Last week, Barnard College/Columbia University’s V-Day organization announced that this year's production of Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues will feature a cast entirely composed of self-identified women of color. It has mostly been regarded as a bad decision that excludes a large number of survivors of sexual assault who do not identify as people of color. I overheard one student on our campus ask, "What the hell does race have to do with rape?"
But I'm a white woman and a survivor of sexual assault, and I fully support V-Day's decision.
Because our lives as women are irrevocably tangled in race, class, gender and sexual identity, discussing any feminist issue is necessarily tangled in them as well. One of the greatest shifts in the feminist movement recently has been an increased focus on the intersectionality of oppression as experienced by the individual and the group. Feminism is about reclaiming agency, about advocating for ourselves and for each other in order to fully realize each of our inherent dignities as a human being, and our identities are absolutely crucial tools to this end. Any activist must realize that an identity is a multi-faceted and intimate thing which will be shaped by how we identify along axes of oppression. To work on women’s rights demands awareness and concern for black rights, for multiracial rights, and for queer rights, because women are all of these, and in multitude.
I speak of intersectional awareness as a "recent" shift in the movement because historically feminism has been preoccupied with a white woman’s struggle. From women demanding suffrage for the furthering of white supremacy to the erasure of women of color in Lena Dunham’s Girls, the voices, struggles, and even existence of women of color have repeatedly been marginalized and erased. The fact that being a person of color is an extra consideration in feminism belies a movement normalized around the lives and issues of white women.
I think it is particularly important that we strive to equalize representation in a college environment, where for many of us the issue of identity becomes more and more fundamental to how we engage in the world around us, to how and why we are advocates. It is this, in part, that leads many women in my college to avoid male colleagues who are disinterested, at the least, by their daily realities, just as many students of color have trouble with their white peers who fail to grasp the pains of micro-aggressions and remain insensitive to race. It is doubly painful, then, to be oppressed along more than one axis, to have an even smaller pool of people who inherently understand your experience, or who are willing to engage with the dynamics of oppression respectfully and critically.
Couple this with the fact that by college, one in four women will have survived rape or attempted rape. To be a woman, a person of color, and a survivor of sexual assault: this is an identity that needs to be discussed, and with it comes a person who must be loved and listened to. Supporting female identities in the college environment in which this V-Day decision occurred must involve both support for survivors and support for women of color, and there is be overlap between these populations. In fact, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, black, American Indian/Alaskan, and mixed race women are more likely to be assaulted than white women.
The Vagina Monologues have told the stories of many, many women who do and who do not identify as people of color, and in the act of representation lies support and sometimes healing. To have even one show that is just for the voices of women of color is a step towards equalizing representation across the whole feminist movement, and to catch up on years of vastly inequitable representation and awareness.
To my fellow non-PoC survivors: please, do not view this as taking away a chance to tell your story. To all survivors: there will always be outlets to speak the truth about your lives, and you will always have the power to find them.
As Audre Lorde, the black lesbian writer and civil rights activist, said, "Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever." We are trying to let women of color speak in a world in which they have been doubly silenced. Listen to them.