In her open letter to teenage homicide victim Trayvon Martin, whose killer was acquitted on July 14, renowned sexual assault activist Eve Ensler writes, “I am not you. I am not Trayvon Martin. I will never know what it feels like to live in the skin, in the daily rhythms and predeterminations of a black boy or man in America. I will never know what it is like to always be held suspect, to feel categorized from birth as dangerous. But as a woman, there are things I do know and things that I have experienced that bring us into the same story, the same struggle.”
Ensler goes on to explain how she and Martin are alike. For example, she says she knows “what it’s like to be worried about being followed, to speed up my step or slow down and pretend to be casual.” She also says she knows “what it feels like to be attacked or raped and be blamed for it because of what I was wearing (hoodie=short skirt).” Later in her letter, she adds that she’s met many men like Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, who “are full of a simmering explosive rage, determined by poverty or shame or violence or humiliation or low self esteem.” For that reason, she explains that next year’s One Billion Rising event, an event her V-Day movement created in 2013, will focus on justice for all victims of gender violence. Among other things, the event will encourage people to “rise for an end to guns and Stand Your Ground laws where unarmed 17-year-olds are shot down dead,” writes Ensler. “We will rise to say Justice involves the whole story—the story of race, of class, of gender. Our struggles are one.”
With all due respect to Ensler, I don’t think a letter to Martin was the right place to push an agenda about her campaign to end violence against women, especially without first acknowledging the fear many people are taught to feel about men of color—a fear that is just as present in the women’s movement as it is in each of the United States of America. For many, the case against Zimmerman and his acquittal represented a symptom of the nation’s “unaddressed racism.” Ensler, then, had an opportunity to address this issue of race, particularly in the women’s movement, but she blew it.
As feminist writer Jessica Valenti explains in a recent post at The Nation, “Yes, white women—all of us—are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism.”
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For that reason, I think in her letter to Martin, Ensler should have spoken honestly about whatever fears she may have about being preyed upon by people of a different race. And she should have acknowledged that, like Zimmerman, she’s been taught to see certain people—because of their ethnicity or class—as inferior, and that because she’s aware of that deeply rooted prejudice, she’s worked to rise above it and that is why she is now trying to get others to follow in her footsteps not just to stop violence against women, but to end the legacy of racism that breeds violence in all communities.
Ensler’s event next February will focus on justice “for all survivors of gender violence, and ending the rampant impunity that prevails globally.” I commend such efforts. But, if people like Ensler truly want to make a difference, they should begin by speaking honestly about what everyone refuses to talk about: how if they saw Trayvon Martin, or another “hoodied” boy of color, walking on a street late at night in their neighborhood, they may not have reached for a gun, but there’s a good chance they would have sped up or crossed the street to avoid him based solely on his appearance.