28. How Do We Dismantle a Culture of Sexual Violence? (with Terrion Williamson and Carmen Balentine)

28. How Do We Dismantle a Culture of Sexual Violence? (with Terrion Williamson and Carmen Balentine)

With Guests:

  • Carmen Vasilio Balentine has spent 25 years working in the public sector to empower youth and to help them tell their stories. He is the founder of CVB Wellness, which promotes wellness, equity and healing in underserved communities. Most recently, he served as major gifts officer at American Foundation for AIDS Research.
  • Dr. Terrion Williamson, associate professor of African American and African studies with appointments in gender, women and sexuality studies and American studies at the University of Minnesota, as well as a Ms. contributor. Her research has tracked the serial killings of Black women. Her current book project, which builds upon work started in the last chapter of her first book, Scandalize My Name: Black Feminist Practice and the Making of Black Social Life, is a victim-centered study of the more than 60 cases throughout the U.S. in which Black women have been the sole or primary targets of serial killers since the 1970s.

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In this Episode:

Gender-based and sexual violence are pervasive symptoms of a larger violence issue in this country. This reality is exemplified by recent reports that some insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 have histories of violence against women, including domestic violence and sexual assault. Of course, we also remain in mourning for the lives lost to gun violence in America—most recently the horrific killings of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, in Atlanta, and 10 people at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado.

What do these events convey about the U.S. and our culture of sexual violence? What connections can we make from gender-based violence and sexual violence to a broader culture of violence in the U.S.? How does gender-based violence intersect with race and racism? What can we do to begin to disrupt this culture?

Have a topic you’d like us to delve into, a guest recommendationor just want to say hi? Drop us a line at [email protected]

Background Reading:

Transcript:

0:00:04 Michele Goodwin

Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. Magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show, history matters. We examine the past as we think about and pivot to the future. On today’s show, we focus on the question: How Do We Dismantle a Culture of Sexual Violence?

Gender-based and sexual violence are pervasive symptoms of a larger violence concern in our nation. This reality is exemplified by recent reports that there were insurrectionists, those who stormed the nation’s Capital on January 6, who have histories of violence against women, including histories of domestic violence and also sexual assault. We at Ms. also continue to mourn the lives lost to gun violence in America generally, and most recently, the horrific killings of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, Georgia.

What do these events convey about the United States in our culture of violence and sexual violence? What connections can we make from gender-based violence and sexual violence to a broader culture of violence in the United States? How does gender based violence intersect with race and racism, such as the events that we saw in Atlanta, Georgia or elsewhere, involving gun violence? What can we do to begin to disrupt this culture? And how do we dismantle a culture of sexual violence? Now, helping us to sort out these questions and how we should think about these issues and more our very special guests.

I’m joined by Carmen Vasilio Balentine. He has spent 25 years working in the public sector, to empower youth and to help them tell their stories, including intimate stories. He is the founder of CVB Wellness, which promotes wellness, equity and healing in underserved communities. I’m also joined by Dr. Terrion Williamson. She is an associate professor of African American and African Studies with appointments in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies and American Studies at the University of Minnesota. She is also a Ms. magazine contributor. Her research has tackled and tracked the serial killings of Black women. Her most recent works include What Does That Make You? Public Narration and the Serial Murders of Black Women. She’s also written Why Did They Die? On the Combahee and the Serialization of Black Death.

I couldn’t be happier to have these guests on my show, but I do warn that the material covered is sensitive in nature. And thank you all for listening.

0:03:06.5 Michele Goodwin:

Terrion, I’d like to start with you, please. So, your work has been pathbreaking because so few people study violence against Black women, it’s something that has actually been a taboo topic, in some ways, in some Black communities. That is, speaking about the violence that Black women experience at the hands of Black men. So can you tell us a bit about your research and what drove you to studying the violence against Black women?

03:39:00 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

Thank you for that question. I started studying violence against Black women, specifically serial murder, as a consequence of something that happened in my hometown. I am from a city called Peoria, Illinois and central Illinois. It’s about, you know, about…it is not…it turns out that there are other cities in Illinois other than Chicago, Peoria is one of them, about a 2-1/2-hour drive away from Chicago. And between 2003 and 2004, nine Black women were murdered in my hometown, and I knew one of those women personally.

Our families had gone to church together when I was young, and at the time that that series of murders was happening, I actually was in law school at U of I, which is about 1-1/2 hours away from Peoria. But I was in law school, I was doing the things one does in law school, and I didn’t get home a whole lot, but by the time…I had went immediately from law school into grad school, and by the time I got to grad school, the offender had ended up confessing to murdering eight of those nine women and being convicted, and he is now in prison serving a life sentence. And I didn’t go into graduate school thinking that I was going to talk about serial murder, that wasn’t the plan, but this thing that had happened in my hometown was so heavy on me, and I wanted to know more about it, and I wanted to understand it. And so that’s really how I got started doing the work and trying to…and at that point in time in my life, I didn’t recognize that serial murder of the type of incident that had happened in my hometown was actually something that has happened over and over and over again throughout this country in different places. And so by going back home and studying what had happened in my hometown, that then led me to looking beyond home and talking and thinking through all these other cases. So now the point at which I am in my work is that I am talking more extensively about Black women and girls who are victims of serial murder more broadly, and the different cases that have happened in the past 20 or so years.

