Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s political fire turned into smoldering ruins last week as allegations by his former partners of emotional, physical, verbal and sexual abuse came to light in an article in The New Yorker. It is now clear that the former head of law enforcement for New York state strategically assumed the rhetoric of the gender equity and justice movements for political gain—while in private, according to the allegations, his behavior consisted of intimate partner violence that derived from exercising unequal power and control to the point of physical assault and emotional abuse.
Since the news has broken, the analysis of his alleged behavior has rightfully been framed within the lens of domestic and sexual violence—but it is important that we do not ignore the racial elements in the allegations against Scheniderman.
Tanya Selvaratnam, a Sri Lankan artist and activist, claims that he called her a “brown slave,” forced her to say that she was his property and hit her until she complied. This behavior hearkens back to the painful colonial past that many South Asians carry with them, and reflects the belief that white people are racially superior to brown and Black people.
This moment is a pivotal one for our movement: Schneiderman’s racism should provoke just as much disgust and demand for accountability as his misogyny.
Undoubtedly, the cosmic shift occurring in our national socio-political landscape by way of #MeToo and #TimesUp is refreshing. Collectively, we are exhuming and ripping open the fastened coffins of abuse and sexual violence. But in spite of the presence of and need for active participation in these social movements, they do not offer an identifiable space for a significant segment of survivors. For women who do not occupy positions of power or privilege, much of this has been a conversation that is unrelated to their lives.
The experiences of women of color in situations of abuse do not occur in gender silos—and our movements for social change must not treat race and gender separately. It is not a far stretch to wonder whether Selvaratnam would have been believed without additional narratives by a white woman against the same powerful man. For women of color, speaking up and coming forward can be extremely dangerous—we are often not believed, and we face a brunt of victim-blaming.
During this moment of reflection, it is necessary to hold a mirror to our unified face to share the complexity of the allegations against Schneiderman. The experiences of survivors cannot be sanitized in a gendered construct; in fact, overtly being viewed as “other” is yet another thread in the narrative of sexual violence. Limited frameworks for these revelations and conversations only perpetuate the racism, sexism and classism that has deeply saturated the fabric of our culture and divides our collective experiences.
The very nature of a survivor is to be resilient; to face adversity in spite of challenge. We can stand with them by putting structures in place that stop them from experiencing any additional abuse. In order to do so in this moment, we must support survivors beyond listening to their stories—and acknowledge the racial impact of violence.