» the fragility of si­lence

Un­learn­ing child­hood se­crecy

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - THE FACTS ISSUE - By jenn m. jack­son

Un­learn­ing child­hood se­crecy and break­ing the chains of trauma. il­lus­tra­tions on this page by mag­gie chi­ang cover by kristin rogers brown

In fact, there is some­thing par­tic­u­larly aw­ful about the cloak of si­lence draped atop var­i­ous phe­nom­ena in mod­ern so­ci­ety. Rape, ex­ploita­tion, homi­cide, and even slav­ery thrive just be­neath the ve­neer of our sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties and sprawl­ing cityscapes as we work tire­lessly to con­vince our­selves that, as Martin Luther King Jr. fa­mously said, “the arc of the moral uni­verse is long, but it bends to­ward jus­tice.”

But what, from the van­tage point of chil­dren, is the ma­te­rial dif­fer­ence be­tween si­lence and a se­cret? How do they learn to eval­u­ate them as good or bad when they can si­mul­ta­ne­ously be both? And when do we, as adults, un­learn that re­la­tion­ship if we have got­ten it wrong?

Si­lence is never syn­ony­mous with jus­tice, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that most of us first learn how to keep se­crets and value si­lence when we are still chil­dren.

Alex Ti­zon, the slaver’s child, and the se­crets of Amer­i­can life

The ten­u­ous and con­tin­gent na­ture of si­lence emerged in the June 2017 cover story for The At­lantic, “My Fam­ily’s Slave,” pub­lished posthu­mously by Filipino Amer­i­can re­porter Alex Ti­zon. In the piece, Ti­zon grap­ples with the fact that his first-gen­er­a­tion Filipino Amer­i­can fam­ily en­slaved a wo­man named Eu­do­cia To­mas Pulido. They called her “Lola,” or “grand­mother” in Ta­ga­log.

Through the lengthy, braided nar­ra­tive, Ti­zon re­counts his per­spec­tive as a slave owner’s child and ac­com­plice in the en­trap­ment of a poor, “un­schooled” wo­man whose need for shel­ter as a young girl ren­dered her chat­tel for the re­main­der of her life.

Ti­zon’s nar­ra­tive high­lights many com­plex fea­tures of the phys­i­cal ex­ploita­tion of women, from the gen­dered forms of abuse el­derly women ex­pe­ri­ence at the hands of care­tak­ers and loved ones to the du­bi­ous na­ture of care­tak­ing for the chil­dren of oth­ers. For Ti­zon, Pulido was at once prop­erty and mother. The thin line be­tween th­ese roles was masked only by the si­lence that en­abled them in the first place.

The story—which wasn’t Ti­zon’s to tell—has been scru­ti­nized for its nar­cis­sis­tic self-dis­tanc­ing from the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery. Per­plex­ingly, he of­fers cul­tural jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for Pulido’s il­le­gal en­trap­ment and amoral en­slave­ment, ef­fec­tively de­hu­man­iz­ing her with his seem­ingly de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion to ig­nore the com­pli­cated hi­er­ar­chy of cul­pa­bil­ity in his fam­ily.

Fun­da­men­tally, this ac­count de­picts the ways that si­lence not only val­orizes those who ac­tively harm and ex­ploit oth­ers, but also al­most al­ways has the deep­est ef­fects on the most vul­ner­a­ble—in this case, women and chil­dren. Ti­zon ex­plains that the fam­ily “never talked about Lola.” He con­tin­ues, “Our se­cret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be.”

While this line seems in­nocu­ous, or maybe even slightly melo­dra­matic, it cuts to the core of the com­plex na­ture of si­lence and its em­bed­ded­ness in our pur­ported “Amer­i­can Way.” Ti­zon, a child of im­mi­grants, was con­di­tioned into a fairy­tale from the start, one that imag­ined Amer­ica as a land of op­por­tu­nity and end­less eco­nomic pos­si­bil­i­ties. And even af­ter ar­riv­ing in the United States, when Ti­zon’s fam­ily was con­fronted with fi­nan­cial in­sta­bil­ity, the harsh re­al­i­ties of work­ing­class life, and the un­end­ing pres­sure placed on im­mi­grant fam­i­lies for ev­ery­day sur­vival, the chil­dren knew that a se­cret had to be kept if they were ever to achieve what was promised.

