Our Feminist Future vs. God’s Will
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By Sikivu Hutchinson
Recently Republican senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock suggested that a pregnancy resulting from rape was “something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock’s Christian fascist views permeate through a significant portion of the Republican Party, which has rampaged against reproductive rights with medieval zeal. The GOP’s anti-feminist backlash poses the gravest threat for women of color, who historically never had the benefit of being viewed as “proper” rape victims because innocence and “virtue” were an oxymoron when you were a slave, “squaw” or concubine.
In an era in which the wombs of African-American and Latino women are handily served up in every election cycle as welfare-queen-anchor-baby-spitting breeders, humanism has got to be culturally relevant, steeped in activism, and the everyday realities of communities of color.
As the founder of the South Los Angeles-based Women’s Leadership Project (WLP), a feminist mentoring program for girls of color, I train my students to do humanist peer education on the everyday impact of racism, sexism, heterosexism, misogynistic language, violence against women, and media imagery. Central to WLP’s peer training is enabling students to develop a humanist critical consciousness about their shared struggle and history as sacrificial good black/Latina woman of faith. Aside from white evangelicals, our communities are the most religiously devout in the nation. Yet this religiosity is steeped in a deeply racist legacy of structural inequality and segregation.
Decades ago, before the dismantling of racially restrictive covenants, South L.A. schools were virtually all white. Now, older suburbs that were once a springboard for upwardly mobile white working class families have been smeared as black and Latino “ghettoes.” Before white flight, the storefronts that would magically transform into churches during the postwar era were thriving retail centers. Resurrected from central casting, these dangerously primitive postwar “ghettoes” always star shiftless black people collecting welfare and breeding like rabbits. Despite its class and ethnic diversity, South L.A. has become shorthand for urban dysfunction. The comments of a white reporter who descended upon the community to watch the Space Shuttle Endeavor’s trek to the California Science Center are typical: “It’s the only time in my life I’m ever going to say I wish I lived in South Central L.A.—home of the riots, gangs, and many of the city's murders.”
This charitable view of “the ghetto” is the backdrop to a presidential campaign in which GOP demagogues stereotype poor children as having “no habits of working and having nobody around them who works.” Since black and Latino children are disproportionately poor—and people of color, rather than poor whites, are always portrayed as being the ones waiting for government “handouts”—right wing-speak means black and brown folk have no work ethic. So WLP humanism means not having the luxury to narrowly focus, as program coordinator Diane Arellano wrote recently in her blog, “on getting Ten Commandments displays taken down or challenging prayer in schools.” The high schools where our programs are based have high dropout rates and low four-year college going rates. High stakes testing, budget crises, ballooning class sizes, union busting, and the low expectations of some urban teachers have severely narrowed the curriculum, undermining the higher order learning students need to succeed in college. With a significant number of Los Angeles county students on probation, in foster care or homeless, the school-to-prison pipeline that criminalizes youth of color is a brutal reality. In some instances, students can go through all four years of high school without knowing what California’s “A-G” college preparation requirements are. So in addition to reproductive justice education, HIV/AIDS prevention, and peer mentoring for undocumented youth, our program provides college preparation resources, counseling on financial aid, and scholarships.
The majority of our students are the first in their families to go to college. WLP alums Imani Moses and Clay Wesley began the program as 9th and 10th graders. When I met them I was immediately impressed by their agile minds, sage observations, and sharp wit. Clay was in foster care after losing both her parents. Imani parented her six siblings and had to fight for every academic opportunity she got. Both girls blossomed as public speakers and feminist activists. They challenged mainstream notions of what it means to be a girl of color from neighborhoods in which few of their peers go on to or successfully complete college. In countless forums, workshops, and conference presentations they encouraged their peers to push back on girls’ acceptance of abusive relationships as well as patriarchal notions of femininity and masculinity. They got accustomed to being called “men-bashing” bitches. It was pro forma for them to be shouted down and disdained by boys and girls for speaking out about casual violence against women of color. During our Denim Day sexual assault awareness presentations, I saw Imani powerfully negotiate tense classroom situations in which girls sat silently while the boys joked about “hos” giving men AIDS. They pushed back against the common belief that rape was justified if a man was turned on. They questioned why girls didn’t feel empowered enough to talk about the countless times they had they been sexually harassed, stalked by strange men and/or boyfriends, called out of their names, and manhandled at school or on the streets.
One of the most fraught issues our girls confront is reproductive justice and the morality of abortion. Naturally, framing abortion rights as vital to women’s human right to self-determination is a third-rail issue in the classroom. Attitudes about sexually loose young women and abortion as “baby killing” are rampant. There have been many occasions when students trot out biblical scripture to shut down discussions on the moral imperative of abortion. Coming from predominantly Latino Pentecostal, Catholic, and Black Church-oriented backgrounds, hyper-religiosity is a recurring theme for most of my students. During an election year school forum on a California parental notification abortion initiative, Clay fiercely defended her belief that young black women are especially harmed by draconian limitations on abortion resources. At our annual youth media education conference, Imani challenged female students who argued that their bodies were “God’s” and that it would be “God’s will” if they were faced with an unplanned pregnancy.
Given the virulent wave of anti-feminist sentiment in the U.S., I am proud to see these young women spearheading youth leadership around gender justice in their own school communities. Imani is pursuing a Spanish major at Cal State Long Beach. Continuing her interest in undocumented students’ rights, she has become involved in the university’s undocumented youth advocacy group. Clay will be transferring from Southwest College next year and hopes to go to a Cal State or a UC campus. They have both continued their activist work, forging new horizons for feminist of color leadership, pushing back against the flat-earthers that would love nothing more than to see women barefoot, knocked up, God-fearing and, preferably, in the kitchen wearing a head rag.
Sikivu Hutchinson is a senior intergroup specialist with the L.A. County Human Relations Commission, founder of the Women’s Leadership Project and author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Her book Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels is due in 2013.