Peoria, Illinois, January 2006. (Rachel Gardner / Flickr)

0:06:02 Michele Goodwin:

Well, what’s fascinating about that…so many things, is that, one, it touched home in a…

0:06:08 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

Yes.

0:06:08 Michele Goodwin:

Literal and visceral way.

0:06:10 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

Yes.

0:06:11 Michele Goodwin:

Including with one of the victims, whom you knew, and there’s this other way in which it touches home, that you’re right, we just don’t talk about, right, we don’t talk about the serial murdering and trafficking of Black women since the foundations of the United States, that was serial trafficking…

0:06:32 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

Right.

0:06:31 Michele Goodwin:

This kind of, serial kind, serial kidnap, traffic, sexual exploitation and violence against, so how has your research broadened then beyond your community, which is just out…where are the words to describe that number of murders of Black women in such a small town?

0:06:56 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

Yeah, you know, it’s…you’re right, Michele, like part of what I’m trying to do in the work is think about serial murder in this sort of broad, extended kind of way, right, which is not just about what we typically think of as serial murder, one person who is stalking a particular population of women, right, which is what happened in my hometown, but thinking about it as a broader kind of thing. And so what I’m doing now is in the past 20 or so years, there have been a sort of concentration of the sort of cases that I look at in the American Midwest. So part of what I’m trying to think about is how in cities like Peoria and Detroit, and Chicago, and Gary, and Milwaukee, and Cleveland, which are all cities where these kinds of serial murder cases have happened, how those are connected to other kinds of issues, right. We’re not just talking about capturing one evil, bad guy, right, that’s totally not what this about, although, yes, we want to get the offenders to stop offending, but what we’re talking about is how these cases are connected up with the industrialization and the population, and the kinds of things that are affecting Black people and Black communities in the Midwest in a really disproportionate way, which is another story we don’t talk about enough, right. And I think that there’s a connection between these various forms of violence that occurring, and that’s part of what I’m trying to get to in the work.

0:08:38 Michele Goodwin:

Well, and it seems that what you’re talking about are the structural implications of all of those issues. It’s not episodic, but there are structures in place that could almost make some of this, as horrific as it is, predictable because of the past, because of the devaluation of Black women’s lives, and because of those socioeconomic factors, and social cultural factors, too, which are also part of the devaluation.

Well, I want to get back to that because I’d be curious to know who this person was and what led to that, but I want to also introduce Carmen into the conversation, as well, because in hearing from Dr. Williamson, and thank you so much for letting me call you Terrion, I am also…what comes to mind happens to be Jeffrey Dahmer, and I didn’t even think in this episode that we would be talking about Jeffrey Dahmer at all. But I recall, from decades ago, the concern that you had and other young Black, gay men, in and around Dane County and Milwaukee counties, because there were gay, Black, young men, who were disappeared, who could not be found. And that there were posters being put up, there was a kind of networking that was taking place because it seemed that the police just weren’t investing in looking for what happened to these young Black men. And I remember that, I remember our conversations about that, can you, you know, go back to that period of time and talk a little bit about that?

0:10:18 Carmen Balentine:

I can. Thank you so much. Before I go into that, I just want to say, Terrion, I’m actually from Peoria, Illinois, that’s my birthplace.

0:10:24 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

No way.

0:10:24 Carmen Balentine:

So, that’s why I gave a little…that’s why I shouted out when you said Peoria. I said, “oh, so rare to meet people from Peoria.” But yes, Michele, thank you for that question, and yes, at that time, I was a student, a college student, during the Dahmer murders. I was a college student at the University of Wisconsin Madison, and I went to Madison between ’87 and graduated in ’92, and the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer happened between the years of 1978 and 1991. During that time, Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 people, and one of the incidents that became really…that people became aware of, at the time, was a young boy, who I believe might’ve been Asian American, I’m not sure of his ethnic background, I don’t recall. But at that time, that young boy, and I don’t even think he was 18, but that boy was in Jeffrey Dahmer’s care, and he had ran from the home, and he was nude, and I think he might’ve been screaming. The police actually saw him, and I believe from my recollection, and this is all from memory, I believe, during that time, they returned him to Jeffrey Dahmer because, again, I think in terms of race, being a White male, whatever he may have said, whatever situation he described, it was believed, and so that young man was actually sent with Jeffrey Dahmer, and of course…

0:11:58 Michele Goodwin:

Well, to actually clarify, he was a child, yes, he was a Laotian child, and Jeffrey Dahmer claimed that he was his adult lover, but he was a little boy actually.

0:12:12 Carmen Balentine:

Yes.

0:12:14 Michele Goodwin:

He was just I think barely even a teenager.

0:12:17 Carmen Balentine:

So, those details were horrifying, and those details came to public light, I believe they came…I don’t know if they came after the murders or at what point they came to light. My relationship, I was at Madison, Wisconsin, but I went to…I’m from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in that community, at that time, I was struggling with my sexual orientation coming out as a young African American male. I started addressing my sexual orientation, as a teenager, at a young youth group for young teenagers, and it was at that time, we didn’t have the kind of environment now where you could be out and open, so I was going to that group in private. You actually had to make a phone call to get the location, and it was a series of steps that you had to get to, to find out where that location was because, basically, we were targeted. We were targeted as young, gay individuals, and the gay community, in general, was a target, so that was part of my experience growing up.

