Saturday, May 05, 2007

Amnesty report on sexual assault among U.S. indignous women

(x-posted from my livejournal, as part of hoping for a better forum for more serious writing and the ongoing battle to figure out why I started this blog in the first place)

One of the most depressing factors in reading lots and lots of blogs has been reading the writing of people of colour who regularly point out that the mainstream white feminist community is just not speaking in a way that really includes them. There are certain news stories, certain posts, certain concepts that lead to racism being mentioned, and for the most part, that mainstream group is putting some effort towards increasing the number of those posts, challenging racist ideas as well as sexist ones, and increasing the profile of the voices of non-white feminists. But the basic framework for the discussions are coming from entirely different places on a number of these issues.

What shook me out of thinking I wasn't up to posting was this report from Amnesty International on sexual violence among U.S. aboriginal women*. There was a report with similar findings on Canadian indigenous women in 2004. Being reminded of this got me thinking again about the reading I was doing a few years ago and some conversations I had with the Dene women on the Cold Lake reserve in Alberta. At one point, I was really interested in the portrayal of sexual violence in literature [hey, maybe there's a Hathor books post in there] and started seeking out examples of works that dealt with that topic. I was looking only at literature written relatively recently, and only in North America, but I found examples from both white authors and authors from minority communities (mainly African American in the U.S., all First Nations authors in Canada). It didn't take me long to notice a pattern of difference in the works--where white authors** were writing in a way designed to raise awareness of just how frequently sexual violence occurs, they wrote about it as a tragic, life-shattering experience that should not ever happen (which of course is true). They wrote about overcoming shame and silencing, they wrote about anger and violation, and they wrote about stopping this kind of violence from continuing. Female authors of colour wrote about it as the status quo. They wrote about is as the default condition, with the assumption that women in their community had experienced sexual violence almost without exception. There was certainly an element of wanting their stories to be heard, but where white characters had to reveal their "victim" status to their peers, getting responses both positive and negative, but all based on the idea that the experience was a shock, the First Nations and African American characters spoke to other women in the community as though there was no revelation, and certainly no surprise.

Two things were scary about this difference, to me: the first was just how hopeless it felt. The Amnesty reports show aspects of this. While white feminists in Canada are working to improve the system so that rape victims who seek medical care and legal action are treated fairly and to reduce the culture of slut-shaming and victim-blaming that would allow us to wear low-cut shirts without fear or discomfort, North American indigenous populations are trying to work to build a system that provides adequate health care and legal resources at all. In Canada (as well as the U.S., from what I can tell), First Nations people live as political footballs in arguments about who is responsible for each and every thing most of us take for granted--health care is generally provincially funded, but reserves are federal space administered by the anachronistically named Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs; the political climate means that every medical need faced by someone living on a reserve is subject to scrutiny, not to mention the racist public perception of "lazy Indians" sucking off of the government welfare teat and never paying taxes. The AI report mentions the technicalities of jurisdiction that prevent prosecution of crimes that occur on U.S. reservations based on whether the perpetrator is or is not an aboriginal person, and such is the reality of living in limbo between two systems that constantly overlap based on simple geographic and economic practicality, not to mention that the system theoretically designed to meet the specific needs of those on the reserves is chronically deprived of the resources necessary for basic functioning. My ranting about the stories I've heard and personally experienced of doctors, police officers, media outlets and acquaintances who question women on how much they had to drink or what they were wearing or whether they led the guy on, my attempts to raise awareness on the impact of sexual violence, my accompanying women to the hospital or police station and talking to them when they are in crisis and not sure if they can make it through the night--all vital. But when the woman isn't even sure she can access standard medical and legal resources, not to mention faces race-based judgments that don't even get to the point of asking what she was wearing before dismissing her as entirely without value, what I'm saying is not even in the same book as what she's dealing with.

