The work of ending sexual violence is fundamentally connected to the work of ending racism because both share the same foundation: privilege and oppression. Before digging into this topic a bit deeper, it might be helpful to define these terms first.
- Privilege – a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantage of most
- Oppression – the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner
Privilege consists of all the unearned ways that make day-to-day life a bit easier for certain people. It is experienced both at the individual level as well as the systemic level. At the individual level, that may look like the number of books in the residence (house, apartment, shelter, etc.) in which you grew up. At the systemic level, it may be the school district you enter as a child and whether they have programs to provide breakfast in addition to lunch, resources to teach you in your first language, restrooms designated for your gender, and teachers and curricula that reflect your cultural background, in addition to high-quality and accessible extracurricular activities. (I’ll give you a hint: the more those examples applied to you, the more privilege you have).
Oppression exists both in the broad systems and structures of a society such as culture and laws, as well as the individual interactions among people within the same society. These disparities show up in everything from wage and leadership gaps in the paid workforce, to the less tangible and more pervasive attitudes that perpetuate harassment in the workplace and on the streets. Oppression conveys the notion of which people, bodies and identities have value, and how much value they do or do not have.
So how do anti-sexual violence issues and anti-racism issues overlap? That depends on how you look at these issues. If you look at the issue of rape only through the lens of racism, it may not seem obvious. Racism deals with the color of skin, whereas rape deals with unwanted sexual activity. Layering these lenses broadens our understanding and helps build connections. Both rape and racism are products of our cultural and social history as a country founded on colonialism, slavery, and entitlement. As just one example, slaves were regularly raped and abused in addition to being legally defined as property instead of people, and countless lynchings occurred due to unfounded or downright false allegations of Black men raping white women. Racism and sexual violence have always been intertwined and continue to be so, as seen by higher rates of sexual violence committed against people of color.
Approaching social justice problems as a single-issue problem does not work. At best, a single-issue approach divides the resources, people, and energy striving to create a better future. At worst, it is complicit in the violence and destruction by sowing silence because there is no perceived overlap between “their problem” and “our problem.” It’s on us to be the voice, energy and vision creating a better future in which the intersection of all types of oppression and all types of violence are called out, held accountable, and addressed.
Whether the violence impacts you directly or indirectly, it is important to maintain awareness of the harm done and work to counter the negative impact. This is especially important if the violence impacts you indirectly (I’m looking at us, white allies!). Whereas those directly impacted by the violence have already expended enormous emotional energy toward anger and grief, those who are indirectly impacted have less to lose and more energy to spend on the emotional labor of calling out oppression, raising awareness, and holding people accountable. Moreover, white people are likely safer when taking such actions, and may be more listened to by people in positions of power.
Whether your social justice work focuses on racism or rape, take a moment to think about how one impacts the other. Take another moment to think about how it impacts all other forms of oppression. All social injustice is connected by the underlying oppression that leads to unequal distribution of power and resources, and pits identity groups against each other. We must work together to move forward together, all of us.
Natalie Ziemba is the Hotline Supervisor with MESA, and originally started as a MESA volunteer. She enjoys reading, baking, and nuanced discussions of social justice issues.