Students, staff, faculty and citizens of varying gender identities, sexualities, races and ethnicities gathered in White Plaza on October 29 in an effort to show solidarity to Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz. Sulkowicz is a woman advocating against sexual violence by carrying a mattress around campus for as long as her rapist is allowed to walk around campus.
This event was a powerful display of solidarity, but one cannot help but question why whenever there is a successful movement that a great number of people feel invested in surrounding sexual assault, it is led by a face that is not black, queer identified or transgendered. These groups are not the center of the movement; they are an afterthought — not important or valued enough to build a movement around.
Black women, women of color, queer and transgender people are not blind to the politics of appearance and “select apathy” that surround sexual assault and the violation of their bodies. They are not blind to the lack of representation, respect and value they have in this movement.
As an act of resistance to being marginalized in the movement around sexual assault on the Stanford campus, black women from the community made a space for themselves in a demonstration that excluded their stories and silenced their voices. In an effort to be heard and scream demands, we showed up to White Plaza dressed in all black, armed with signs for our advocacy, and placed black tape over our mouths. We are silenced in this movement and met with apathy, but we will not be silent and disappear behind pillows and mattresses that do not recognized the importance of intersectionality.
Sophomore Adorie Howard led a group of our peers on the stage in White Plaza, and delivered a poem about the lack of value and empathy extended to black women’s bodies that will not go unnoticed. The weight, emotion, power and bravery that Howard and the black women behind her brought to the space was almost tangible.
One of the cases Howard mentioned in her piece was the case in Oklahoma. OfficerDaniel Holtzclaw was charged with “16 counts, including rape, sexual battery, forcible oral sodomy, indecent exposure and stalking.” The victims were all black women, allegedly eight or more. Family, friends, and supporters of Holtzclaw have raised nearly $10,000 on his behalf for “justice.”
There was no rally for these women. There was no mattress carried for them. The war on black bodies does not exclude black women, and in the words of black feminist scholar Audre Lorde, the culture of violence that claims black women as victims “weaves through the daily tissues of [black women] living — in the supermarket, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard…”
We must never forget that race and gender is only one intersection that is marginalized in the movement of sexual violence. Violence inflicted among people with queer identities, gender non-conforming identities and trans* women happen in day-to-day life, and institutionally. The stories of Stanford students Lina Schmidt and Elliot Bomboy were powerful and needed. They are important; they need to be heard.
The act of resistance displayed by black women at the event yesterday was in no way to take away or discredit the purpose of the event itself. We all hope that Sulkowicz’s rapist knows justice. But we hope that the same level of concern will be extended to those often ignored by these movements who are and will be victims of sexual violence. We hope that the same people who rally around Sulkowicz will rally against Holtzclaw.
Moving forward, marginalized voices must form solidarity in this movement around sexual violence. Dialogue, validation and healing must happen. And as Stanford tries to understand what to do regarding its policies of sexual assault, marginalized voices need to be loud in every meeting, town hall and discussion.
To quote some of the final words of Howard’s poem, “Black women’s experiences matter. Black women’s bodies matter. Black women’s lives matter.” We owe recognition and support to these women, and to other people with marginalized identities who carry the weight.