Fighting Against Sexual Harassment in Schools as a Young Feminist of Color

Last year, when students discovered LREI’s lack of a thorough and inclusive sexual harassment policy, students and some faculty members took immediate action and began to write a sexual harassment policy proposal to present to our administration. This past trimester, our Feminism Club has been working on refining, editing, and presenting the policy proposal that had been created over the course of a year by members of last year’s rape culture minimester, last year’s feminism class, and the 2016 #ItHappensHere consent workshop, which were all led by our teacher, Ileana Jiménez. Additionally, while writing our policy recommendations, we received guidance and expertise from Girls for Gender Equity, the National Women’s Law Center, and Stop Sexual Assault in Schools.

The creation of the policy proposal was hard, thoughtful, purposeful, energy consuming, and necessary labor. We worked on that policy with genuine dedication and passion because we all knew it was vital that we have our concerns heard and taken seriously. Each section was well researched, thorough, and written with care. Every person who worked on the document put their heart and soul into it and I am so grateful to be a part of that group. I have learned so much from my experience throughout this trimester both about what it means to be an active feminist and about my own role within this work. I am so thankful for the work my classmates did to open up the conversation and fill in the gaps I hadn’t even realized were there.

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Audre Lorde photographed by Robert Alexander in the 1970s

As black feminist Audre Lorde writes in her essay, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury: “As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.” In all my years at LREI, I know that this policy will be one of the most important contributions I make to the school as well as a “spawning ground” for future radical ideas.

Interestingly, before I began working on the policy, I subconsciously felt that when I engaged in discussions about feminism, my role was to primarily provide and share my experiences as a woman of color and talk about intersectionality, which was coined in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s legal essay from 1989. Crenshaw gave a name to the multiple systems of oppression that simultaneously work against marginalized groups, particularly women of color.

Practicing intersectional feminism is of course extremely important to me, as it should be to all feminists, and my exposure to the theories around it have been such a significant part of my growing feminist consciousness. My awareness of the fact that the foundation of all feminist theories, activism, and practices derive from the work of women of color throughout history has allowed me to be mindful of my feminist genealogy. It is extremely crucial that we always acknowledge and honor the feminist labor of women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary Jones, Marsha P. Johnson, Barbara Smith and The Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Sylvia Rivera, Angela Davis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and so many more.

Because I have become hyper-aware of making sure I try my best to always give credit to the wonderful and tireless work of women of color before me, I think that subconsciously, I began to see the experiences of women of color as entirely different than that of white women. Moreover, I was so angered by the separation many white women created by their racism, that I felt it was imperative I be a voice to break the silence created by white women that contributes to violence against women of color.

Similarly, Chicana feminist Cherríe Moraga describes in an essay in the groundbreaking 1981 book, This Bridge Called My Back, “the deepest political tragedy” she has ever experienced was when with “such grace, such blind faith, this commitment to women in the feminist movement grew to be exclusive and reactionary.” Moraga goes on to declare: “I call my white sisters on this.”  

In coming to consciousness around my feminist identity, I became more observant of moments when my own white sisters at my school weren’t as vocal about violence against women of color, and as a result, I didn’t want to appear in alignment with whatever they were passionate about. Unfortunately, this thought process also created a separation in my mind between conversations about sexual harassment and violence against women of color. I thought that sexual harassment was only related to white women. However, between taking a Latinx literature course and a Toni Morrison class in my junior year as well as a feminism class in my senior year, I started to realize that separating myself from the issue of sexual harassment made no sense! The sexual harassment of women of color, LGBTQ+ people, and all other marginalized students experience alone is significantly more frequent and extreme than that of white students. Not only does it happen more, but also their experiences are often ignored, neglected, and forgotten by white men and even white women. 

The breaking point for me was when I started to read a lot more closely the draft of the sexual harassment policy recommendations my peers had written. As I read through the draft and continued to contribute to as a fellow student activist, I started to see how inclusive this research was and that sexual harassment is something that other students of color and queer students faced as well. The following is highlighted in our student sexual harassment policy proposal:

The American Association of University Women’s 2011 report titled, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, states that “African American students were more likely than their white counterparts to stop doing an activity or sport, get in trouble at school, and find it hard to study because of sexual harassment.” Meanwhile, Latino “students were more likely than white students to stay at home from school because of sexual harassment.” Similarly, LGBTQ+ students experience higher rates of harassment and violence than their peers. In GLSEN’s (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) 2015 report, the 2015 National School Climate Survey, data showed that 59.6% of LGBTQ+ students were sexually harassed at school and 57.6% did not report it to a faculty member because they felt that the school administration would do nothing about it–if not make it worse. Of the LGBTQ+ students who did report sexual harassment, 63.5% stated that the school instructed them to ignore that the situation had occurred.