Ti­zon un­ex­pect­edly passed away in his sleep in March 2017; he had been work­ing on the story for years. Un­for­tu­nately, Ti­zon’s ac­count shows us how si­lence can be a tool even for those who are un­will­ingly sub­jected to it.

Jameis Win­ston and our fame-in­dus­trial com­plex

While Ti­zon’s ex­pe­ri­ences with si­lence and se­crecy in ado­les­cence were strictly im­plicit and avoided by those around him, those with el­e­vated so­cial po­si­tions and plat­forms wield power over so­ci­etal nar­ra­tives and pub­lic per­cep­tion of their ac­tions, mak­ing their com­mit­ment to si­lenc­ing those they abuse all the more con­se­quen­tial.

A few months ago, star quar­ter­back of the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers Jameis Win­ston told mostly Black girls at Mel­rose Ele­men­tary School in St. Peters­burg, Florida, to “sit down” while he talked to the boys. He then ex­plained to the boys— who he said were strong and could “do any­thing” they put their minds to—that “ladies, they’re sup­posed to be silent, po­lite, gen­tle.” Win­ston later said he “used a poor word choice,” but I don’t be­lieve they in­ac­cu­rately con­veyed Win­ston’s (and many other men’s) be­liefs about women and their re­la­tion­ship to men.

In 2012, Win­ston was ac­cused of rape by a fel­low Florida State Univer­sity (FSU) stu­dent, Erica Kins­man. The school took more than a year to prop­erly in­ves­ti­gate the case, and when they fi­nally did, it essen­tially was to pro­tect Win­ston’s promis­ing foot­ball ca­reer. He went on to win the Heis­man Tro­phy in 2013.

Kins­man filed a Ti­tle IX civil suit in Jan­uary 2015, al­leg­ing that FSU ne­glected to ad­dress her case in order to pro­tect Win­ston and the foot­ball pro­gram. (Just a month ear­lier,

FSU cleared Win­ston of vi­o­lat­ing stu­dent con­duct codes.) Kins­man also filed a law­suit against Win­ston in April 2015. In the suit, Kins­man claimed that, af­ter re­port­ing the rape to po­lice, both the po­lice au­thor­i­ties and Florida State failed to ques­tion Win­ston un­til nearly two weeks af­ter the as­sault de­spite knowl­edge of video ev­i­dence.

The story is doc­u­mented via first­hand ac­counts in the 2015 doc­u­men­tary The Hunt­ing Ground. Sadly, a later de­po­si­tion sug­gests that there were ac­tu­ally two stu­dents who came for­ward to ac­cuse Win­ston of sexual as­sault.

In Jan­uary 2016, news broke that Kins­man’s case against FSU was set­tled out­side of court. Win­ston’s ca­reer and rep­u­ta­tion re­mained rel­a­tively un­touched, in­su­lated by the lay­ers of money, pres­tige, and pa­tri­archy sur­round­ing his ath­letic prom­ise.

A sim­ple ques­tion might be: Why is some­one like Jameis Win­ston even talk­ing to chil­dren at a school? Some might won­der why ac­cu­sa­tions from two women wouldn’t be enough to dis­cour­age school ad­min­is­tra­tors and teach­ers from prop­ping him up as a pos­si­bil­ity model for young Black peo­ple. But maybe that’s the rub. Win­ston stood in front of chil­dren telling boys to be strong and girls to be silent, con­di­tion­ing boys and grooming girls into a dan­ger­ous cy­cle of sexual ex­ploita­tion.

Win­ston has never been con­victed of any­thing. Thou­sands of abusers never have been, and since only six in 1000 per­pe­tra­tors end up in­car­cer­ated, the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of them never will be. This is in part due to the shame we heap upon vic­tims of sexual vi­o­lence (no mat­ter their gen­der) and our re­gret­table com­mit­ment to pa­tri­archy, a com­mit­ment that abusers, like Win­ston, know how to ex­ploit.

