The intersectionality of hate against women of color is not new. It’s actually a simple equation: more reasons to hate = more reasons to hurt.
Over this COVID summer, two common reasons for hating women—sexism and racism—came to the forefront. In two out of three cases, with a deadly consequence, and perhaps in none were those factors more obvious than in the killing of Vanessa Guillén, an accomplished young woman with a promising military career who was arguably murdered in order to silence her.
RELATED: The Fight for Justice for Vanessa Guillen Is Just Starting — and Her Family Is on the Front Lines
Then there was the case of Esther Salas, a federal judge who saw her family attacked in their home in July by a lawyer with a misogynistic agenda. Her 20-year-old son was killed in the attack, and her husband is in the hospital.
A day later, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was publicly and verbally savaged right on the Capitol steps by her fellow representative from Florida, Ted Yoho. To add insult to injury, the congressman proceeded to give her a non-apology, saying he couldn’t be sorry for his passion or for loving his God.
If you said, “But we can’t compare murder, or having an only son killed, with being called ‘disgusting’ and a ‘f**king bitch’ in public,” you would be right. We can’t, and we don’t. But what we must look at if we are concerned about the silencing of women—of color and otherwise—in this country are the underlying factors that, when put together, too often serve as escalating fuel and result in the violent, dehumanizing state of affairs that we don’t fully, honestly discuss until there is a tragedy that makes the news.
Because in these three cases, as if racism and sexism were not enough, one more escalating element was brought into play: the perceived power of the victims.
The fact that all three are (or, sadly, were) Latinas, women of color proud of their heritage, was an important factor fueling the rage that drove their attackers; men who believed (and in two out of the three cases, said) that they didn’t deserve the power they wielded.
But these three smart, capable, accomplished, and attractive overachievers would not be quiet, were instead willing to own and exercise the power they had earned by virtue of their achievements: Judge Salas from the bench, AOC from Congress, and Vanessa Guillén by filing a sexual harassment complaint against a military superior, possibly derailing his career, on the day she was killed.
And that is where the intersectionality of those identities—Latina, woman of color, powerful, assertive, unafraid—became too much for the men who hated them.
They had to be punished. Put in their place. Made to see their inferiority. Just take a look at the methods and see if they don’t match with those of every abusive man you’ve ever known. They go after your body, trying to submit you, to break you. They go after your loved ones, your children, your family, and threaten you with hurting them to make you “pay.” They insult you with denigrating language, attempting to belittle you, to “cut you down to size.”
And here is the punchline: often, as a society, we inadvertently help these men hide the real causes of their hate, and in so doing, make them more effective against their targets.
We say that Roy Den Hollander, the man who attacked Judge Zalas’ family, was an “anti-feminist” who once sued nightclubs that offered ladies’ night discounts and challenged the male-only military draft as unfair to men. And that is true. We say he disagreed with her decisions, and he did.
But he disagreed with many women judges he did not attack (though he was planning a second attempt on another female judge when his body was found), and only derided her as a “ladder-climber who traded on her Hispanic heritage to get ahead.” However, since the fact of her color is not the “main” narrative, we don’t mention it. We help obscure the racial factors that helped his hate reach tragic proportions.
We leave out the fact that Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Florida) has disagreed heatedly with plenty of female colleagues, but only decided to attack AOC, the most vocal and popular of his colleagues who also happens to be a woman of color.
And if it weren’t for Vanessa Guillen’s family and community, the crucial fact that her accusation against a male, white, superior was imminent before her death might not have emerged.
Why do we do this? Because we don’t want to be seen as “playing the race card.” Because in places were power is mostly male and white, it is seen as “unseemly” and “less acceptable” than the “woman card.” We have been taught to self-censure, avoid the race conversation. Sound familiar?
But, listen, you have a good wallet, right? Plenty of space for important things? Then let’s own ALL our cards, and each and every one of our identities, and be present to the context that informs hate against women, particularly, against women of color. Because when we have every factor in mind, we see clearly. We see more. We can fight things.
Thankfully, the women I speak of here were not silenced by these horrendous events. (I don’t know why people even try silencing women: it doesn’t work for long.)
Instead, after the devastating loss of her son, and the wounding of her husband, Judge Salas gave a searing, brave, uplifting statement in which she vowed to continue speaking up for justice from the bench and advocated for the judicial class.
Vanessa Guillen’s community did not stop speaking for her until the government and the military paid attention to her murder and committed to investigating it. The alleged killer committed suicide moments before being taken into custody, while his confessed accomplice sits in jail.
Though less tragic, the attack by Rep. Ted Yoho (R – Florida) on Ocasio-Cortez also struck a tense nerve because of how language was used both as the weapon and as the tool of impunity when he tried to pass off what New York magazine called a “terrible apology for the ages” as repentance.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez did not accept it despite the pressure on women to be “civil” and “forgiving” of their attackers. She called out the attack, the denial, and the non-apology, going viral with her reasons and construing them as a cause to call things by their name. I agree with AOC on this, and only want to add that in order to call things out, we must first be willing and able to see them and speak about them.
The attacks on Judge Esther Salas, Vanessa Guillén, and AOC happened because they were women, yes, but also because they were women of color, assertive, competent, willing to own their power. Because they were Latinas with no plans to shut up or “go back to their country.” And why would they? They were already here and making the most of it.