated in the WLP retreat sponsored by the L.A. County Human Relations Commission's zerohour program.

This year I started my spring break by going off to the WLP retreat held at the Thousand Pines campgrounds. I was so excited because this was going to be my first time going on a camping trip. My friends Liz, Ronmely, and I had a whole cabin to ourselves! The workshops we had were fun and educational. During the opening ice breaker activity, we were asked to find someone with a positive male role model in their life, I was very surprised to see that I was one of very few women of color attending the retreat who have a such a person in their life. I feel very privileged to be able to count my father as a positive and supportive presence.

Another thing that really stood out to me was our discussion on abortion. At the beginning of this workshop I was totally against abortion and so were the majority of the other girls, some were so against abortion they decided not to participate in the conversation at all. By the end of this workshop I came to understand that abortion is a human right and that all women should have this option. I also became very aware that the politicians who fight against abortion the most are predominately white males. I think males who fight so hard against abortion are afraid that if women see abortion as a human right, then many women will no longer be shamed into not becoming as educated and powerful as men. I think men who don’t believe in a woman’s right to choose want to keep the women in the house taking care of the kids. Although I am still not completely for abortion I understand there are circumstances where an abortion is truly women's last option.

A third conversation that was eye opening for me was the discussions about how the LGBTQ community is treated in our society. I had never really stopped to consider how many rights straight people have that gay people don’t. I think it’s it wrong and unfair how gay people are treated. This workshop made me very aware of how in all my years of attending school I have never come across a positive or historic depiction gay/lesbian/bi people.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Liz Soria's WLP Retreat Experience

Liz Soria is a senior and member of the Women’s Leadership Project at Gardena High School. She is co-founder of AB-540 Crew, a club advocating for the educational equality of undocumented students at Gardena High School. Liz recently took part in the WLP retreat held at the Thousand Pines campgrounds. The event was sponsored by the L.A. County Human Relations Commission's zerohour program.

The WLP retreat was a fantastic experience that I would not think twice about doing again. The nature walks were relaxing and gave me time to contemplate changes I want to make in my life. As much as I enjoyed the trails and being surrounded by nature, I also enjoyed the films and workshops. Personally, the workshop that Diane Arellano gave us stood out to me. In this workshop, we heard the story of a teen age Dominican girl named Yanira who lives in New York. Yanira tried to commit suicide because of the pressures she faced at home. She lived in a strict home where she was not allow to go out of the house aside from school, or have friends or boyfriends. Her mother’s desire to have control over Yanira included subjecting her to random pregnancy tests. Yanira was expected to take care of her siblings and when her mother contracted breast cancer, Yanira was expected to care of her too. When Yanira did attempt suicide, staying in the hospital was an experience that made her feel loved because the nurses were nice to her. I related to this story because I know how it feels when your family is putting so much pressure on you that you can’t even focus in school. Having conversations about the pressures that young women of color face has been life changing, before having found WLP I was super brain washed. In my home and in my community I have always understood that a higher education is not as important as having kids and staying home to clean and cook like a “real woman/ wife” does.
I think of Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) as the light in the darkness. As a senior at Gardena, I had no hope or desire to go to college before WLP. I used to think it would be impossible for me to attend college because I’m undocumented. Meeting Diane Arellano and Ms. Hutchinson was something special for me because they have helped me understand the pressures and obstacles we face while encouraging us to attend college. I see all the hard work they do by teaching us about equality, the rights of women, and other things they bring for us to learn. Ms. Hutchinson is my role model because she has inspired me to value educating young women.

Ariana Mercado on Reproductive Justice

Ariana Mercado is vice-president of the Women’s Leadership Project at Gardena High School. She is a passionate and vocal advocate for the prevention of teen pregnancy and decreasing the representations of hyper sexualized children in the media. Ariana is a junior at Gardena High School who plans to enroll in a pre-med program after graduation. Ariana was one of many participants at the recent WLP retreat sponsored by the L.A. County Human Relations Commission's zerohour program.

During the Thousand Pines retreat I took part in many workshops that were very helpful to me. The most memorable session, in my opinion, was the workshop on reproductive justice. Reproductive justice is an idea that takes into account all of the things that impact a woman’s reproductive choices. Abortion is part of reproductive justice but not the only health issue covered in reproductive justice. After watching a film explaining reproductive justice we spent time discussing our opinions on abortion. I learned a lot from this session because I had always been against abortion, but this session opened my eyes to a new perspective. I now think abortion doesn’t have to be wrong because it is a necessary option that all women must have available to them. There are many different reasons that can lead a woman to be in a situation where she is not prepared to have a baby and to take her choice away to decide the rest of her life is wrong. I greatly appreciate that WLP gave me the opportunity to experience something like this because it gave me new perspectives on issues that I’ve never had a chance to discuss with classmates or friends. I would love to be able to get to experience another retreat like this one again.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

WLP Alumna: Maya Borunda

Mayra Borunda is a Gardena High School and WLP alumna. She is a talented community leader and second year college student at Cal State University Long Beach. On the last week of March, Mayra decided to join our WLP retreat and has been kind enough to write about her experiences at the Thousand Pines campgrounds. The event was sponsored by the L.A. County Human Relations Commission's zerohour program.

The Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) was always a great source of support and growth for me. Being able to return to this space during the WLP Arrowhead retreat was both a heartwarming and inspiring. The retreat provided the space necessary to discuss many issues that affect young women of color without fear of being judged or reprimanded. In situations like this, it is always surprising to see how much everyone can learn from each other and our mentors, as well as how opinions shift and connection are made by simply discussing the issues that bind us women of color together.
One of the issues that stood out during the retreat was the discussion on abortion. As usual, this is a hot button issue with many strong opinions that lead to heated discussion. Initially some of the young women stated they felt abortion was “wrong” or “immoral,” and that women should be limited to how many abortions they can have. We were introduced questions such as “Why is our first impulse to police the female body? and "Why is no one trying to start a conversation about limiting men’s reproductive abilities?” It was incredible to see how some of these young women, including myself, suddenly realized that although many of us are pro-choice, we have been holding onto opinions that would ultimately make us lose control over our reproductive systems. The new perspective many of the girls gained after this discussion was obvious during our final conversation of the retreat where some stated that they felt more inclined to support the pro-choice movement, while others said they would likely consider abortion as a choice if they had an unplanned pregnancy.

Getting to know these young women over the course of a few days was very refreshing. In an era when women of color continue to be degraded and oppressed, hearing their desire to get educated and the strength behind their voices allowed me to see their potential to become extraordinary activists and leaders. Educating and mentoring young women became a passion of mine after joining WLP and participating in this retreat only reinforced that desire. The retreat was a success and I believe events and places like WLP give girls an opportunity at futures they choose instead of futures that are prescribed to them as urban young women of color.