With an epidemic of sexual assault sweeping college campuses across the nation, including the University of Michigan, there are countless topics of uncertainty and controversy. In a four-part series, James Brennan seeks to explore them with interviews and personal research. This is part two.
Trigger warning: The following article includes descriptions of sexual assault and may be triggering.
Before she became a well renowned playwright and scholar, Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland was a prostitute in the Mississippi Delta.
Holland, like many Black women in the south, was raped by a white man who employed her as a domestic worker. He gave her five dollars, and she spent the next several years making a living through prostitution. Holland, as quoted in Danielle McGuire’s book “At the Dark End of the Street,” recounted the twisted culture of white men in the south holding dominion over black women’s bodies, and how “no white man wanted to die without having sex with a black woman.” (McGuire, pg. 203)
The same year that Holland was first raped, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for flirting with a white woman. It wasn’t until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated state laws against interracial marriage, many of which remained in state codes for years after. The state of Alabama did not amend its constitution to reflect the court’s ruling until 2000, a time when 40 percent of Alabamans voted to keep their anti-miscegenation law. In 2012, polls showed that one in five likely Republican voters in Alabama believed interracial marriage should be illegal; in Mississippi, the number was closer to one in three.
We may often try to push it aside, but racism infects every single aspect of American life, including already complex issues like sexual assault. Americans may no longer be living in a time when the rape of black domestic workers is a normalcy, but this combination of racism and sexism is by no means extinguished.
LSA senior Arnold Reed and Speaker of the Black Student Union, recalled a class discussion where a student cited high numbers of single-parent Black households as evidence that Black men are particularly “philandering.” Along with the hypersexualization of Black men, Reed also argued that a certain level of hesitation still lingers in the minds of Blacks and whites alike with regards to interracial dating.
According to Business senior Sumana Palle, the diversity of experiences in sexual assault has been largely ignored by the University and Central Student Government’s “It’s on Us” campaign. Palle, an active member of the Michigan Women of Color Collective, wrote a heavily shared viewpoint indicting both students and administration for these failures. In an interview, Palle expanded on the themes in her piece, explaining that the campaign has largely painted sexual assault as it is seen by straight, white people. A survivor herself, Palle argued that women of color often experience sexual assault in a racialized context, adding to the already overwhelming trauma.
In our conversation, Palle alluded to the dynamics within individual communities, explaining that the frustration felt by men of color due to their own oppression may then be channeled into sexual violence. Reed also discussed the particular lens through which a certain group views sexual assault. In the Black community, this has meant a progression from not discussing the issue, to focusing on giving women a voice regarding domestic abuse, to — Reed predicts — deeper discussions of sexual abuse. As for now, Reed and other BSU executive board members are focused on education and building a strong understanding of the issue before playing a bigger role on campus.
In exploring the diversity of experiences and views regarding assault, what may have been the most enlightening experience was a long talk with LSA senior Irene Suh, President of Students for Choice. Suh, who also detailed connections between the pro-choice movement and survivor advocacy, gave me a crash course in how conservative, East Asian cultures can see sexual abuse.
Suh is a first generation Korean-American, and said that she was socialized to be submissive and not to speak up, especially with regards to sex and sexuality. While in high school, she was sexually assaulted multiple times by two men, also of East Asian descent. It was not until long after that she told her parents, and this was only after a school counselor became aware of the situation and forced her to.
Summoned to her counselor’s office with her mother, Suh recalled being told “either you can tell her or I can tell her.” According to Suh, this was a huge mishandling of the situation, having never been told that her disclosure would necessitate the school notifying her parents. “I knew I wouldn’t be supported in the way that I needed,” Suh told me, explaining the accompanying shame, embarrassment and silence present within many (but not all) Asian American communities. Feeling powerless already, the school ended up taking away even more control from her.
Suh and her parents have rarely discussed the situation, and she spent the rest of her time in high school trying to “brush off” everything. However, once at the University, she began using resources like Counseling and Psychology Services and Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center to take the issue head on. Today, Suh uses her experiences to fuel advocacy and education work, all in an effort to tell others they “deserve better” and should “love themselves.”
Suh, Reed and Palle present just a few of the various perspectives students bring to the table when it comes to sexual assault. I could probably write an entire series solely dedicated to exploring these views and still barely scratch the surface. I haven’t even begun learning about the challenges for groups like male survivors, the LGBTQ community or mixed race individuals — but I want to.
While “It’s on Us” has thus far gotten a lot of attention, I should pause to remind everyone that for every “us” there is almost always a “them.” If our idea of “us” only includes the experiences of straight, white students, then the “them” inherently becomes everyone else. The campus will be divided, per usual, and progress will be limited at best. This does not have to be the case.
The University and CSG can decide to create a truly inclusive campaign. They can build something that reaches out to student organizations and individuals from every corner of campus. They can take a step back and acknowledge the role that privilege plays in racializing and misogynizing sex. If they — or, I should say, if we — fail to do this, then “It’s on Us” will mean little beyond a catchy slogan.
James Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.