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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.

The Color of Violence Against Women

Andrea Smith (Cherokee) is a longtime anti-violence and Native American activist who was the Women of Color Caucus chair of the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault and co-founder of the Chicago chapter of Women of All Red Nations. She is widely published on issues of domestic violence and Native Americans. This essay appeared first in ColorLines, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter 2000-01; Applied Research Center, 4096 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, CA 94611 <>

A young Native woman was once gang raped by prominent members of an urban Indian community I lived in. When she sought justice, the community instead blamed her--she was dividing the community by airing its "dirty laundry." At the same time, she had difficulty getting help from the mainstream anti-violence movement. In fact, the year before I began working in sexual assault services in that city, only one Native woman had received services at a rape crisis center. The primary reason Native women gave for not going outside the community for help was that it was like appealing to a "foreign government" for assistance.

This woman's story exemplifies the difficulties faced by women of color who are victimized by sexual or domestic violence. Communities of color often tell women to keep silent about sexual and domestic violence to maintain a united front against racism. Unfortunately, racial justice organizing has generally focused on racism as it affects men and has often ignored the forms of racism and sexism that women of color face. Consequently, women of color must often go outside of their communities to receive services from domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers.

Services Over Politics

Since the opening of the first rape crisis center in 1972 and the first domestic violence shelter in 1974, the mainstream anti-violence movement has been key to breaking the silence surrounding violence against women and providing critically needed services to survivors of sexual/domestic violence. The early anti-violence movement first prioritized a response to male violence based on grassroots political mobilization. However, as the anti-violence movement has gained greater public prominence, domestic violence and rape crisis centers have become increasingly professionalized to receive accreditation and funding from state and federal agencies. Rather than develop peer-based services in which large groups of women can participate, they employ individuals with the proper academic degrees or credentials. This practice excludes most women from full participation, particularly women of color and poor women. Professional service has eclipsed political organizing as the main work of domestic violence and sexual assault organizations.

Over the years, the anti-violence movement has also become increasingly reluctant to address sexual and domestic violence within the larger context of institutional inequality and violence. For example, many state coalitions on domestic/sexual violence have refused to take stands against the anti-immigration backlash, arguing that this is not a sexual/domestic violence issue. However, as the anti-immigration backlash intensifies, many immigrant women do not report abuse--from the INS, police, employers or family members--for fear of deportation.

This narrow approach toward working against violence is problematic because sexual/domestic violence within communities of color cannot be addressed seriously without dealing with the larger structures of violence, such as militarism, attacks on immigrants and Indian treaty rights, police brutality, the proliferation of prisons, economic neo-colonialism, and institutional racism. It is simply futile to attempt to combat interpersonal violence without addressing the fact that we live in a world structured by violence. It makes no sense to say that it is not OK for a man to hit his wife, but it is OK for him to bomb civilians in Iraq.

The Colonial Connection

Violence against women of color is central to the larger structures of violence, but it is also a special form of oppression. This is particularly evident in the history of genocide against Native peoples in this country. Women were specially targeted for destruction because they reproduce the next generations of Native communities. Not only were they killed but they were routinely raped and sexually mutilated as colonizers tried, both symbolically and literally, to control Native women's reproductive capacities.

Even today, Native women are targeted for acts of sexual violence. When the Chippewa attempted to exercise their treaty-protected rights to spearfish in northern Wisconsin during the 1980s, they were met by white racist mobs carrying signs such as: "Save a Fish, Spear a Pregnant Squaw." As long as Native peoples continue to live on the land and control resources this country wants, the US will continue its assaults on Native women. Unfortunately, the anti-violence movement has become increasingly reluctant to address sexual/domestic violence within the larger context of colonial violence.

Rape crisis centers and shelters rely heavily on state and federal sources for their funding. Consequently, their approaches toward eradicating violence focus on working with the government and criminal justice system. Mainstream anti-violence advocates are demanding longer prison sentences for batterers and sex offenders as a frontline approach to stopping violence against women.

However, the criminal justice system has always been brutally oppressive toward communities of color. For that reason, many organizations address violence directed at communities of color--police brutality, racism, economic exploitation, colonialism. Many other organizations address violence against women within communities. But very few organizations address violence on both fronts simultaneously.

