Violence against women is an epidemic. Some of the worst that I’ve been confronted with are the stories of women who have been sold into slavery and are raped every day. Some of the most incredible, courageous people I’ve met are women who have managed to take hold of freedom from the sex trade and take control of their own lives and futures. During my time with them I realized the truth: that we all do violence. That the treatment of women from the home to the street corner to the magazine to the college campus to the church to the red light areas and war zones are but varying degrees of violence against women. That violence against women is directly linked to ‘locker room banter’ that normalizes and encourages sexual assault.
This weekend, Kelly Oxford tweeted her first experience of sexual assault, and then invited other women to do so. Millions of women responded.
Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren’t just stats. I’ll go first:
Old man on city bus grabs my “pussy” and smiles at me, I’m 12.
— kelly oxford (@kellyoxford) October 7, 2016
If you have not looked at my time line, please do. I’ve had a million women describe their assaults tonight. A million. This is not nothing.
— kelly oxford (@kellyoxford) October 8, 2016
women have tweeted me sexual assault stories for 14 hours straight. Minimum 50 per minute. harrowing. do not ignore. #notokay
— kelly oxford (@kellyoxford) October 8, 2016
Donald Trump’s violent language caught on tape seemed to come as a shock to many white men. They were suddenly faced with the reality that their support of Trump sends a message to their white wives and white daughters, a message that they are objects who exist merely for the pleasure of men, that sexual assault is normal male behavior and conversation. Many white men were taken aback. The brave women who shared their experience of assault were not. Neither were my friends of color.
Stop and Frisk
The 5th graders at the school I worked at this spring did an activity on fear. They read about a character who had to face his fears, then wrote their fears down on a self-colored picture of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. They hung in the hallway above the lockers. Listed among the typical phobias – snakes, spiders, and dying – stood out an unusual fear, shaped by our current political life: Donald Trump. I wasn’t surprised. Nearly every child in that school is black.
I didn’t grow up with police cars patrolling my streets all day. I was never followed around a store by a suspicious clerk. I have never seen a stranger intentionally cross the street to avoid walking past me. None of my peers went to prison when they consumed or dealt drugs. I have never had my car searched or been stopped on the street and frisked by a police officer. When we listen to the stories of our black brothers and sisters, we learn that this is a reality they face every day. So when a presidential candidate advocates a nationwide stop and frisk policy, African Americans can only assume that policy is for them. This is the message that is sent: You are dangerous. We do not trust you. You are a little less human than us.
When I think about the precious, brilliant 7 and 8 year old boys and girls I was privileged to accompany at school, I am devastated by the perpetuation of this message they receive and absorb, and how that will impact their sense of worth now and in the future.
Create a Database
They told me incomprehensible things. Stories of war and chaos. She had a baby while bombs were falling around her. His neighbor murdered his son. She doesn’t know where her father is. Her cousins were raped. He pedaled away from a tank on his bicycle. Her husband was tortured and killed.
What was striking about their stories was what they shared about life before the war: going to the beach, grilling kebabs, playing backgammon with their neighbors, re-enacting Jack and Rose on the Titanic. Their stories make so obvious this simple fact that usually gets lost in the news and analysis: these are real people. Real people with plans and goals and hopes and dreams. But mostly they are whittled down to two parts of their identity: they are Syrians, they are Muslims.
Throughout this presidential campaign, Donald Trump has advocated killing the families of Muslim terrorists, refusing all refugees from entering the United States, and creating a database of Muslims living in our country. His son (who is actively involved in the campaign) recently compared Syrian refugees to a batch of Skittles with a few poisonous ones mixed in. This is the message that is sent to people who have experienced unbelievable loss, pain and trauma: You are dangerous. We do not trust you. You are less human than us. We do not want you here.
In my home state of Minnesota, many worry about the radicalization of young Somali Muslims. But have we considered what it does to the psyche of a 15 year old Somali-American boy to be told again and again that he is not welcome in our country, that he cannot be trusted, that we don’t want him here? Is there any better way to alienate him?
Consider in contrast the story from my father-in-law: when a refugee family arrived at the airport in Minneapolis they saw a large group of people with balloons and gifts and a large Welcome Home sign. “Wow,” the mother of the new arrivals said. “There must be someone very important, some dignitary arriving.”
“No,” they were told. “They are here for you. Welcome home.”
“We have never been welcome anywhere,” she replied, with tears in her eyes.
If we want society to be safe. If we want to grow and strengthen and live in freedom and peace, this is the message we must tell each other over and over and over and over again: You are loved. You belong. You are a beautiful, essential part of our family, our country.
What Message Will We Send?
I attended a panel discussion on Brexit today. As the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, one panelist said, “Everyone from the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland, France and Germany in the UK felt rejected by Brexit; they felt like we don’t want them here.” I fear we will send the same message.
There is much to be debated about the future of our country: security, economy, the Supreme Court, health care, etc. But more than anything else, above any other policy or position, Donald Trump has consistently proclaimed a message to our fellow Americans who are black or brown or Muslim or Latinx or women that they are less than human. I can think of nothing else that would so greatly damage the fabric of our society, than for a majority – or even a near majority – of U.S. citizens to send a message to the rest of our American brothers and sisters that they are not welcome here. Make no mistake, this is the message people will hear if we cast our vote for Donald Trump.
On the ballot in my home state, there are 9 options for presidential candidates. You and I may disagree on which of those nine would be the best choice to run our country. I will not try to convince you to vote for my favorite. One person will not heal the deep divisions in our country. For that, we must recognize that the stories of abuse and scorn and prejudice and marginalization are not isolated incidents, but regular occurrences for people of color and Muslims and women and Native Americans and other marginalized communities.
There has never been a time when the United States has consisted of one homogeneous group of people. There will never be a time when this is the case. Our only way forward is to seek justice for the harm that has been done and extend a mutual welcome toward others, even as our politics clash.