In college, I was coming out into my own, and I was coming out to more and more individuals. In Milwaukee, on the south side, I would frequent some of the clubs, and one of the clubs that I frequented was Club 21, and I believe that was one of the clubs that Jeffrey Dahmer frequented and would meet some of the men that he eventually murdered.

One story that I can share is I was in Milwaukee for a weekend, from college, it’s about an hour-and-a-half away via bus, I was out at the club that weekend dancing and having a good time. My mother was aware of my sexual orientation, at the time, and knew where I was. When I returned back to Madison, Wisconsin, there was a news story that there was a young man missing by the name of Tony Hughes. Tony Hughes was 31, African American, and he was deaf, and he actually was from Madison, Wisconsin, and I knew him from that community, and I actually did see him that weekend briefly. He disappeared, and my mother called me to ask me did I know his whereabouts, and I said I did not, but I had seen him, and then it was some months later when the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer were revealed, and he was one of the victims.

As a result of those murders, one of the things that I did when I returned home in 1992, me and a friend by the name of Rodney Johnson, we actually started a support group called Ujima, and one of the things that we wanted to do with the support group was to bring visibility to the African American gay community. Because, at that time, a lot of people, we knew each other from the venues that we frequented, but we didn’t know where we lived, we didn’t have contact with each other’s families.

We didn’t have cellphones, at the time, but we didn’t have each other’s phone numbers and things of that nature, and so if someone were to disappear, we would have no way of contacting them, no way of knowing who their next of kin was. We did not have very close-knit relationships. We were close in the community, but because of the fear factor and because of the kind of environment we were in, when we were in that community, we felt safe, and we felt comfortable with each other, but we didn’t have kind of extended relationships. And so that was the environment that we wanted to break open, and Ujima lasted for at least a decade, as a nonprofit addressing some of those issues.

0:15:45 Michele Goodwin:

So, I want to put this question to both of you because it strikes me that with the Dahmer murders, so there were 17 over that long period of time, but the 13 came in kind of quick succession…

0:16:01 Carmen Balentine:

Yeah.

0:16:01 Michele Goodwin:

Which was targeting Black, gay men, and then there was the 14-year-old Laotian boy that Dahmer also murdered, and there were really crude things that he did. He lived in a predominantly African American community, and one of the things that struck me after it was revealed what he was doing is that he had Black neighbors, a Black mother and daughter, who had continuously called the police saying “we believe something terrible is happening next door, we hear sawing in the middle of the night, we hear screams.”

And the police, at some point, were very threatening to this mother and daughter, who are reporting on this White man, who had such unusual habits where people would come into his apartment and never leave. And this mother and daughter were chastised, were scorned, and were even told that, you know, they should be grateful that he would deign to live in the neighborhood.

And there were such horrible things that were taking place behind the doors of Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment including crude kinds of lobotomies, you know, there were sadistic kinds of things that he did to the persons that he had lured into or kidnapped into his apartment. I’m wondering from both of you what does it say about either the sort of Black women or Black LGBTQ boys and men, and then, of course, another person of color, this Laotian boy, who was murdered, what does it kind of say in terms of police response connected to who the victims are?

0:17:53 Carmen Balentine:

Well, things haven’t changed much, if we’re looking at mainstream media and what’s going on now. This is the ‘90s that we’re talking about, and I think when it comes to acknowledging the humanity of the African American community, when it comes to acknowledging the humanity of the LGBTQ community, when it comes to acknowledging the humanity of people from maybe lower class circumstances, I think, oftentimes, one of the things that I thought a lot about in terms of this conversation is power. Who has the power, and when you are from a community that I believe is either looked upon as marginalized or a fringe community or some community that isn’t accepted as a normal community or traditional community, I think, oftentimes, when it comes to police training, police education, and police awareness, oftentimes, I believe circumstances happen where the police aren’t sensitive to the community needs, they aren’t responding to the crimes that are occurring. And I just, I believe that there is a lack of awareness of the humanity of those communities that create this situation. And I’m going to close just by saying when you look at last year, all the incidents that were occurring and all the marching and the Black Lives Matter movement happening to say, you know, police brutality is happening, and we need this to end, and yet, you have in response Blue Lives Matter, you have congress people supporting the police infrastructure, those things are a real challenge to our communities.

0:19:50 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

I think what I would add to that, and sort of thinking about questions of power in the role of the police, part of what your question, Michele, takes me to is thinking about the role that community ought to play, does play and ought to play in these kinds of cases and in response to the work that police do or neglect to do when these kinds of cases happen.

So you know before I started my work, I had heard the name Dahmer, of course, but I didn’t know who Dahmer’s victims were, and so part of what I’m sort of pushing against in the work that I do is that there is a kind of morbid fascination with serial killers, but there’s much less interest in who the victims are. So what I often hear when I say, “well, I’m doing work on serial killing” is, you know, I’ve once had someone say, “oh, I love talking about serial killers.” Like it’s that sort of thing that happens, and part of what I’m trying to do in my work is I don’t frame how I look at the cases I look at by way of who the killer is, who the offender is, but who the victims are.

And it is the communities who hold the narratives and the stories about who those folks are. It is the communities that fill in the gaps that are so often left by whatever media may exist. It is the communities who are able to tell you a story that is so much wider than the kinds of very narrow stories that are often pigeonholed around very particular kinds of terms, one of which is prostitute, one of which is drug addict, right. Those kinds of terms that get used to label the victims in these cases, and when you start talking to daughters and mothers and sisters and brothers, you get a very different kind of story.