We watched Bill Cosby fight­ing to hide the tes­ti­monies of dozens of women who ac­cused him of drug­ging and sex­u­ally as­sault­ing them while si­mul­ta­ne­ously jok­ing to his fans that peo­ple “have to be care­ful about drink­ing around [him].” Cosby has been a prom­i­nent fig­ure of Black fa­ther­hood for gen­er­a­tions through his role on The Cosby Show and pro­ducer credit for spin-off A Dif­fer­ent World.

Win­ston and Cosby are just two mem­bers of a sub­stan­tial co­hort of male celebri­ties in the United States—in­clud­ing Ro­man Polan­ski, Woody Allen, R. Kelly, and Casey Af­fleck—who have re­lied upon the cloak of si­lence to pre­serve their pub­lic sta­tus while harm­ing women in the process.

This is not ran­dom.

“Sur­viv­ing child­hood” in the si­lence of do­mes­tic abuse

Not all abusers get away. Some­times si­lence is bro­ken and ex­posed as the most frag­ile of things when some­one steps for­ward with enough courage to end it.

On July 28, 2016, po­lice re­ported that 14-year-old Bre­sha Mead­ows had used her fa­ther’s gun to shoot him in the head as he slept on the couch in their fam­ily’s home. The young girl’s mother, Brandi Mead­ows, im­me­di­ately called Bre­sha a “hero,” stat­ing that her de­ceased hus­band, Jonathan Mead­ows, had sub­jected her and her chil­dren to years of tor­ture and abuse.

Brandi’s claims, though cor­rob­o­rated by a 2011 re­port and her flee­ing the re­la­tion­ship with her three chil­dren in tow, have been con­tested by her de­ceased hus­band’s fam­ily. Back then, she wrote in the re­port, “In the 17 years of our mar­riage he has cut me, broke my ribs, fin­gers, the blood ves­sels in my hand, my mouth, black­ened my eyes. I be­lieve my nose was bro­ken.” She con­tin­ued, “If he finds us, I am 100 per­cent sure he will kill me and the chil­dren.”

De­spite Brandi’s first­hand ac­counts and ac­tions to pro­tect her­self and her chil­dren, Jonathan’s sis­ter, Lena Cooper, told the Huff­in­g­ton Post, “It is not nor­mal for a child to kill her fa­ther.”

Other rel­a­tives have also reached out to news out­lets to re­fute Bre­sha’s and Brandi’s claims of abuse. Jonathanʼs brother, James Blount, told reporters flatly, “This had noth­ing to do with abuse.” Cooper added to the con­spir­acy, call­ing Bre­sha’s ac­tions “cal­cu­lated.”

It isn’t “nor­mal” to kill one’s fa­ther. In fact, ex­perts say that killing a par­ent is ex­tremely rare, con­sti­tut­ing just about 1 per­cent of homi­cides

A sim­ple ques­tion might be: Why is some­one like Jameis Win­ston even talk­ing to chil­dren at a school?

in the United States each year. Fur­ther, they sug­gest that five con­di­tions typ­i­cally ex­ist in a house­hold where a child com­mits par­ri­cide: 1) ex­treme dys­func­tion 2) a pat­tern of fam­ily vi­o­lence 3) es­ca­la­tion of vi­o­lence 4) the youth be­com­ing more ex­posed to the ten­sions in the home and 5) easy ac­cess to a firearm. Th­ese are the very con­di­tions Bre­sha and Brandi de­scribed—con­di­tions re­port­edly caused by the de­ceased.

News out­lets tell of a young girl who had “started cutting her­self and run­ning away from home.” A girl who didn’t sound like a cal­cu­lated killer, but in­stead a child try­ing to bear the weight of a se­cret shame and pain that she had no power to end, man­age, or erad­i­cate. Med­i­cal stud­ies es­ti­mate that “3.3 mil­lion to 10 mil­lion chil­dren are ex­posed to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in their home” with nearly 900,000 chil­dren de­scribed as “mal­treated.”

Now, as Mead­ows’s fam­ily awaits her ar­rival home fol­low­ing her ac­cep­tance of a plea deal, the si­lence around her men­tal state and the ex­pe­ri­ences that led her to shoot her fa­ther re­main hid­den, still frag­ile and out of the reach of jus­tice.