The second is that, though the realization came to me through literary examples, it forced me to see that the same difference had pervaded many conversations I had had. One of the byproducts of volunteering at sexual assault centres is that I very quickly became a safe person to whom to disclose past experiences, for both friends and people I had literally just met. I'm grateful for that, because I've been in a position to support more people in that way than I ever could if I waited for all of them to walk through the doors or call the crisis line. Since during my Master's, I did some of my research on a reserve and worked on some indigenous language development courses, I ended up having quite a few of these conversations with First Nations women. Many were old enough to have gone through the insanity of residential schooling, a few were younger. They talked about the sexual abuse as just another aspect of the systemic violence designed to eradicate their self-worth and the value of their entire nation. It was horrifying, they had been damaged in their relationships and in their understanding of personal autonomy, just like me, but unlike me and unlike the highly educated, middle class white women like me that I've spoken to, they never described it as the most horrible thing that had ever happened to them. It was rarely a revelation, it was an assumption. Recovery was being presented not just as something unique and personal, but as something needed within the entire community, since the abuse of the residential school system and the current policies have been perpetrated on First Nations peoples as entire communities. Since I met most of these people in the context of language revitalization efforts, that probably biases that perspective, because you can't talk about that without talking about the impact of being beaten into forgetting how to speak your native language. But when I talk about rape and abuse, I still talk about it as a revelation, as the worst thing I've ever experienced. I talk and write a hell of a lot about the attitudes toward women that make people refuse to recognize rape for what it is, and therefore make it acceptable. But I forget how ongoing colonialism brings in all these competing aspects of horrible, and how the attitudes towards First Nations people make many refuse to recognize them as people at all, and therefore make rape practically inevitable. The hopelessness comes from the sense that in those cases, there's just no time and energy to deal with rape in and of itself, because it's part of a picture that's just so much larger than that. And I don't know how to bridge the gap of talking about it in a way that it becomes relatable to people living with all of those circumstances, so that I'm not continuing to add to the problem of privileging my own experiences as normative.

I should note that now, I tend to default to the assumption that any woman to whom I'm speaking has experienced sexual violence. That may seem cynical or depressing, but first of all, the percentage of women in all corners of Canadian society who have been raped is too high to do otherwise, and second, I've yet to meet anyone among the remaining women who hasn't experienced some form of sexualized behaviour that has made her feel, at minimum, uncomfortable. And that helps me in a number of ways: I don't get to be "poor me" about my own experiences, I'm less likely to accidentally say something that may come off as dismissive or start another iteration of the "suffering Olympics", and I'm prepared enough for a disclosure that I don't react with the kind of shock and horror that I've personally found condescending or insulting in the past. But I still end up feeling shaken by the way I hear it being talked about by First Nations women, and I still feel paralyzed by the magnitude of the interrelated problems being talked about in those two Amnesty International reports, which of course I still forget about the bulk of the time I'm talking about sexual violence from inside my white feminist bubble, where it's the most horrible thing that's ever happened to me. And I'm not entirely sure how to talk about it in a way that's remotely approachable from outside that bubble. I'm not looking for a gold star just for asking the question, I'm seriously trying to figure out how to break through the walls that are in place just based on the basic differences in discourse on the subject that I'm noticing in the above paragraphs. But at that point, I find myself feeling hopeless and just figuring I need to detach from the world of issues encapsulated by the internet, or moving on to thinking about the next source of outrage that everybody else is talking about as well.

*Note: I don't really know what the dynamic is in the U.S. with regard to this terminology. I see the demographic term "American Indian and Alaska Native" persons in academic literature, including the AI report, but I still personally balk a little at anything using the word "Indian" for North American indigenous peoples because of the way that term is viewed in Canada. I'm assuming some acceptance of the terms "aboriginal" and "indigenous" based on the fact that those are the terms being used in a neutral (rather than sarcastically pejorative) manner on the few blogs I can find written by U.S. aboriginal persons. When referring to Canadian communities, I'm more comfortable using the term "First Nations", except when it's unclear whether the studies/examples include M├ętis and Inuit people as well, because the political implications change--and don't think I don't hate that in and of itself. Basically, this is my apology for the reality that I don't have a clue about the equivalent implications in U.S. policy or common discourse.

**Both the white authors and those of colour were predominantly female

1 comment:

Valencia said...

People should read this.