And the kind of support networks that build up sort of organically in communities, sort of like what you’re talking about with Ujima, right, those become these really essential and critical sort of places to look for telling a deeper narrative about what’s happening in community and the role in community, and the work that community can do in responding to violence against vulnerable people.

0:22:12 Carmen Balentine:

I agree with what you’re saying, Terrion, my concern is when those events are happening, though, is that the people who are responding to those situations in the moment are police, and they need to listen to what people are saying. And one of the challenges I have in police training, and I’m using this because we’re talking about Dahmer, specifically, but in police training, from my understanding, police aren’t trained to actually listen to the community or listen to individuals.

I had an incident in Milwaukee, when I moved back to Milwaukee from college, I was stopped many times for driving. I mean, I was driving while Black and driving the communities that we’re talking about, the north side of Milwaukee, I was continuously stopped. One night, I was stopped because my car couldn’t get past 20 miles an hour. I didn’t know what was wrong with it, it was 2 in the morning, I was heading home from being out, and I didn’t have a lot of interactions with police officers, at the time, when the police officer pulled me over, I got out of my car just wanting to explain to him, you know, Mr. Officer, I have someone following me, who’s trying to get me home safely, my car is having an issue, I’m not sure what it is. He had no interest in that, all he said was, you know, “stand against the car, put your hands up, and, you know, be quiet,: basically, and I could not at any point, until he was ready, explain my situation and what was going on. Imagine that happening with the women that you were talking about, who are living in the building that Dahmer lived in, they’re calling them, telling them what they’re hearing and what’s going on, but because of the neighborhood, and I can imagine this very clearly, because of the neighborhood, they’re thinking, “well, you know, so what a little noise disturbance at 2 in the morning, you know, get over it, move on,” you know, and so I think a lot of decisions are made instantly with lack of awareness…

0:24:17 Michele Goodwin:

So, let…

0:24:17 Carmen Balentine:

That lack of awareness.

0:24:18 Michele Goodwin:

So, I think they both happen at the same time, right, so I think exactly what Terrion is speaking to, that the narratives of who the people are, that’s both the people who were killed by Dahmer and also the women who’ve been killed that you focused on in your research, Terrion, that so many instances when they do make national news. And I think people would be hard pressed to think about exactly the folks that you’re talking about, right, like so erased from mind already, but when they do hear about it, that was exactly it, drug addict, sex worker, prostitute, the humanity, the dignity of these individuals completely wiped away. The same is true with Dahmer’s victims, and then, of course, there are the communities that are trying to elevate the concern, and they’re often ignored, too. So Terrion, I want to dig just a little bit deeper then in terms of the women that were part of the first group that you studied, what were their backgrounds, who were they?

0:25:23 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

So, most of them came from the same community that I came from or disappeared from the same community, so the southside of Peoria, which is the Black side of Peoria, which is ultimately the most under resourced area within Peoria. Many of them came from that community, so they were all thought to be, said to be, involved with drugs, and they were all thought to be involved in the sex trades. And so as a consequence, that became the sort of narrative around which that story circulated, and part of the reason I wanted to talk about the role of community here was because I think I totally agree with Carmen that police are not trained to respond to the kinds of narratives that these women had detail. They’re not trained to respond to what’s happening in these communities at the moment, and so in part…and so that’s how we get to nine women dead in a community of less than 115 thousand people in a span of 15 months, which is outrageous when you sort of think about it, right, and part…

0:26:43 Michele Goodwin:

That’s stunning. Stunning.

0:26:44 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

It absolutely is, and then no one beyond Peoria really sort of knows that it ever happened, right, and part of that has to do with the very thing that Carmen is talking about. But then it becomes family members who are the ones who push against that narrative and who require and demand that police and city officials come to account for what is happening to these women. So what I have found is that that is within these communities that the sort of larger narrative about these women’s lives get told because, yes, they were thought to be involved…you know, the way I’ve talked about this in my work is in the life, right, but that they are also mothers, and daughters, and sisters, and business owners, even, right, and laborers, and workers, and all of these other things that are also really important for us to talk about.

0:27:38 Michele Goodwin:

And they have human dignity, right?

0:27:39 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

Oh, absolutely.

0:27:40 Michele Goodwin:

And that that’s important. So, I want to take our conversation then a bit deeper then to think about sexual violence and I’ll get back to you, Terrion, because I wonder if also part of their murders also included sexual violence. And I want to turn to you, Carmen, in terms of your interest in examining, thinking through sexual violence and how sexual violence affects communities of color, affect LGBTQ communities, affects children, and so I wonder what brings you to the space of caring about these issues.

