On February 23, 2016, YWCA USA posted a call for young women and girls of color to submit blogs about their life experiences for our Stand Against Racism campaign. The annual event focused on building community among those who work for racial justice and raising awareness about the impact of institutional and structural racism. We never anticipated the response it would generate.
As of today, there have been more than 600 comments and over 3,000 shares on this Facebook post alone. When compared to other hard-hitting issues we have worked on like the role of guns in domestic violence homicides, racial profiling, immigration reform, and military sexual assault, this campaign well exceeded our expectations and normal engagement rate. Many replies have been positive, applauding YWCA for supporting girls of color and elevating the issues they uniquely experience. More than a few, however, interpreted this ask as racist and discriminatory against White girls. The level of discomfort displayed around simply providing a platform for young women and girls of color to discuss their experiences indicates a lot about the state of race in our country.
It’s been said that equity feels like oppression to those who are privileged, and it feels truer than ever here. While it’s sad to acknowledge, this type of backlash comes as no surprise to me, both as the CEO of YWCA USA, an organization focused on eliminating racism and empowering women, and as an African-American woman. Racial inequity continues to be such a pervasive issue that even focusing on a discussion about the needs of young women and girls of color is controversial.
The discourse in this year’s presidential campaign filled with racism and sexism, certainly has not moved the dialogue forward in a positive manner. Donald Trump has called for the mass deportation of more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, who are often people of color. This has led to reported incidents of White children taunting children of color about deportation. Sen. Ted Cruz has called for Muslim neighborhoods to be patrolled and “secured.” And Democrats also need to do better as both Secretary Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders have been criticized for using the words of the anti-racism movement but failing to propose substantive policies designed to address the scourge of racial inequity.
I suppose within such an environment, it’s no wonder the notion that an opportunity provided by YWCA USA for girls of color was met with skepticism and resentment by some. And yet, I am terribly disappointed that this type of behavior would occur in 2016. Don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely no regrets about talking about race on a national stage. We must talk about race. The fact is that our collective silence represents quiet consensus and acceptance, particularly for those who perpetrate racism and to those who experience it. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we certainly don’t want our legacies to be recorded as “the appalling silence of the good people.”
As we have witnessed, it can be difficult to speak out when the conversation is so unbalanced. Just a few weeks ago, a local YWCA staff member was helping a Spanish-speaking stalking survivor in a government building when a woman in passing began to harass them. The woman was angry that the YWCA staffer and the service recipient were speaking Spanish. So much so, that she yelled racial slurs at them, saying that she couldn’t wait until Trump was in office to send them “back.” Regardless of your candidate of choice, our national dialogue about race cannot continue to malign entire groups of people and fan the flames of bigotry. Certainly, this damaging public discourse has real implications for women of color who continue to face serious injustices spanning from economic inequality to police violence. Here’s one example: While it’s well-known that women as a group are paid an average of 78 cents against the dollar earned by men, fewer realize the difference is even starker for African-American women, Native American women, and Latinas. African-American women makes only 63 cents when compared to White men, and Latinas and Native American women make even less, about 54 and 59 cents, respectively.
Girls of color also face unique, intersectional challenges. This is why I’m particularly excited about our upcoming Stand Against Racism campaign where we will highlight the issues facing girls of color from April 28 – May 1. What we have seen is that these girls are often left out of conversations about gender and race. For example, discussions about criminalization and the school-to-prison pipeline tend to center on boys of color, but girls also experience these injustices. Black girls are six times more likely to be suspended from school than White girls and twice as likely to be arrested. Muslim girls also face suspicion and harassment at school. The ACLU has defended girls who are bullied for wearing the hijab or forced to remove it. Some girls are unable to participate in school sports because their religious attire is not accommodated. Girls of color make up 61 percent of the young women in the juvenile justice system. What’s worse is that many of these girls (31 percent) are victims of sexual abuse, who need our empathy and support more than they need time behind bars.
One way we’re trying to help solve this problem is by supporting the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), recognizes that youth of color receive disparate treatment at every touch point in the juvenile justice system. This reauthorization will take into account that girls are the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system as well as the growing needs of LGBTQ youth and youth with mental health issues. The legislation has three core components. First, it will help prevent and reduce criminal delinquency by investing in evidence-based prevention programs. Second, it will strengthen safeguards meant to protect children. Third, JJDPA will promote public safety and increase standards of care for the systems that serve youth and families.
Calling for legislation that supports girls of color is a great example of how each of us can advocate for them, regardless on whether or not it’s an election year. Too many people turn out to vote (or worse – don’t vote at all as the turnout in the 2015 mid-term elections was at its lowest in 72 years) and feel we’ve done our annual civic duty. To really encourage change, we can’t just cast a vote. We need to hold our elected officials accountable by advocating for policy changes and constantly reminding them of the issues that matter to women and girls of color.
In fact, I would like to challenge our leaders to share their ideas and strategies about how they’re going to solve these very, real issues that impact girls of color like unequal access to school resources, abuse and trauma, and over-disciplining. These problems negatively impact far too many who face the dual challenges of sexism and racism as they move through their lives.
At YWCA, regardless of any negativity, we will continue to talk about the tough issues that matter most to women, girls, and families. We will not only elevate the dialogue about race and gender, but we will remain committed to our 158-year legacy of standing up for social justice, helping families, strengthening communities, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity, not just for some, but for all.
Dara Richardson-Heron, M.D., is CEO of YWCA USA