New Strategies Needed

The challenge women of color face is to combat both personal and state violence. We must develop strategies that assure safety for survivors of sexual/domestic violence without strengthening the oppressive criminal justice apparatus. As Angela Davis said in her keynote address to the Color of Violence: Violence Against Women of Color conference held at University of California, Santa Cruz on April 28-29, 2000, (see ColorLines, Fall 2000), "We need an analysis that furthers neither the conservative project of sequestering millions of men of color in accordance with the contemporary dictates of globalized capital and its prison industrial complex, nor the equally conservative project of abandoning poor women of color to a continuum of violence that extends from the sweatshops through the prisons, to shelters, and into bedrooms at home. How do we develop analyses and organizing strategies against violence against women that acknowledge the race of gender and the gender of race?" As Angela noted, this is not an easy task.

Women of color have always been active in the anti-violence movement, challenging its racism, class biases, and depoliticization. Unfortunately, the anti-violence movement has often held itself accountable to state and federal funders rather than to women of color in its organizing efforts. ...[We need] to address these gaps within anti-violence and racial justice organizing in the US and to finally make women of color central to both.

A new national organization for feminists of color called Incite: Women of Color Against Violence is a national activist organization of feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and their communities through direct action, critical dialogue, and grassroots organizing. If you would like to be on the mailing list of this new organization, please contact <> or Incite, PO Box 6861, Minneapolis, MN 55406.

Some Facts about the Color of Violence

47% of women will be raped in their lifetime.

50% of women will be battered by their spouse/partner.

40% of women in prison for felonies are there because they killed an abusive partner/spouse.

Women of color are 64% of the female prison population and serve longer sentences for the same crime as do white women or men of color.

In the 1970s, it is estimated that 30% of all Puerto Rican women, and 25-40% of American Indian women were sterilized without their informed consent.

Two-thirds of college men report they would consider raping a woman if they thought they would get away with it.

Around 50,000 women per year are illegally trafficked into the US, where they end up in sex industries, domestic work, and sweatshops.

The life expectancy of Native women in the US is 47 years.

The International Human Rights Association of American Minorities has documented that more than 50,000 Native children have been killed in Indian residential schools.

Addressing the Contradictions

Santa Cruz, April 2000: Many years ago when I was a student in San Diego, I was driving down the freeway with a friend when we encountered a black woman wandering along the shoulder. Her story was extremely disturbing. Despite her uncontrollable weeping, we were able to surmise that she had been raped and dumped along the side of the road. After a while, she was able to wave down a police car, thinking that they would help her. However, when the white policeman picked her up, he did not comfort her, but rather seized upon the opportunity to rape her once more.

I relate this story not for its sensational value, but for its metaphorical power.

Given the racist and patriarchal patterns of the state, it is difficult to envision the state as the holder of solutions to the problem of violence against women of color. However, as the anti-violence movement has been institutionalized and professionalized, the state plays an increasingly dominant role in how we conceptualize and create strategies to minimize violence against women. One of the major tasks of the anti-violence movement is to address this contradiction, especially as it presents itself to poor communities of color....

On the one hand, we should applaud the courageous efforts of the many activists who are responsible for a new popular consciousness of violence against women, for a range of legal remedies, and for a network of shelters, crisis centers, and other sites where survivors are able to find support. But on the other hand, uncritical reliance on the government has resulted in serious problems. I suggest that we focus our thinking on this contradiction: Can a state that is thoroughly infused with racism, male dominance, class-bias, and homophobia and that constructs itself in and through violence act to minimize violence in the lives of women? Should we rely on the state as the answer to the problem of violence against women....

There are no easy solutions to all the issues I have raised and that so many of you are working on. But what is clear is that we need to come together to work toward a far more nuanced framework and strategy than the anti-violence movement has ever yet been able to elaborate.

We want to continue to contest the neglect of domestic violence against women, the tendency to dismiss it as a private matter. We need to develop an approach that relies on political mobilization rather than legal remedies or social service delivery. We need to fight for temporary and long-term solutions to violence and simultaneously think about and link global capitalism, global colonialism, racism, and patriarchy--all the forces that shape violence against women of color. Can we, for example, link a strong demand for remedies for women of color who are targets of rape and domestic violence with a strategy that calls for the abolition of the prison system?

--Angela Davis

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