0:28:21 Carmen Balentine:

Well, for myself personally, one, I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I moved there when I was 5 years old with my family, it was my mother and my grandmother, and when I moved there, we stayed with my grandmother for a little while, and then we moved out on our own. But some of the circumstances that happened for me growing up was continuous sexual abuse in the community, and it was happening in…at that time, one of the things…I’ve done a lot of work, so I’m a sexual abuse survivor, just let me be clear, I’m a sexual abuse survivor. I define myself that way, and when I look back at my past, I had to retrace all of the steps of what was happening, what was going on, I had to do a lot of digging and going back in my memory. And now, I believe that something happened before I moved to Milwaukee, I believe that something may have happened in Peoria because when I went to Milwaukee, I remember being sexually curious, and so, as an adult, I say to myself, why was I so sexually curious at such a young age, it makes no sense to me, and then I have memories of sexual incidents happening, and many of these incidents were with strangers. I was, you know, a very energetic young child. At this time, I would go out and play in my neighborhood with other children, and there was something about me, I don’t know exactly in terms of personality, that was vulnerable, being nice. I find it interesting when you see the word sexual violence because one of the things that can happen with individuals that are sexually abused is that using the word violence sometimes can feel like a contradiction. Because I was never physically threatened and forced, but there was a lot of coercion, a lot of grooming. And one of the things that’s challenging for I think survivors is sex itself can be pleasurable, and so for a child, those overwhelming emotions and overwhelming experiences can be quite daunting to pull apart, and so for me, my care and concern about the sexual violence is about my experience, as a young child, and all the things that happened. So what happened after a series of individual incidents over the years, I ended up in a situation with a family in my neighborhood where it was a sexually abusive relationship that occurred for several years.

0:30:57 Michele Goodwin:

How old were you, I mean, so in terms of…

0:30:59 Carmen Balentine:

Yes.

0:30:59 Michele Goodwin:

Helping our listeners to understand, you know, are you talking about that you were 17 or 18…

0:31:07 Carmen Balentine:

No.

0:31:07 Michele Goodwin:

Or that you were talking about as 5 or 6?

0:31:11 Carmen Balentine:

It was between the years of 10 and…probably 10 and 12, maybe 13, and it was a very difficult situation for me because it was something that I did not feel good about, but it was something that was occurring, and it was occurring on a regular basis, and yet, I being silent about because I was confused. I was a young kid, who was trying to figure out his sexuality. I didn’t really understand that. I knew that sex was bad. I went to a Catholic school, so I was very aware of sex itself being a sin, and so, again, thinking with a child’s brain, the conversation, I wasn’t having any conversation about what was going on, I was being very quiet.

What I think about, though, when we’re speaking about communities, just vulnerability, the vulnerabilities that people can have when it comes to…my mother worked a lot because she was a single mom, she had to work. She had to work two jobs. She worked day and night, worked lots of shifts. And so what ended up happening was that this became my second family, and they were somewhat of a caretaker for me, and so that’s how I got into the situation of sleeping with this man over and over again because they became a caretaker that was helpful to my mom.

0:32:28 Michele Goodwin:

And then, did you…you know, thank you for sharing this, and I think for so many of our listeners, there will be listeners for whom this resonates because sexual violence is something that is not isolated. It is something that is within our culture, has long been within our culture but is something that often is not talked about, and there are taboos around it generally, and certainly, taboos around it in certain communities of color lifting these issues out, and so you’ve created CVB Wellness to promote wellness and equity in underserved communities and to serve as an advocate in helping children and adults to heal from sexual violence. What was part of your process because, you know, how horrific to be caught within such a space where you’re 10 years old and someone that you believe is a kind of ally to your family, and what’s even thought of as a kind of good family when, you know, in the 1970s and ‘80s, there are critiques even today against single moms, you know. And the idea that there should be a man in the house, and that women are denying their sons the opportunity to be with and around men, and so there it is, you know, this second family where there’s a husband and a wife and kids, and that’s supposed to be the ideal, but that’s where you’re being abused, so how could you even find the words to share what was happening with your mom?

0:34:04 Carmen Balentine:

From my mom, again, very smart, intelligent woman, a very hard worker, but my grandmother, who I was also raised with growing up, she was an alcoholic, so again, when I talk about vulnerable spaces, we were also navigating alcoholism in the home, and that was a variable. And my grandmother, proud to say, eventually, she did stop drinking and commended that, but when I look back at my childhood, I just think about the little holes that were there that created an environment where those experiences could happen. And so I think, for me, what I think about oftentimes is how do we empower children to have voice, how do we listen to children, how do we give them correct language. I think one of the challenges I have sometimes is sometimes I don’t like to use the term sexual violence because when you say the word sex, it is such a trigger word, it’s almost like saying abortion, people just have a reaction, and they go into somewhat a semi kind of unconsciousness about their values and their understanding of sex. And so, oftentimes, I think we need to give children voice, we need to give them language, we need to talk to them about these issues, and you can do it in healthy ways, in terms of there are books and things that can help you navigate these conversations, but I think, in my community, speaking of the African American community, I think that those are things that we need to discuss and bring to light.

0:35:37 Michele Goodwin:

Were those things that you felt you could bring to light when you were at that age, when you were 12 years old?

0:35:45 Carmen Balentine:

No, I could not bring it to light myself, personally, but again, I would say that in terms of my education, you know, I had sex education from two places, one was school and then the other one was a book called Our Bodies, Ourselves, which is a feminist book about claiming your body. Those are the two things that kind of educated me, but…

This highly respected publication provides women with information about health, sexuality and reproduction. (DES Daughter / Flickr)

0:36:05 Michele Goodwin:

It’s like a bible of education.

0:36:07 Carmen Balentine:

Yeah.

0:36:08 Michele Goodwin:

Yeah.

0:36:09 Carmen Balentine:

But I didn’t have a lot of verbal conversation with my family about sex, and sexuality, and sexual abuse, and the things that can happen.

