Years ago, I was in a serious relationship with someone I thought embodied the epitome of allyship. He believed in collectivism, prison reform and feminist ideals. When we first met we spent hours talking about social justice, anti-racism and how patriarchy was disappointingly widespread. A scholar of African American Studies, I thought he was everything I had been looking for—a radical public intellectual and a partner.
Six months into our relationship, we had an argument about his incomparable desire for biological children. He said he required his female partner carry his children, but I was hesitant. Years of organizing with foster youth made me committed to adoption. I was uncertain whether I wanted to use my body in that way. After hours of conversation, we tabled the discussion.
At my birthday party days later he was exceptionally jealous; upset that his partner would disrespect him by dancing with her brother and friends. Yet when I tried to dance with him, he told me his mother would not approve of how I moved.
That evening, he penetrated me with a foreign object. Without my consent. We never spoke of it again.
I spent years in a relationship with him doing psychological summersaults. I, literally, could not believe that the same person who professed profound respect for women would sexually assault me. It didn’t make sense. He called himself a feminist and I understood myself to be a strong woman of color. Many of my women of color friends loved him and continue to. I loved him. I felt loved by him. I was drunk that night. I told myself what happened was impossible.
Reflecting back on that night, I now understand this heinous act within the kaleidoscope of his insecurity, anxiety and fear that I would eventually leave him. I realize that our early conversations were exclusively concerned with systemic forms of patriarchy. He was never interested in how his personal actions were misogynistic. Although we were both acutely aware of victim-blaming and slut shaming, invading my body was about establishing control—something he desperately needed to feel—feminist politics be damned.
It took years of therapy before I could even acknowledge my betrayal and violation at the hands of a so-called “radical” man. As a survivor of domestic abuse, I was accustomed to explicit and obvious forms of violence. I didn’t expect it from someone who shared my commitment to working against it. Another part of the challenge was my being in the academy, a place that valorizes men who preach feminism while exerting their masculine power. This combined with the almost total absence of structural consequences for sexual assault made admitting my victimization almost impossible.
But, when I began telling some of my closest friends my story, I was shocked when they responded by sharing similar experiences. Many of us had survived emotional and physical attacks by men who were teachers, pillars of their communities, whose revolutionary ideals were publicly celebrated. These public displays of activism and solidarity allowed them to take advantage of us in private. We were blinded to our own abuse by the labels of “ally” and “activist”. Together, we lamented how our feminist politics, our beliefs and our faith in these men as forces for change had been used to hurt us.
It is, precisely, feminist and anti-racist politics that shield and allow powerful men to run roughshod over women, perpetrating inconceivable acts of violence behind the veneer of allyship. Years ago, poet scholar activist June Jordan wrote about her rape at the hands of a local NAACP leader. More recently, a female graduate student accused Colin McGinn, a prominent philosopher at the University of Miami, of sexual harassment causing him to leave his position as a tenured professor. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, McGinn sent the graduate student “extremely inappropriate and uncomfortable messages,” including that he had been thinking about the student while masturbating.
In perhaps an even more disturbing account, Peter Ludlow, philosophy professor at Northwestern University has been accused of assaulting an undergraduate student as she faded in and out of consciousness from coerced intoxication.
We are trained to believe the words men say even if those words contradict their actions and even if those actions are personally and structurally violent toward us. I believed my father when he told me he loved me while simultaneously striking me. Similarly, I had it on good authority my partner was a paragon of anti-racism and anti-patriarchy. Friends and colleagues who knew of his ideology celebrated his politics and scholarship because allies to feminists of color are so rare that when we meet them, we glorify them for being one of the few claiming to stand with us instead of recognizing the power they wield as our self-proclaimed allies.
I continue to watch nearby as my assailant ascends the ranks of academic and professional achievement; as he is featured on CNBC, CNN, and the Huffington Post. As he wins teaching awards and accolades. For three years, I denied myself the reality of having been sexually assaulted because my perpetrator worked hard to present as an ally to communities of color, because he strived for social justice. It never occurred to me—as I’m certain it never occurred to him—that someone who had participated in anti-patriarchy campaigns could themselves commit such an irredeemable act of violence.
Women of color have been talking about rape and sexual assault for what seems like forever, yet it persists in our own communities. In my case, the statute of limitations to file criminal charges has expired. What’s more, I know that if I were to file criminal charges, the absence of physical evidence would render my claim obsolete. Yet among the many obstacles hindering my healing, the most insidious by far is the very same reason I chose to publish this piece anonymously—my fear that my community plain and simply won’t believe me. Indeed, I am gripped by terror that my community’s attachment to this so-called ally would translate into accusations familiar to many survivors, that we are liars and exaggerators especially because my assailant is a “feminist.” So what do we do? What can we change other than institutional structures? We can believe each other. I propose we, as communities in struggle, make a concerted effort to both alter marginalizing systems and have real faith in narratives that contradict what we want to be true about our perceived allies. Because, let’s face it, men against rape can rape you, community activists can tear apart communities, and patriarchy is so deeply engrained even survivors can fail to see it. Only, when we admit and act knowing these realities—that patriarchy and misogyny really do live everywhere, even in the bodies of allies—can we begin to truly dismantle the systems that oppress us.
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