Last Thursday, millions of eyes were glued to screens, watching the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh unfold in our nation’s capital. Women across the country watched a courageous retelling of a vicious assault. We also watched in horror as a group of old, conservative White men repeatedly let Brett Kavanaugh off the hook.
Meanwhile, phones were ringing with the force of thousands of calls from survivors who were moved to speak truth to power.
Dr. Blasey Ford’s courage in choosing to testify inspired many women across the country to speak up about their abuse and trauma for the first time. That she defied all of the people in our government who wished to silence her was powerful in its own right.
Dr. Blasey Ford had the support—family, advocacy organizations, lawyers—she needed to come forward. But not all women who want to report their experiences with sexual and domestic violence have the resources and privilege to do so.
Women of color are disproportionately affected by gender-based violence, but are much less likely than White women to report the assault or file charges. An estimated 21 to 55 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander women have or will experience intimate partner violence, sexual assault, rape, or stalking over the course of their lifetime (the rate varies by family country of origin). More than 20 percent of Black women are raped during their lifetimes—the highest rate of all women in America. And a shocking one in three Latinas report having experienced some type of sexual violence.
Underreporting of sexual assault and gender-based violence among women of color is a significant issue because of the cultural and systemic barriers we frequently face in reporting our abusers. For instance, many immigrant women cannot speak English fluently or may fear being detained and deported if they interact with law enforcement. Other women of color worry about being disbelieved or even ostracized by their families and friends because of cultural and religious views within their communities.
Now, women of color are witnessing in real time what happens to a woman who does speak out. Last week, we saw an educated White woman with financial, legal and familial support testify about being sexually assaulted, and then face the emotionally exhausting experience of being cross-examined for hours and disbelieved by many Senators.
For many women of color, the nightmare that unfolded last week sent a dangerous message: if our Senators won’t listen to a White woman with resources and privilege who has been deemed "credible," it will be even worse for us.
The vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination will reveal the sheer number of elected officials who refuse to stand up and protect women’s dignity and power to make our own choices about our bodies, families and lives. Their cowardly behavior will unfortunately also deter even more women from speaking up. By silencing women, elected officials continue to perpetuate the epidemic of sexual violence.
When our nation’s most powerful men continue to condone and dismiss sexual assault, they are forcefully telling women, especially women of color and immigrant women: Don’t bother coming forward—we won’t believe you. Even if we do, we won’t act to protect you.
They blame women when we don’t speak up, and ridicule us when we do.
It is infuriating and demeaning to have our voices silenced. But today, we are literally shouting at the top of our lungs. Our collective voices will make a difference—if not in the chambers of Congress this week, then at the ballot box in November.
Our voices, and our truth, will be heard.
Marcela Howell is the executive director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. She’s on Twitter @BlackwomensRJ.