0:36:17 Michele Goodwin:

Yes. So, let’s deepen even a bit more to talk about what these issues mean in terms of social justice. So, Terrion, you’ve written about and said, you know, we are still living at a moment when violence against Black women, we could say, Black communities, often fails to register as a pressing social justice issue, particularly when it does not directly involve state actors. So what do you mean by that, can you unpack that a bit more for our listeners?

0:36:55 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

I can. So, most of the time, what I’m talking about, in the cases that I’m looking at, are you’re talking about someone who comes…speaking of communities, right, there’s all this…some of the most important advocacy and work that happens around these murders come from the communities. And also, typically, the offender also comes from the same community. In the Peoria case, the case that I talk about as starting my going down the road to doing this work, is an anomaly in that the offender in that case was a White man, a White man who was also part of that same community. But typically, what we’re talking about, I only know of one case in which we’re not talking about where there was also a woman involved in the offending, so you’re talking about Black men who are preying predominantly or solely on Black women in Black communities, working class, poor, under resourced communities. And so part of what I see as being so important is that, as we talk about sort of movement work and work toward liberation, that these kinds of sexual violence, these cases have to be as much a part of the push as much as part of what we’re talking about as anything else. That held up against the case of so many people have been victims of police violence also have to be these cases, and that is not because I’m invested in some kind of jacked up sense of Black-on-Black crime because I don’t even believe in that as a thing. But what we’re talking about is how the conditions of possibility for women like say a Breonna Taylor to be vulnerable or the conditions of possibility that made Brenda Irving, who was the last woman who was killed in the Peoria case, to also be vulnerable. That is like the anti-Blackness that undergirds so much of this, the structures and systems of oppression that undergirds so much of this are densely connected, and so if we’re going to talk about movement work, and justice, and liberation, that these cases are also as much a part of how we do that work as our cases that specifically involve police violence and police offenders.

A massive mural on the side of a downtown Louisville warehouse that features the faces of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, David McAtee and Elijah McClain. (Don Sniegowski / Flickr)

0:39:21 Michele Goodwin:

Yes. And what about…and I want to open this up to both of you, the shaming aspect of this. It brings to mind cases involving a police officer, Holtzclaw, who recently was arrested and convicted in the sexual assaults and violence against a series of Black women and one underage Black girl where he would stop them, force them to engage in oral sex on him, rape them. They were all Black women. And Terrion, it brings to mind what you were saying about how women are captured of a sort, right, so we’ll call a woman a prostitute, say that she was drug using, and then it is, well, we don’t really have to think about her. Because this was over a dozen of known victims involving this particular officer, so I wonder what’s the role of shaming when we think about abusive individuals based on sex, and so, yeah…I have so many questions before this show ends, and I want to just put them all out there, but let’s talk about shaming first and see where we get to.

0:40:35 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

So, one of the things that I’ve written about, I wrote about this in my first book, is the way that I started writing, the way I write now about serial murders, if people remember Don Imus and the incident in which he called the Rutgers Women Basketball team quote, I’m quoting him, “nappy headed hoes,” and…

0:40:54 Michele Goodwin:

That’s right, and you wrote something in Ms. Magazine recently for us with that, yes.

0:40:58 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

Yeah, and it was actually a number of years ago when I wrote that, but part of what captured my attention, at that moment, was the ways in which, I think that those women ought to have been defended. And I’m not mad at anybody for defending them, I want to be really clear about that, but the form of the defense also kept…often, very often came. And it struck me because I was right in the sort of the beginning stages of doing my work on the Peoria case, these women, you can’t talk about these women that way because these women are college students, these women are honor roll students, these women are athletes, they’re not “nappy headed hoes.” And I just remember being so struck by the form of the response, not that it was wrong, but just that what work does that do, right, so I’m like at the same time that I’m looking at this case of nine women who have been murdered in my hometown, who no one’s talking about, and all of like…this was headline news, this Rutgers Don Imus thing…

0:41:54 Michele Goodwin:

I…I remember that very well.

0:41:57 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

Right, it was a big deal.

0:41:58 Michele Goodwin:

It was a big deal.

0:42:00 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

So, part of it is about the correspond…this sort of relationality to that sort of that term, right, so the women of Peoria were not that term either, but it was something about that relationality. Because here you have women who are said to be involved in the sex trades, who if there’s anyone who sort of stands in for that wretched designator, it becomes these women, and so it becomes really complicated to try to talk about them. So part of what I think is critically important here is to have a sort of a trauma and thorned responses to involvement in the sex trades, which understand that there are all kinds of reasons why people end up in the sex trades. And some of it having to do with some of the conversations we’ve already had today, there’s all kinds of reasons, all kinds of things that are happening in the community, and that getting away from that stigma and that shame is critically important to being able to make the kinds of cases that I’m talking about really key to thinking about liberation and movement work.

0:43:06 Michele Goodwin:

Yeah, you know, it comes to mind, and I’ll turn to you, Carmen, on that question of shame, how do you see and view shame when it comes to thinking about the attacks, the assaults, the violence. I know that you want another term there, and I’d be happy for us to think through what that terminology means, but this question of who we value and how we value is so critically important when we’re thinking about vulnerable communities where people survive or when they don’t end up surviving. And it takes me back to Jim Crow and it takes me back to slavery, too, right. So to the extent that in the Rutgers case that the young women could be defended based on the fact that they were in college, what does this say for young Black women who don’t get to college, what does it say about grandmothers and great-grandmothers where systems forcibly excluded them from not just college, K through 12 educations, and so forth. What does it say about who we value given that we’re a society that where it was ensconced in our Constitution that there would be people who would be 3/5 of a person and that meant Black people, so to the question of shame, how does that come up for you, Carmen, in the work that you do?

