Bold Moves to End Sexual Violence: Challenging White Supremacy in Prevention

Ms. is a proud media sponsor of the 2018 National Sexual Assault Conference, co-hosted by the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. This year’s NSAC theme is “Bold Moves: Ending Sexual Violence in One Generation.” In this series, NSAC presenters and major speakers are expanding on conference conversations and laying out bold moves all of us can take. Click the banner image above or this link for more Bold Moves posts.

If we truly aim to end sexual violence in one generation, we will never be successful without tearing down all forms of oppression. This year’s National Sexual Assault Conference (NSAC) provides us the opportunity to do just that. In community, we are having transformative conversations about bringing margin to center in our prevention efforts—and building our capacity as co-conspirators in the movement to end racism.

In their Statement on Charlottesville, the National Task Force to End Sexual & Domestic Violence asserted that “the quest to end domestic violence and sexual assault is inextricably linked with the quest to end racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, xenophobia, religious bigotry toward Jewish and Muslim communities and other forms of oppression toward marginalized communities, including immigrant and Native American communities.” Echoing this call to action, the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence urged us to “take responsibility within our own ranks” and “to work actively to end racism.”

Leaders ranging from Kimberle Crenshaw and Black Women’s Blueprint, Inc., to Move to End Violence and previous Know Your IX Executive Director Mahroh Jahangiri have called on us to interrogate our centralization of whiteness, our manipulation of the “oppression olympics” and the other systems of oppression we have upheld in the name of ending violence and supporting survivors.

But in order to rise to this call, activists like you and me must equip ourselves to recognize, intervene and repair the harms that we have caused—and continue to cause—in our organizing and organizational structures.

The characteristics of white supremacy, as outlined by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones, are pervasive and frequently wedged amongst good intentions. Navigating how these characteristics show up in our team dynamics, program design, coalition building and leadership development is vital to building inclusive, safer and, ultimately, more effective social justice movements. If we want to better serve those who are inordinately impacted by abuse, and center their voices in the movement to end violence, we must collectively assess how we engage and support these communities from conceptualization to evaluation. To truly achieve liberation, we must interrogate how we do this work—and what power structures we are upholding in our efforts to create change.

We know that women of color are at a disproportionate risk of experiencing multiple forms of violence, with particular threats related to sexual, domestic and dating violence. Nearly half (45.6 percent) of American Indian/Alaska Native women, more than one in three (35.5 percent) non-Hispanic Black women, more than one in four (26.9 percent) Hispanic women and more than one in five (22.9 percent) Asian/Pacific Islander women have report experiencing some form of contact-related sexual violence, and transgender people of color who are survivors of hate violence are nearly twice as likely to experience sexual violence as their white counterparts. What is even more heartbreaking is that if you ask any sexual violence prevention educator or advocate, we will tell you that in reality, the numbers are even higher than the research tells us.

These numbers alone should be enough cause to interrogate white supremacy culture’s role in the occurrence of, and our response to, sexual violence. But our work doesn’t end there. These notions of superiority as normalized values, practices and promotions are not new—white supremacy has always been strongly rooted in our social and political systems. Our sudden collective realization of this fact in the U.S. is only further proof that we still have much work to do.

Unfortunately, for those of us who are outspoken in our opposition to white supremacy, its characteristics are still rooted in our everyday lives and work. The subtly institutionalized ways that we reinforce this ideology are no less pervasive or problematic than the mechanisms of those who have built their careers on the mantle of hate. As my NSAC co-presenter Carly Manes asserts: “The call is to spend our energy on transforming our cultural and personal habits that allow racism to thrive.”

Now more than ever, we must examine how we are both consciously and unconsciously reifying a white supremacist culture. We must recognize and unlearn the behaviors that got us to this point. 

In order to do the difficult work of unlearning these characteristics, white people must take it upon themselves to learn how these habits show up in our work and craft accountability structures. How do we as as educators perpetuate white supremacy in our program design, implementation and evaluation? In what ways are our programmatic and service structures rooted in whiteness? Moving forward, it is essential that the responsibility for these assessments not be shouldered on people of color, while simultaneously holding great respect for those who find passion in helping us along this journey.

To be clear, this conversation includes me. The deeper I dive into analysis, the more I become painfully aware of the the ways I have replicated damaging social norms and patterns—in my personal life, at work and even in my support of developing leaders. I’ve been blessed to have a community of friends willing to have difficult yet necessary conversations with me. They’ve taught me that this work requires vulnerability, that it gets messy and uncomfortable and that this work started much earlier than my existence—and will continue on far after.

Today at NSAC, we will build on the thought leadership of intersectional movement makers to catalyze a space of vested individuals hungry to disrupt the ways in which white supremacy culture manifests in our sexual violence prevention efforts. By crafting a space where attendees can transparently navigate how this toxic culture has been internalized both personally and professionally, we aim to ignite a conversation that will carry beyond NSAC to create lasting change.

Won’t you join us?

Sarah Colomé is the Director of the Women’s Resources Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a presenter at the 2018 National Sexual Assault Conference. Previously, she served as the Capacity Building Program Manager for Break the Cycle and the the SOARS Booking Director for A Long Walk Home, Inc. 

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