Be­ing silent when you’re a #Fast­tailed­girl...

One of the ear­li­est things a man told me about my body was that I had “child­bear­ing hips.” I was 11 years old and had no idea what he meant, but the boys nearby did as they chuck­led, look­ing at my body to con­firm the com­ments. I didn’t think to tell any­one about it; the added pres­sure of de­flect­ing em­bar­rass­ment and per­form­ing sexual ma­tu­rity in that mo­ment ren­dered me com­pletely silent.

Re­peat­edly, th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences with older men from my neigh­bor­hood or my church—which al­ways took place in the pres­ence of boys my age—taught me that young girls and women were ob­jects for consumption. Not only that, they had spe­cific roles to play in so­ci­ety as com­pared to their male peers. Girls would speak up only to have their male peers “check” them for hav­ing an at­ti­tude, or hurl sex­ist threats and slurs at them as pun­ish­ment. Re­flect­ing on the 2014 death of Mary Spears, a 27-year-old Black wo­man in Detroit who was shot and killed af­ter deny­ing a man’s ad­vances, we learn that some­times th­ese women are even mur­dered for not re­main­ing silent and com­pli­ant with male wishes.

Th­ese con­di­tions thrive on si­lence. They are masked be­hind the veil of gen­der nor­ma­tiv­ity that con­di­tions chil­dren of all gen­ders to per­form sex­u­al­ity un­der the watch­ful eye of abusers and vi­o­lent preda­tors.

I car­ried this si­lence with me into my teenage years.

I was sex­u­ally as­saulted when I was seven­teen. As a bas­ket­ball coach and trusted mem­ber of my com­mu­nity, my abuser spent months be­friend­ing me, giv­ing me rides to the mall or a friend’s house, and lis­ten­ing to me com­plain about my par­ents. Later, he be­gan sex­u­al­iz­ing me. He told me how young women should be­have, what men wanted from us, and even what kind of panties I should wear. This was what I would later learn was called “grooming,” a sys­tem­atic process wherein abusers tar­get and iso­late their vic­tims be­fore sex­u­ally as­sault­ing them.

When my abuser as­saulted me—us­ing my first sexual ex­pe­ri­ence with the op­po­site sex to his grat­i­fi­ca­tion—he promised me trips and fancy din­ners. He gave me money, and sug­gested that in order to keep re­ceiv­ing th­ese gifts I would have to en­ter into sexual re­la­tion­ships with his friends. That quickly, I be­came an un­will­ing par­tic­i­pant in sexual ex­ploita­tion, co­er­cive hu­man trafficking, and what would turn into sev­eral months of abuse and a decade-long strug­gle with sexual anx­i­ety, shame, and trauma.

My abuser re­quired my si­lence, a re­quest I obliged for the next ten years of my life. Though at the time I didn’t have the lan­guage to ar­tic­u­late the in­vis­i­ble gag keep­ing me from speak­ing, I later found that other Black women were work­ing through those bar­ri­ers, putting the­o­ries to my thoughts.

In 2013, Chicago ac­tivists and writ­ers Mikki Ken­dall and Jamie Nes­bitt Golden coined #Fast­tailed­girls to high­light the myr­iad ways that young Black girls, es­pe­cially those who have been and are sus­cep­ti­ble to abuse, are so­cial­ized as hy­per­sex­ual through con­sis­tent forms of sexual ha­rass­ment and pa­tri­ar­chal gen­der norms as early as ele­men­tary school. They de­tailed how th­ese girls are of­ten pres­sured or harassed into si­lence by Black male com­mu­nity mem­bers, who use phys­i­cal and pub­lic in­tim­i­da­tion to force them into si­lence. To avoid the shame and em­bar­rass­ment, or from fear of be­ing dis­be­lieved, many young women keep it to them­selves.