0:44:22 Carmen Balentine:

Well, I think I go back to what I said earlier in the beginning of the conversation about the acceptance of humanity of all people. And I think what happens is, is that it becomes easy to shame people based on a culture that, you know, we think we’ve advanced, I mean, we think we’ve advanced because we’ve got greater technology, and we’ve got more access to resources and things of that nature. But the truth is, is that not everybody has access to those resources. The truth is, is that we are only now getting to really exploring the foundation of America. COVID-19 really helped break the mold when it came to the cracks in America and how America was built and who benefits. And we’re even thinking about that now when it comes to who gets the vaccine, and there’s discrepancies, and there’s inequities when it comes that. And so I think shaming to me is really rooted in our culture, and it’s rooted in white supremacy, it’s rooted in toxic masculinity, it’s rooted in gender socialization. This constant notion that somehow this group of people is better than, whether it’s Black men are better than Black women or whether it’s White men are better than Black men, it comes out in so many shapes and forms. And so when we started this conversation, the overall question we was asked was how do we dismantle a culture of sexual violence, and I got stuck on culture because I think, oftentimes, what we’re talking about is not just changing laws, but we’re also talking about socialization, and how we are socialized to be with one another.

I am a man who grew up in a household of women. I have a tremendous respect for women in my community and for women in general. I consider myself a feminist. The funny thing is, though, is that was never hard for me. I never had a problem with that. I never questioned Black women’s intelligence. But yet, Michele, you asked me a question earlier about having a Black man in the house, should there be Black men in the house, because I was raised by a single mother. Well, I did have a Black man in the house, my uncle moved in for a little while with us, and when my uncle moved in, in came toxic masculinity. Because I myself was not masculine enough for my uncle, who then told me to stop playing with the people that I played with, who like one time came when I was outside playing Double Dutch. He came outside and he pulled me in by my ear violently telling me that what I was doing was wrong, and he wanted me to hang out with, who I considered at the time, hoodlums in the neighborhood. Well, my question is, “What was he thinking?” In his head, in his mind, he had a certain image of what it meant to be masculine, and so I think in terms of shaming, I think there needs to be a lot of socialization that we have to do. It has to start young, it has to start in schools, we have to do it in community-based organizations, and we really have to talk those things through. So I think we can change laws, but when it comes to changing people’s perceptions and how we interact with one another, that’s very difficult, that’s very difficult.

0:47:40 Michele Goodwin:

So, before we close today’s show and I ask you about a silver lining, I want to also talk about trans women and the violence and death that we have seen. Why is it that we still haven’t yet achieved a significant enough platform to address that issue because, especially amongst Black trans women, the deaths, right, the murders that sadly not enough attention is paid to, why is that?

0:48:16 Carmen Balentine:

Terrion, do you want to start?

0:48:21 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

You can.

0:48:22 Carmen Balentine:

I’ll start. Again, I go back to humanity of the transgender community. It’s a community that I’m very proud that this community has become very vocal, has become very active in addressing the needs for protection and the needs to have access and rights to a quality life. But again, when you’re looking at homophobia, when you’re looking at racism, when you’re looking at classism, these things are compounded. And then, you know, while we have made some progress in talking about transgender issues, again, the gay community itself has had a hard time having that conversation, has had to be pushed. So when I think about pushing that conversation in a mainstream narrative, through mainstream media or through attention, that becomes a very hard narrative to push because so many questions are asked that aren’t necessary. We don’t need to question what relationship or what job a transgender person has. Or we don’t need to question anything about that individual except to know that this individual was murdered, and someone needs to be held accountable for that. That’s what should be focused on. So again, in terms of changing the language, changing our focus, I think, oftentimes, we start paying attention to the wrong information when it comes to addressing those issues.

0:49:48 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

Yeah, and I think that that question, a value, that we were already talking about is just as imperative here, right. Because even though there are some distinct issues, there are some similar issues in thinking about why is it that we can’t have…we haven’t had a robust enough conversation about and fight against violence against trans women, particularly Black trans women, as you know women who are drug addicted or women who are involved in the sex trades. This sort of question of value becomes a sort of overarching sort of emblem of all of that, and there’s also the piece about, in my own work, sometimes…so, part of what becomes difficult is there’s not an archive, right, to do the kind of work that I’m trying to do. And to the extent that there’s an archive, it often comes in the form of, like, newspapers and media outlets, which sometimes in the cases I’m looking at, we are also talking about trans women, but trans women are often misgendered and misnamed. And so it can become particularly tricky to understand what’s happening where and then it doesn’t get archived in a way that makes us able to really be able to talk about it in a robust way. So there’s like the historical issue as well as the sort of contemporary issues around who we’re valuing and how we’re valuing, and so I think…I don’t think of my work…I think of my work as being deeply part of that same conversation. And that I’m still when I’m talking about a systems of power, whether we’re talking about cisgender women and girls or trans women and girls, that those systems of power undergirds so much of what we’re trying to address.

0:51:39 Michele Goodwin:

Well, we’ve come to this part in our show where we turn to messages of hope because there can be so much that is dark, but with both of you, in your work, your work is so hopeful. So what’s the silver lining going forward given the conversation that we’ve had today? Carmen, we’ll start with you.

