Why should a sexual assault center work to address racism?

By Rebecca Marchiafava, STAR Vice President 

Over the last six months, STAR has deepened our reckoning with racism. To reaffirm our commitment to facing racism, one of the questions we have to ask and answer as an organization is, “Why should a sexual assault center work to address racism?” Below are some thoughts on the matter. 

The issues of sexual violence and racial violence, or sexual trauma and racial trauma, often cannot be separated for BIPOC* survivors.  

Focusing solely on sexual assault without addressing other forms of oppression centers the experiences of white, middle and upper-class, cisgender, able-bodied women who have experienced sexual assault. 

Our Philosophy states that we are committed to “ensuring that every survivor of sexual violence has the right to confidential and competent services, regardless of their age, background, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity or decision to report.” Addressing racism furthers this commitment. 

Not in spite of, but because we believe every survivor of sexual trauma deserves support and healing, it is our duty to reject the expectation that we work in silos and focus solely on one issue. As Audre Lorde once said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

In addition to striving to better meet the need of those in our communities who have experienced sexual trauma, STAR staff and volunteers include Black people and other people of color, some of whom are themselves survivors of sexual trauma, who show up daily to passionately carry out our mission to support survivors and prevent sexual violence. Acknowledging and addressing racism means that we acknowledge the experiences of racism that our staff members and volunteers of color face on a daily basis, and that we are invested in fighting for a different world, one where they can feel safe, respected, and like a fully valued member of our organization, community and society. 

All oppressions are interconnected. 

We’ve long educated about sexual violence being a form of power-based violence. This means that sexual violence is most often perpetrated where power imbalances exist. To end sexual violence, we must end the power imbalances that allow it to exist, which means fighting oppression, including racism.

What do we mean by “oppression?” In our core online training that all STAR staff and volunteers go through, we define oppression as: 

the systematic and pervasive mistreatment of individuals on the basis of their membership in a disadvantaged group…Oppression involves the systematic use of power to marginalize, exploit, silence, discriminate against, invalidate, deny, dismiss, and/or not recognize the complete humanness of those who are members of a certain group.

Our Philosophy says that we are committed to “challenging attitudes, beliefs and behaviors within our culture that normalize, excuse, condone and perpetuate violence and oppression.” Addressing racism furthers this commitment. 

Working to confront racism means we are more meaningfully fulfilling our vision.

STAR’s vision is to build a healthy community free from oppression and sexual trauma. Recently, nonprofit consultant Joan Garry wrote a blog post titled “Internal Disruption,” directed toward leaders of nonprofits who may feel upset by challenges or protests from people within their organization. She writes: 

“Disruptors are you. They care deeply about the work of the organization and are passionate about the mission. So passionate that they can’t sit idly by when the organization is not fully living its values.

Each of your institutions has values – explicit or implicit in your mission or vision. Those who protest are deeply hurt and angry and they want to be heard and seen. They believe in your values and want your organization to live them.”

We are grateful to those individuals who hold STAR accountable to better living our values, and to those who work to continually improve our agency in this way. It is brave and necessary work.  

We believe in revolutionary change and transformation to build a better world. 

Our Philosophy says that we are committed to “revolutionary change to fundamentally transform ourselves, our clients and our communities.” One of the most entrenched, foundational barriers to eliminating both racism and sexual violence is the massive denial of both of these problems. Though there has been a broader public awakening of the problems of sexual violence and racism over the past decade, there is also a backlash against these awakenings that seeks to reinforce the idea that neither of these massive public health problems are actually problems. These are dangerous myths that we must always combat, especially considering that the denial of oppression is one of the primary tactics that is systematically used to maintain oppression. 

When members of an oppressed group speak up against the oppression they experience, it is inevitable that many members of the dominant group will deny this collective experience of oppression, and therefore avoid any responsibility for acknowledging and taking action to address the ongoing oppression. 

The first step we can take as individuals and as a society is to acknowledge that these conditions, which harm millions of people, exist and that it is our responsibility to work to change them. 

This is why we work to address racism. 


*BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color

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