March 26, 2014

Refusing the privilege of silence: An open letter to my fellow advocates

Becky Perkins, Communications Coordinator

As my fingers type, I can feel it – pressure, hesitation, even dread.

Is it even possible to write a blog post about being an aspiring ally for women of color in leadership in the rape crisis field without making a total fool of myself? Should I even try? Won't I inevitably make a mistake, offend someone, or say something irresponsible or insensitive? As a white woman, should I even be the one to write this in the first place? Shouldn't one of my colleagues of color, or my Board President (who is a woman of color) be the one to write this? I mean, what do I know about women of color being leaders in the rape crisis field?


This is why I need to be the one to write this. Why should I ask my colleagues or Board president to write this particular blog post, when writing blog posts is a responsibility of my position? Why should I ask women of color to make me feel comfortable, to take this burden off my shoulders, when feeling comfortable and unburdened is rarely, if ever, an option for them? Why should I expect them to take responsibility for discussing something for which they are not responsible? By being silent, I fail to take responsibility. I cannot be silent anymore.

This is my problem, my challenge, my responsibility. And if you are white (particularly a white woman), then it's your responsibility, too.

In the fall of 2013, OAESV surveyed victim service professionals throughout Ohio on a variety of topics, one of which was the racial make-up of their organizational staff. Of 333 total staff members included in the response to this question, 75% were identified as White women, 12.9% were identified as African-American women, and 0.9% were identified as Hispanic/Latina women. None were identified as Native or Asian-American women, and only one woman was identified as a Multi-racial woman. Six percent of all staff members identified were White men.

What the survey failed to ask was what type of position each of these individuals hold. But here's what we as a coalition know: the vast majority of rape crisis center directors in the state of Ohio are white women. This would be concerning in any profession, but for a profession that deals with sexual violence – a form of oppression that disproportionately affects women of color – this is more than concerning.

And that's where things get uncomfortable, don't they? Are all those rape crisis center directors undeserving of their positions? Are white women working in victim advocacy insensitive, non-inclusive, or uncaring toward colleagues/potential colleagues of color, survivors of color, or communities of color? These are the knee-jerk questions that I, as a white woman and former rape crisis center director, immediately ask. I am instantly thrown into the position of defending who I am, where I've been, and what I've done. And in doing so, I have deepened the divide that prevents authentic self-reflection, organizational assessment, and accountability. Even if I were able to truthfully say that I am always inclusive, always sensitive (which, regrettably, I cannot), would that change the reality of the situation in our state?

I am slowly learning what this concept of "white privilege" means. It's one of those terms that tends to reek of political correctness and thus too quickly gets plopped onto a to-do list of self-improvement. But the fact of the matter is that by virtue of the color of my skin and the value that our culture attaches to it, I possess and enjoy power, choices, and opportunities that women of color do not. At a most basic level, I enjoy a general sense of comfort and acceptance every minute of every day that women of color do not. I am so accustomed to this comfort and acceptance that it's difficult to notice the presence of it in myself or the absence of it in others.

So what does this mean, and how does it translate to supporting women of color in the rape crisis profession? How does this translate into all survivors having access to the services they need and deserve? I don't have an easy answer. What I do know is that all communities in Ohio are more diverse in a variety of ways than most of us realize. Women of color, including survivors of color, live in every community in our state. How often do they interact with agencies or access rape crisis or other victim services? What does that say about those agencies and services? A "build it and they will come" approach doesn't work, so what will?

For me, as I communicate the work we as a coalition are doing and develop resources for advocates and survivors throughout Ohio, if I am not intentionally aware of my white privilege and how it translates to the communications and resources I produce, then I risk excluding or alienating the very people I am tasked with serving. This is every bit as big and daunting as it sounds. Whether I like or not – whether I realize it or not – my privilege informs and persuades everything I think and do, and like everyone else, I cannot separate who I am from the work I do.

Eleven years ago, I was a young woman who possessed a little bit of education and a lot of passion for this issue. A local rape crisis center took me in, trained me to be a volunteer, and quickly promoted me to a paid staff position. I eventually became the director of that program, and today, I proudly work for my state's coalition. At no point in this eleven-year journey in victim advocacy did it occur to me that the opportunities extended to me were made available, or made easier, based on the color of my skin. Maybe they were and maybe they weren't. I simply felt I had value, skills, and something to offer, and the opportunities I've enjoyed have validated that.

More importantly than any title I've held is the support I've received. I was fortunate to receive a significant amount of mentoring and guidance from my first supervisor and more experienced colleagues – things such as intensive one-on-one supervision, opportunities for professional development and continuing education, and the opportunity to propose and pursue new ideas and projects for the program without fear of failing or being ridiculed if and when I did fail. This support sustained me through difficult seasons in my professional life, and it directly shaped and influenced the advocate and woman I am today. Sadly and unjustly, many women of color in the rape crisis field do not receive this same level of support for no other reason than that they are women of color.

Not having to think about the color of my skin and how it has impacted my opportunities is itself an example of white privilege. The point being: there are countless women of color who possess tremendous value and skills to offer rape crisis centers and survivors, including leadership skills, but they do have to think about the color of their skin and how it has been and could be perceived by others, by victim service agencies, by me. How visible, invested, and engaged is any particular agency or individual in communities of color? How committed are we to supporting and nurturing women of color in the rape crisis field? What have I done to recognize this and work with it in my personal and professional life? Painfully, regrettably…very little.

So what can I and other aspiring allies do about all this? I can't change the fact that I'm a white woman who has held, and continues to hold, leadership positions in the anti-sexual assault field. I don't want to change that, and no one is asking me to. I like who I am and what I do. But with privilege of any kind comes responsibility, and never is that more important than in a profession centered on eradicating a violent form of oppression. I don't have all the answers, and I probably never will. But this is an opportunity of a lifetime and I don't want to stay silent or be a bystander to oppression. Most of all, I don't want to look back at the end of my career and realize (too late) that I didn't do all that I could to use my white privilege for good.

We are advocates working in the anti-sexual violence movement. We're used to being uncomfortable and to fighting the good fight. Women of color are not counting on white women to be allies, but I'm counting on it. I challenge each of us to rise above expectations – even our own. We can do this by digging deep within ourselves and having honest conversations, even if (especially if) it's uncomfortable. We can do this by committing ourselves to learning. For example, OAESV's Annual Conference will help us to explore these very issues and how they relate to our work. Finally, we can do this by remembering every day that if we are serious about confronting sexual violence, then we must also be serious about confronting oppression in all its forms.