HECUA classrooms

HECUA classroom series: Intersectional feminism and surviving abuse.

a very soft focus black and white photo with a silhouette of a hand touching a sheet.
photo via Pexels

HECUA programs offer students a chance to think deeply about the issues that matter most, and we’d like to share a piece of that experience with you. This past semester, students in our Inequality in America program wrote a series of blog posts on a topic of their choosing. The only instruction? Select a theory or reading that intersects with your own lived experience. Over the next few months we’ll publish those powerful reflections from our Inequality students. You can find all of the posts by searching the HECUA classrooms category on our blog.

Applying an Intersectional Lens to Abuse

By Lily Martinez

Growing up in a mixed race household (white and black) provided me with life lessons that I didn’t really appreciate until I was older. The biggest lesson for me and my three sisters was to be adamant about our identities. Our father was committed to us being aware and proud of our blackness. He insisted we have black barbies, bibles with black illustrations, learn about the struggles our people faced in the US, and the struggles that we’d face not only as black people, but black women. We may be mixed with white, but the world would look at our skin and know that we were black. Growing up in a small town in Louisiana taught him just about everything he needed to know about race relations in the US.  

My mother was completely supportive of my father taking over our cultural education. She was also aware that having mixed children was going to be different. Members of her family confirmed that reality with various comments they made about us or my parents; we weren’t going to fit in anywhere, people would always treat us differently, or my personal favorite, “You don’t see a blue jay and a cardinal coming together and having babies.” I remember when my mom first told me all the things that my family had said about us. I was shocked and I felt so betrayed. I knew that mixed race children always faced this kind of backlash, but I didn’t think my family was victim to that kind of ignorance. They never treated my sisters and I any differently when we were around, so thankfully they confronted and dealt with their own racist ideas.

I found a new appreciation for my mother that day. I never knew the kind of pushback she faced from her family. We lived in Minnesota, it was the 90s, and my mom’s family is pretty religious. I thought that they would be understanding, and I’m sure she did too. Hearing how her own family wasn’t ready to accept us completely, showed her that the world wouldn’t either. She decided to learn about black culture as well. My parents had various conversations, she watched movies, read books, she even went to the library and found books on how to do black hair. My mother may not have made many comments on our blackness growing up, but she knew that that part of our identity would be under attack and we needed to know that it was one of the many things that made us beautiful. Both of my parents wanted us to be strong capable black women.

My dad told us that we would face oppression on multiple fronts because of our identities. I grew up thinking this reality was obvious, but I was surprised to learn during my HECUA program that this phenomenon didn’t have a concrete word to identify it until the white feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Kimberlé Crenshaw recognized that women of color, including herself, didn’t have a space carved in the mainstream feminist movement, and developed the theory of intersectionality to describe overlapping identities. The concerns of women of color stretched further than those of white women. When white women only had to worry about gender bias, women of color had to fight gender as well as racial bias.

I grew up aware of most of the challenges and stigmas that I would face as a black identifying woman, but I’ve always been curious as to the types of privileges I’ve inherited because of my white mother. I’ve never really thought of myself as benefiting from my mother’s whiteness because we didn’t really get the stereotypical perks that white families enjoy. In spite of all the encouragement my sisters and I received from my parents, they definitely had their own issues. My parents had a marriage, but it wasn’t healthy. My dad suffered from a cocaine addiction that had a huge impact on our family. He emotionally abused my sisters and I, but we didn’t receive nearly as much torment as my mom. She was abused physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Our family took quite a few financial hits that forced my mom to take out multiple mortgages on our house and completely tap her retirement fund for bills and groceries. We only enjoyed long periods of peace when my dad was locked away for months at a time, and for the month or two he’d be clean after getting out. It was a cycle that repeated itself for most of the 22 years of their marriage.

I look back on the struggles our family faced, and I’ve come to realize that if my mom had been black, as well as her family, the odds of us coming out of that experience whole would have diminished greatly. My mom would have been less likely to get a good education. A Department of Education study found that 45 percent of high-poverty schools received less state and local funding than was typical for other schools in their district. She would have been. less likely to get a well paying job. In 2015 white women earned $17 on average while black women earned $13. She would’ve been less likely to purchase a house. As  of 2012 only 42.5% of the black population were homeowners, and less likely to have survived the experience. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence if my mom was black she would’ve been three times more likely to have died from the experience.

I began to wonder what statistics would have applied to me if I found myself in an abusive relationship. My odds of suffering abuse increase because I’m black and come from an abusive home. I’m receiving a good education, but it isn’t guaranteed that I’ll find a good job. Because I have embodied the ideology of a “strong black woman” and am distrustful of the police, I would be more likely to fight back instead of call the police, which would make the abuse worse.

Applying this intersectional lens to this topic of abuse was odd for me. I know that my life, and lens in which I view the world is different than my mom’s, but to realize that her whiteness accelerated her escape from abuse, but my blackness, womanhood, and past experience with abuse could have potentially shoved me back into the cycle, with less likelihood of coming out is flooring. I started this blog post under the assumption that I came out of my abusive experience with some privilege, which I did, but only in relation to the whiteness of my mother. I may have grown up with a white mother and privileges while I was under her care, but not all of those apply to me now that I’m on my own.


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