When calling me your beautiful sister is not enough

by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

“Facilitator of anti-sexism workshop wanted for nonprofit” read the message on the Colours of Resistance listserv one gray February before the war started. I emailed them right back. Hello $300 workshop fee! “Most of the men in the group are men of color. Do you know of a lot of resources that are POC specific about ending sexism?” asked my contact person. Oh, sure. Sure there were. Weren’t there?

Actually there wasn’t. How-to-not-be-a-jerk literature at guys tends to fall into 2 camps: the 80s feminist Joel Stoltenberg, “Refusing to be a Man” kind where all sex equal rape and all butt-cheek videos are evil, and the 90s, earnest white indierocker partner-of riot grrl kind. All of it seemed to be sometimes useful, mostly in a completely different world than the one I lived in. For Joel Stoltenberg and the indie rockers, the issues were about being sensitive guys who washed dishes and cooked and wanted to cuddle their girlfriends instead of playing video games. Not so much about dealing with police brutality, brother-sister dynamics in activism, dealing with partner abuse when the criminal justice system used to prosecute it is already waging war on your community but you don’t want to let Batterer Dude off the hook.

But it wasn’t like I hadn’t seen and been hurt by sexism inside activist of color scenes. They’d been a part of every youth of color movement I’d been a part of – from prison justice to police brutality to Zapatista solidarity to Free Mumia to anti-war. It wasn’t just COINTELPRO that helped destroy 1960s and 70s radical third world liberation movements from within; it was also unchallenged sexism and homophobia. Unfortunately, when we’re looking back at the nation-building movements of the 60s and 70s,w e don’t always remember that part, even though many women, trans people and men have eloquently testified to that history. (See Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, Sonia Sanchez, Marlon Riggs, Cherrie Moraga, Leslie Feinberg, Sylvia Rivera, Gloria Anzaldua, etc.)

There was the guy who always said “how you doing, sister” when I picked up the phone and then asked if my male partner was there, because there was a really important meeting coming up. There was the uncomfortable silence around partner abuse when things started getting crazy and my partner started screaming at me, playing the Gravediggaz at volume 12 and hitting me – people saying that it was a “personal issue” or that our men were so oppressed that what could we expect? There was the heroic warrior/ street fighter and beautiful, fierce but womanly sister roles. The ideas, still hanging around, that strong women of color don’t think sexism is an important issue- that’s for those white Le Tigre girls, right?

Things vary from city to city, but I’ve still had to listen MCs giggle over homophobia at my local spoken word night and on records. And I’ve seen way too many fabulous female, queer and trans leadership be pushed to the corners by the revolutionary brothas and sistas.

In writing this, I’m conscious of how my words could be twisted to read as playing into the demonization of men of colour and indigenous men as inherently more thugged out than those skinny white dudes. That’s not what I’m doing; what I’m doing is refusing to let dudes off the hook because they’re so oppressed. Acknowledging that sexism rips apart our communities. Period.

So here are some thoughts in point form, some dos and don’ts that that have occurred to me when thinking about sexism and men of color: They’re a draft and a work In progress, something to share snd something to be added to.

Being an anti-sexist man doesn’t have to mean that you can’t be a boy; it just means not being a jerky one. If you’re a girly/ femme boy, more power to you. But if you’re a masculine guy and you think that being sexist means giving that up, you should know that it doesn’t. You can still keep your dick, you muscles, whatever, and do the dishes and childcare, too.

Please, people, don’t intellectualize sexism and be all Mr. Power Activist Boy about it. In many activist scenes, it’s easy to talk any issue to death, easy to demonstrate how well you KNOW this stuff already by quoting all the books you’ve read or, even better, just going on about how committed you are to this stuff and how BAD all those other guys are. A lot of activist crews give props to men who think about these issues at all – especially when they get all emo over them in their journals and speeches. Actions speak louder than words.

(insert appropriate” Racism and sexism operate differently” caveat here, but…), but if you were interacting with a white activist who was committed to dismantling their racism, what would you want? You’d probably want them to do stuff without being asked and without expecting a medal for doing it. You’d expect them to educate themselves, think about this shit on their own and be open to hearing critical feedback. Okay, do all this when it comes to sexism in your own life.

If someone discloses that they have been physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused, don’t disbelieve them, make excuses for their abuser or try to brush of the subject. Don’t let their abuser continue to be a leader without any consequences for their actions.

Far too often, people come to activism thinking that abusers are out there (cops, suburban guys, whatever) that conscious guys don’t abuse. When they do, too often abuse is contextualized as a “personal issue”, or gets written off as “understandable” due to stress, oppression, and abuse. My ex used to say that he “understood” why his dad beta him and his mom because after all, they’d just fled a military coup in their home country,, his dad was working two jobs, things were crazy- but there are plenty of guys who’ve been through war, torture, exile, poverty, etc,. who have found ways not to take it out on their partners and children. Doing this is replicating the cycle of violence and oppression onto our own communities.

Oppression doesn’t “cause” people to become abusive. People who become abusive or violent are making a choice to hurt other people, as out of control as their actions may look. They have other choices.

In terms of dealing with the abuse: the survivor needs to be consulted as to what s/he wants/ needs to have happen. Sometimes instead of doing this people decide what’s best- calling the cops, beating the shit out of the abuser, whatever, even when the survivor is saying explicitly that doing these things is not in her or his best interest. Ask the survivor what they need at the moment. However, at some point the person who has perpetuated violence needs, at the bare minimum, to be told that what they have done is not okay and people in the community will be watching out for the survivor.

