“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own,” said Audre Lorde, a Black writer and feminist, who strongly believed in the importance of intersectionality. During times of protest, it is important to remember Lorde’s words. In the current climate of activism at Berkeley High School (BHS), this must be in the back of all our minds. Lorde was a firm believer that while people are connected by a common struggle, the struggle cannot end for anyone unless it ends for all. In the last few weeks at BHS, there has been a powerful student-led movement pushing for systemic change relating to the way cases of sexual harm are handled. The planning of events such as walkouts, speaking at school board meetings, marching to the district offices, and more, has required student effort and strength. We are extremely proud to have been a part of and witness such power at BHS. Yet, it is important that, in student-led movements, all experiences, emotions, and backgrounds are recognized.
Women at BHS have attempted to address the issue of rape culture time and time again, and yet BHS still fosters an unsafe environment for them. Berkeley is said to be a “bubble,” a place without the hatred and prejudice seen in the rest of the country. Believing that issues like sexism, racism, and discrimination do not happen here is dangerous. Acknowledging these struggles and how they intersect with others — like sexual harm — at BHS is crucial in this movement. Nia McMillan, vice president of the Black Student Union (BSU) at BHS, said, “I thought it [the walkout] was super powerful. It brought up a lot of important conversations that needed to be had. People are still incredibly uncomfortable talking about race though, and how it intertwines with issues like rape culture, sexism, xenophobia, and even climate change.”
There are many factors that make it more difficult for women of color to speak out against injustices. One of these being the negligence and oppression people of color have faced from institutions and administrations. When interacting with law enforcement, Black and brown people are met with hostility, causing a lack of faith in the legal system and discouraging women of color to report. A recent study done by the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, revealed that only one out of every 15 Black women who are raped will report their assault. Spanning back to early European colonialism, Native women and enslaved women were dehumanized and taken advantage of as a way to establish white male dominance. As women who held no power over their colonizers, they were forced to remain silent and repress the reality of what was happening to them. It became necessary to normalize this abuse in order to persist, furthuring the epidemic of unacknowledged sexual trauma in Black and Brown communities. These mentalities have been ingrained in communities of color who are still suffering the effects of white supremacy. These internalized feelings (and how they affect these communities) must be taken into account when understanding why BHS isn’t a safe space for all women of color to share their stories. Phrases like “f*ck staying silent” have been used over the past few weeks to empower women to speak out, but many students of marginalized groups don’t feel safe breaking their silence.
When we question why BHS isn’t a safe environment for all women, one might want to look toward the exclusion of women of color in these movements for answers. We need to make sure the demands presented to the administration are met, and apply to everyone. There needs to be acknowledgment of the intersectionality between race and sex in the consent curriculum. It is imperative that we normalize talking about race in class and with peers. We need to create a space where the statistics don’t hold true at BHS, which includes an emphasis on hiring counselors, teachers, and staff members of color. As BHS and BUSD search for a Title IX coordinator, we encourage them to hold this in mind. Our staff and students must be sensitive and understanding that the students of color at BHS don’t live in a “bubble.” We feel the isolation, discomfort, and confusion that students of color feel everywhere else. And we want to talk about it.