Sexual harassment disproportionately affects women/femmes of color and the LGBTQ+ community. It is dangerously ignorant to neglect the violence that these communities face. I have always been aware of the ways in which sexual harassment is a form of violence against these individuals, as I am a part of the community, but I had never seen it outlined so clearly as a piece of statistical research.

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Participant in the 2017 Women’s March on Washington in Vancouver calls out the exclusion of #BlackLivesMatter within the march (photo credit: Vancouver Magazine)

The lack of recognition of marginalized groups’ experiences with sexual harassment is a part of the violence and silencing of this issue. White women need to work on including how women of color and other marginalized groups are affected by various systems that perpetuate sexism. As Audre Lorde illuminates in her essay, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” in the eyes of white feminists, “racism is a Black woman’s problem, a problem of women of color and only we can discuss it.” This is completely false; it is imperative that white women talk about the violence that women of color face in the form of racism and sexism but they must not dominate the conversation.

It is not, and will never be the role of people of color to explain racism to white folks, nor can it rest on the shoulders of only women/femmes of color to be invested in creating a just society for all. However, I will also say a white person’s part requires a complicated balance. The role of white allyship and contributing to the collective is important but, as Angela Davis recently said at Union Theological Seminary for a talk with Michelle Alexander, oftentimes white people in an attempt to combat racism, try to take over the movement and “bring the very racism they say they are intent” on fighting “right into the movement.”

For example, when white women try to speak for women of color and their experiences with racism, they completely silence the voices of women of color and further contribute to the violence they endure. It is vital that we are all constantly aware of the ways in which sexism affects all women/femmes.

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My friend and classmate, Chloe, and I presenting our update on the sexual harassment policy recommendations (photo credit: Ileana Jiménez)

I think that the Feminism Club’s work with the sexual harassment policy proposal and the ways in which everyone had been so purposefully intersectional in their language and thinking, has given me some much needed insight to the most effective way to approach preventing sexual harassment.

I recently had the opportunity to present the policy proposal to my school’s administration as well as the entire high school in our feminism class’s assembly marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Those presentations allowed me to use my own voice and presence as a young woman of color to represent that this issue is, and should always be, inclusive of women of color and other marginalized groups.

Moreover, all the labor leading up to those presentations, along with my work in the feminism club, has pushed me to develop and strengthen my own feminist politic. I was able to recognize how I had been approaching sexual harassment through a narrow lens. I now see the ways in which I was under the control of the master’s tools that want me to separate myself from other feminist students who I assumed did not have an intersectional lens. As bell hooks has famously said, “patriarchy has no gender,” meaning that as women we need to always be aware of how we are perpetuating sexist agendas by using the master’s tools against each other.

Additionally, my work this year has allowed me to continue to learn new ways to navigate my role in this work. I believe that it is imperative that we emphasize from the beginning of our feminist education the significance of thoughtful and inclusive language as we take part in activism. Moreover, as Audre Lorde writes in her essay, “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” “the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation.”

Lorde exposes the urgency of using purposeful language through her emphasis on what can come out of it: self-revelation. We become so much more aware of our character as we break our own silences and we are better able to approach our activism with an open mind. Being direct with our words is such a significant part of activism that we cannot neglect. If we do, our actions get lost in translation, or we forget to be inclusive/intersectional, or, as it was in my case, in an attempt to separate ourselves from the master, we end up perpetuating his tools.

It was truly frustrating for me to have this realization especially because I so often preach about the importance of collectivism and all women/femmes being engaged in active intersectional feminism together. As a member of the intersectional feminism class, co-leader of the feminism club, daughter of two strong feminist mothers, and self-identified proud feminist student, this feels like something I should already know.

The danger of separatism is something I’ve already talked and read about, yet it appears to be something I haven’t fully digested or understood. This feels crucial for me to recognize as it reminds me of what Barbara Smith mentioned in her September 2017 visit to our feminism class via Skype: “My feminist politic has always been about expanding.”

An open mind and an acceptance that your personal politic can and will grow or evolve as you learn and experience new things is a large part of being a feminist. We may hear theories or opinions all the time and repeat them to others, but when do we actually take these ideas in and honestly understand and accept them? How can we apply our feminist education to our everyday lives? We cannot be limited in our activism. We must push ourselves to go beyond a simplistic or underdeveloped politic, and explore (and analyze) the many feminisms the world has to offer.

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