Don’t valorize revolutionary sistas and not be able to deal with women in real life. Don’t hang lots of Angela Davis posters on your walls and talk endlessly about how much respect you have for Strong Women of Color. Cuz Strong Women of Color are also real human beings, and even Angela Davis gets annoyed, tired, frustrated, irritated, doesn’t feel like it, has to say no, etc. Deal with radical women of color as real, unique and imperfect human beings.

Don’t just be into “glorified activism” – meeting up with Marcos, grabbing the bullhorn, being the activist star. Try getting all the food donated and chopping all those dammed onions, doing the childcare (for more than 20 minutes) or behind the scenes work – without talking loud about how you’re all that for doing it.

Check how often you talk, and for how long. Ask yourself how much other folks have been able to get a word in during the meeting/conversation/whatever. You don’t have to be all self-consciously “I am remaining silent during this meeting so my sisters can speak” but you can just try kicking back a bit more.

Re-think your idea of leadership. Leadership is often equated with being vocal, central, shaping and making all the decisions, exerting influence, etc. Leadership can also be about mentoring, listening to other folks, making space for other folks to take leadership roles.

Don’t assume that because a woman is femme / girly / dressed hoochie that she’s stupid and/or apolitical and/or less politically committed than women who are dressed more androgynously/ butch/boy. A serious addiction to the MAC counter mix very well with many women’s 3.8 GPAs in Third World Women’s Studies and ability to run a spoken word night, a drop-in and a steering committee simultaneously.

Don’t think that women have to be superdivas to get respect. Often, burnout gets valorized as an activist value for women activists, while saying no to tasks looses one points – you’re not the earth mother holding up the world anymore. Respect the women and transfolks in your life even when they need to sleep instead of going to another meeting.

Don’t believe that women or transpeople who are sexually active (with more than one partner, with casual partners, who are into s/m) are less politically serious than those that aren’t.

Alternatively, don’t pressure folks who aren’t into it to be casual or non-monogamous. Don’t strut around being all like you are the most sex radical boy on the planet. Don’t make people feel backward if they don’t already own a closet full of sex toys or if they want one committed relationship. Different things are right for different people. Slut/stud stereotypes (where boys get props for being sexual and girls lose them) still operate, and ladies can be dealing with a multiplicity of issues that makes being sexual more challenging and complicated. Being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse or rape, community/family being strict and punishing towards sexually active girls, a culture that won’t deem you attractive unless you look like JLo, not having access to good info about how your body works all make being sex-positive not an automatic

Don’t say, “What’s up, sister,” to me and then ignore me throughout the whole meeting.

Don’t believe or act like queer or trans folks are a Western aberration. Queer and trans people have existed in many of our societies prior to colonization, and have been present in radical movements throughout the last five hundred years. Queer and in particular transgendered/transsexual people were singled out for genocide by colonizers. Please do not perpetuate these genocidal attitudes in your current activist life.

Look at your own sexuality/gender and see what you have freely chosen because it is right for you and what you have taken on because it was forced on you, it was the expected thing or it was the option you were given at the time. How do these choices affect how you interact with women and trans people in your life?

Look at being stoic if it’s your automatic way of dealing with pain and emotion. How does or does it not works in your life? While his may seem like a very personal choice, sometimes when it’s an unexamined one it can manifest as contempt for people who are more emotional.

Don’t assume men are physically stronger. In fact, value vulnerability, empathy, sensitivity, emotion and openness as positive strengths.

Bear in mind that it wasn’t just COINTELPRO that broke up AIM, the Panthers, and other 60s-70s movements- sexism and trans/homophobia and un-dealt with partner abuse did, too. Radical movements of people of color have been destroyed by internal sexism and homo/transphobia. Women and transpeople who should by all rights be fabulous, necessary leaders will and have chosen to leave mixed gender movements with broken hearts when sexism and trasnphobia doesn’t go away.

Reading List (a brief one):

What Makes a Man: 20 Writers Imagine the Future. Edited by Rebecca Walker. 2004. Riverhead Books, San Francisco.

“Back in the Early 90s” and “Chingon Politics Die Hard,” Des Colores Means All of Us, Elizabeth Martinez. Boston: South End Press, 1997.

“Kicking Down Jane’s Door,” by Seth Tobocman, in War in the Neighborhood. New York: Autonomedia Press.

“Confessions of a Recovering Misogynist,” by Kevin Powell, Ms. Magazine, April-May 2000. Article by hip-hop journalist and poet Kevin Powell on sexism and battering within Black youth activist culture.

Deals with the Devil: And Other Reasons to Riot, by Pearl Cleage.

Wounds of Passion and Feminism is For Everyone, bell hooks. New York: Routledge.

The Hip Mama Guide to Childrearing, by Ariel Gore – plus www.hipmama.com and www.mamasquilt.com (radical mamas of colour), for radical parenting resources.

The Survivors’ Guide to Sex, by Staci Haines. San Francisco: Cleis, 2000 (for info about how sexual abuse and assault affects sexuality, partnering w/ survivors.)

Sexual Assault in Activist Communities. Special Issue of The Peak. contact: activistsagainstsexualassault at hotmail.com or The Peak., Student Centre 236, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON N1H 2W1. listserv: aasa-subscribe at topica.com

Incite! Women of Colour Against Violence. “Community Accountability Principles/ Concerns/ Strategies/ Models.” Working Document on partner Abuse in communities of color, available from www.incite-national.org.