This phe­nom­e­non is what per­mit­ted for­mer Ok­la­homa City po­lice of­fi­cer Daniel Holtz­claw to sex­u­ally as­sault at least 13 women liv­ing in the poor­est area of the city. He co­erced their si­lence by threat­en­ing them with ar­rest or fines. This bla­tant ex­ploita­tion and abuse of power within law en­force­ment is not new, and def­i­nitely not iso­lated— officers in New Jersey and Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, were re­cently found to be prey­ing on and stalk­ing women for

Re­flect­ing on the 2014 death of Mary Spears, we learn that some­times th­ese women are even mur­dered for not re­main­ing silent and com­pli­ant with male wishes.

sex, un­doubt­edly uti­liz­ing si­lence to con­tinue the abuse.

The si­lence com­manded by pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tems that are pred­i­cated on the ex­ploita­tion of women and chil­dren who are also poor, dis­abled, or queer is so in­ter­twined with Amer­i­can life that most fail to even see it. We nor­mal­ize it. We live with it. And, some­times, we have it shoved down our throats as we en­dure un­wanted sexual touches, molestation, rape, and other bod­ily vi­o­lence at the hands of men and au­thor­i­ties in our own com­mu­ni­ties.

Connecting the dots

Un­til we vo­cif­er­ously scru­ti­nize and dis­rupt our re­liance on ar­bi­trary mark­ers like ath­leti­cism, wealth, or at­trac­tive­ness to de­fine the “good guys,” we will con­tinue to wit­ness the on­go­ing pat­tern of abusers hoist­ing up Heis­man tro­phies, sign­ing book deals, lead­ing megachurches, host­ing com­edy spe­cials, and even oc­cu­py­ing the White House. Th­ese men will con­tinue to be the role mod­els cho­sen to in­fil­trate schools, de­liver fiery ser­mons, and groom our chil­dren into the very sys­tem that puts us all at risk.

For young girls like Bre­sha Mead­ows and the girl I once was, our cul­tural com­mit­ments to keep­ing this coun­try’s dirty se­crets—in­clud­ing the sys­tem­atic ex­ploita­tion of the poor, the per­va­sive­ness of rape and the cul­ture as­so­ci­ated with it, and the ran­som we pay in the form of our bod­ies so that en­ter­tain­ers and ath­letes can keep their tro­phies— rep­re­sent the heav­i­est of prices to pay for sur­vival in the United States.

This is the dou­ble-edged na­ture of si­lence: It is over­whelm­ing and con­sum­ing enough to vir­tu­ally erase grave dis­cre­tions and moral crimes from pub­lic scru­tiny. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, it only takes one word to be bro­ken.

It also takes courage.

In 2014, writer and so­cial worker Fem­i­nista Jones cre­ated #Youok­sis to cat­a­logue the con­ver­sa­tions about street ha­rass­ment many Black women were hav­ing on so­cial me­dia. The goal was to break free from the so­cial norms that com­pel Black women to hide their ex­pe­ri­ences of harm and misog­y­noir within Black com­mu­ni­ties, of­ten at the hands of Black men. This con­ver­sa­tion is taboo be­cause it un­der­mines calls for blind racial sol­i­dar­ity, calls that fre­quently mean Black women’s needs for au­ton­omy, self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion, and eq­uity will be ig­nored.

Most poignant though, the hash­tag it­self re­flects the ways that three words—“you OK sis?”—can and have been the lit­eral dif­fer­ence be­tween life or death for those in dan­ger.

This shows how, so of­ten, we are the ones who have to save our­selves. It shows how si­lence can be trou­bled, bro­ken, dis­man­tled, and dis­solved if only we have the au­dac­ity to do or say some­thing about it. If we are to achieve jus­tice, it will first re­quire that we make our pain plain—work­ing through the si­lence and the se­crets and the chains we carry with us.

Si­lence is in­cred­i­bly frag­ile. Yes.

But we are in­cred­i­bly re­silient. JENN M. JACK­SON is the man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of Black Youth Project, the ed­i­tor-in-chief of Water Cooler Con­vos, and a doc­toral can­di­date in Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics.

This fea­ture was orig­i­nally pub­lished on­line as part of our 2017 monthly se­ries on Fragility. Visit bitch­me­dia.org to read about gam­ing, mar­ket­place fem­i­nism, and more.

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