0:52:03 Carmen Balentine:

Well, I think…okay, I was going to say I think, one, thank you for having the conversation. I think we need to start there. One, just having the conversation, having the conversation in various communities and in various formats, you know, in podcasts, in community-based organizations, and also knowing that there are organizations that are pushing these issues forward. I believe that the Black Lives Matter movement has embraced the transgender community and is aware of those issues and pushing that forward. There are organizations like the Anti-Violence Project, which is a great organization that’s been around for 40 years that is working to support the LGBT community and protect them, and so that’s an organization that people can go to, to get information, and they have chapters across the country.

In my community of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, there’s an organization by the name of Diverse and Resilient, and this is a group that works with LGBT youth and connecting them and making sure that what happened in my community years ago in terms of isolation is not happening with the youth today, so those are a few good things. And one other thing I’ll mention, as a silver lining, is there’s an organization that I love in Brooklyn by the name of Girls for Gender Equity, and again, in terms of creating a national movement around addressing the issues of equity for women, for trans women, they are inclusive of those issues and pushing those things forward, so I’m happy about that.

For myself, personally, what I will say just to add this, I will say that one thing that people don’t often think about, and I’m just going to speak about this from a sexual abuse survivor perspective, you know, therapy is important. You know, therapy helped me, counseling helped me, support groups were tremendous to assisting me in my recovery, but one thing that was a surprise to me that I didn’t realize is running. I became a runner in 2013, and one of the things that happens for sexual abuse survivors is just lack of confidence and lack of feeling comfortable in your own body. When I started running in 2013 trying to lose weight, an epiphany happened, and something opened up for me where I started discovering my wellness through running. And it started helping me heal in a way that I didn’t anticipate, so I just wanted to share that because when it comes to CVB Wellness, one of the things that I want to talk about and encourage people is that recovery isn’t just about sitting in a room necessarily focusing on those issues, that’s part of it, but there are just so many ways in which you might be able to discover a healing for yourself.

0:54:51 Michele Goodwin:

Thank you so much for that. It’s so important. Terrion, silver lining?

0:54:57 Dr. Terrion Williamson:

I totally want to agree with Carmen that just the fact that we are able to have the conversation, particularly about communities that for too long have not been talked about. I think it’s so vitally important, and I’m really happy to be…grateful, actually, to be in a space where we can have the conversation.

There are also…so, there’s not enough national…unfortunately, not enough national attention or national work around the cases that I look at, but there’s a lot of sort of organic sort of local work that happens. One of the organizations that’s done really tremendous work in this vein is the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, which was organized…one of the primary organizers was Margaret Prescod in LA in that they were organized around…they’ve done a lot of work, continue to do a lot of work around the case of Lonnie Franklin, who gets talked about in the media as, a quote unquote “Grim Sleeper” case. And so from 1984 to today, they continue to do actions and work and continue to do memorialization, which I think is so critically important, as well, in these cases.

There’s also a journalism professor, there was just a story about him in maybe the last week or so, who has set up a website that he did with some of his journalism students in Chicago, his name is John Fountain, around a series of murders that have happened and still seem to be happening in Chicago right now. And they started reaching out to people in Chicago and have created this robust website and are also doing in another fashion that kind of memorialization work that I think is so critically important. And people ask me all the time how I can do…like how do you take care of yourself, how do you do the work, it seems so hard. And it is tremendously difficult, but there is something that is so important about the work and being able to meet people and talk to people, who even in some of the sort of most deepest despair that they’ve had in their lives, can talk with so much presence and so much love about people who meant so much to them, particularly people who are too often erased in our narratives, to often erased in our communities, too often don’t show up in movement work. And so I’m like…and it has create a…this is why I like talk so much all about like Peoria and why I love Peoria so much, a place that at one point in my life I just wanted to flee from. Because it’s been people in doing this work who have helped me to understand the value of being from a place like the south side of Peoria or the west side of Chicago, where I worked when I was a college student, or the south side of Chicago, where I lived as a college student, or Englewood, California, where I lived in grad school, or north Minneapolis, where I currently live. Like there is so much that happens in these spaces that is important and significant, and it’s through this work that I’ve really come to really understand that, so that’s my silver lining.

0:57:59 Michele Goodwin:

It has been an honor and pleasure to be with you today. Thank you so much for joining us for our show.

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of On the Issues with Michele Goodwin. I want to thank my guests, Carmen Balentine and Dr. Terrion Williamson, for joining us and being a part of this critical and insightful conversation, and to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you’ll join us again for our next episode, as we will be reporting, rebelling, and telling it like it is with very special guests, and for more information on what we discussed today, head to msmagazine.com. Now, if you believe, as we do, that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America being unbought, and unbossed, and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to visit us at Apple Podcast, look for us at msmagazine.com for new content and special episode updates, write and subscribe to On the Issues with Michele Goodwin and Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher. Let us know what you think about our show and be sure to support independent feminist media, and send any thoughts or questions that you have or guest recommendations to us at [email protected], and we do pay attention to our mail.

This has been your host, Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling, and telling it like it is. On the Issues with Michele Goodwin is a Ms. Magazine joint production, Kathy Spiller and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Mariah Lindsay. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez, and Marsh Allen, music by Chris J. Lee, special research by Oliver Haug, and Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.