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A Note to White Feminists Following Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s Deaths

In the wake of the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police and the following waves of Black Lives Matter protests, all white people have had to take renewed accountability for the perpetuation of racism. No less white feminists and survivors of sexual assault (like me), whose goals of ending sexual and intimate partner violence for all survivors can only be fulfilled by a simultaneous commitment to racial justice.

For years, black feminists and other women and queer people of color have labored to end both racist and sexual violence. Black women and LGBT leaders and organizers of Black Lives Matter have continued to advocate for intersectional justice. Meanwhile, white feminists have frequently obstructed these efforts and perpetuated white racism through active disparagement of black women’s and queer movements and expression and a refusal to address racism. This means that the most visible and powerful anti-sexual assault movements are often white-dominated, perpetuate white-centric frameworks, and shut out the leadership of black and other survivors of color.

We as white feminists need to take this moment, then, to question what we can do to make our movements against sexual violence anti-racist, to learn from the intersectional vision of black feminists and other feminists of color without inserting ourselves needlessly into their narrative, and to fight the cooptation of our movements for racist ends. This begins with inspecting how sexual assault discourse has simultaneously been shaped by race and racism, and used as a tool to perpetuate it.

Alton Sterling, who was killed by police in Baton Rouge on July 5, had been convicted of “carnal knowledge of a juvenile,” or statutory rape. This has been brought up repeatedly by a racist media which is quick to use the histories of black victims of police violence to blame these victims for their own deaths. In this case, some media outlets have implied or even outright stated that Sterling’s history of sexual assault somehow morally justifies his murder.

Let’s start with a very basic concept: There was no justification for this killing. There was certainly not a feminist justification. White media attempts to insinuate that Sterling somehow deserved his death because of anything he did, including his perpetration of sexual assault, are examples of racist apologism. White feminists (like me) have an important role to play in calling this out. 

Marissa Johnson at The Establishment writes about complex and important discussions among black feminists, who are inventing ways to simultaneously affirm black sexual assault survivors and advocate for the rights of all black people to live free from racist violence.

White feminists need to affirm our own obligation to ending white supremacy as part of a vision of comprehensive justice for survivors of sexual assault. We have a particular role to play in this fight for several reasons. First, as white people, we have an obligation to end white supremacy. As feminists and sexual assault survivors specifically, we have an obligation to be explicitly anti-racist in our discourse and practice as we advocate against sexual violence in all forms. Second, as white people, other white people expect our complicity in excusing racism and villifying those black people who are killed by the police. As white feminists and survivors, we are especially expected to excuse the killing of someone like Sterling, who has been convicted of sexual assault. It is our job to practice and to present to other white people a vision of intersectional justice that condemns both sexual and racist violence and recognizes the connections between them. Third, as white feminists and survivors, we inherit a long history of racist violence against black men and other men of color, and simultaneous abuse and erasure of women of color, in our names.

There is a long pattern of white people justifying violence against black men and other men of color with accusations, true or false, of sexual assault — often against white women. This comes with a concomitant erasure of women of colors’ experiences of sexual assault, especially by white men. Regimes of racial purity, from colonial India to the Jim Crow United States, have often justified racist violence against black and brown men as protecting the “purity” of white women, or as — in Gayatri Spivak’s words — “white men saving brown women from brown men.” Of course, the group that most benefits from this patriarchal ideology is white men, but white women also benefit from and are complicit in sexualized racism. This legacy manifests itself today in the white-supremacist sexual violence at Abu Ghraib, Dylan Roof’s murder of black churchgoers in Charleston, Trump’s racist comments about Latino perpetration of sexual violence, the “feminist” justifications for the war in Afghanistan, and the condescending way in which Western media talks about sexual violence in India. 

In the face of this, white feminists have an unequivocal responsibility to condemn racist violence against black people and other people of color, to challenge systemic racism, and to root out discourses which use sexual assault to justify racism and racist violence. We have the obligation to understand and share the truth that justice for victims of sexual assault — who are often of color, are multiply marginalized, and/or have been incarcerated — can only occur with the abolition of racism. We need to follow the lead of countless women and queer people of color who have for centuries articulated and worked toward an anti-racist, anti-sexual violence vision, and whom white feminists have often degraded, disregarded, and dismissed.

Doing so requires white feminists to think unflinchingly about how race shapes our narratives of sexual assault, such as in the myth of the “perfect” (white) victim. It requires us to confront racist disparities in justice, such as the false conviction and over-sentencing of black perpetrators. It also requires us to account for structural and institutional violence, and not just interpersonal. 

In order to secure sustainable justice for all victims, anti-sexual assault activism must be anti-racist. Prioritizing the needs of survivors means prioritizing anti-racism. To begin this process, we need to be clear on a couple basic ideas.

  1. Every human being has a right to live free from racism, economic violence, and gender violence. We have a right to live free from rape, abuse, and sexual assault. All survivors, no matter who they are or what their experience, deserve healing and justice.
  2. Perpetrators — no matter who they are — are also human beings. They are human beings who have caused immense, unjustifiable harm. We can condemn them, we can mourn the harm they have caused, we can (and must) hold them accountable, we can feel whatever we feel toward them, and we can demand the time, space, resources, and accountability we need to heal. We cannot allow them to be stripped of the rights and dignity of personhood. 
  3. The tendency of white people and media to dig into a slain black person’s past for any wrongdoing, and then use that actual or imagined harm as justification for violence against them, is a racist tool to maintain white people’s ability to commit violence against people of color with impunity. It is a form of victim blaming just as much as any newscaster who blames a rape victim for their rape. It is not feminist.
  4. White people who appeal to sexual assault to justify racism are not looking out for sexual assault survivors. They are capitalizing on survivors’ trauma for racist ends. These are often the same people and outlets who blame and shame sexual assault survivors, particularly queer victims and victims of color, while publishing Brock Turner’s swim times. A just feminist politics prioritizes the experiences and needs of survivors of color — not white claims to prioritize the needs of survivors of color for white people’s benefit.

All survivors have the right to hold those who harm us accountable. Those of us with racial privilege also have the obligation to hold ourselves accountable for the harm we are complicit in because of our race. To begin this process, those of us with white privilege must challenge ourselves to expand our understanding of sexual violence as the product of not only sexism but racism, classism, ableism, and homo- and transphobia. We must advocate for all survivors, and especially those who experience multiple forms of marginalization. We must prioritize sustainable healing. We must challenge ourselves to include not only interpersonal forms of sexual violence but also structural and institutional forms of violence. We must understand that our justice is not isolated but connected by webs of history and power to all struggles seeking justice against oppression. 

Read this piece by Marissa Johnson at The Establishment. I also really appreciated Lily Zheng and Erika Lynn’s article on incarceration and Brock Turner, in which the writers lay out the way racist histories affect our thinking on sexual assault. 

To learn more about anti-racist approaches to ending sexual violence, you can learn from and support the work of Communities Against Rape and Abuse and INCITE!; and read the anthologies The Revolution Starts at Home and Queering Sexual Violence.

Image credit: Pax Ahimsa Gethen, photograph of BLM sit-in in San Francisco. Wikimedia Commons. 

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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