The Wounded Explaining the Wound: The Forced Sterilization of Women of Color Is No Small Matter

Illustration for article titled The Wounded Explaining the Wound: The Forced Sterilization of Women of Color Is No Small Matter
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With things happening so fast in the world around us, the news cycle feels like a whirlwind moving from story to story overnight. Even reports as disturbing as allegations of mass hysterectomies in ICE detention camps disappeared from the national conversation as quickly as they came—though it could be argued that that aligns with a longstanding passivity around the rights of women of color. In the midst of communal crisis after crisis, the need for a recalibration of humanity’s moral compass could not be more evident.

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It begs the questions, why does history continue to repeat itself, and how can a society with such advances in technology and critical thinking remain so ethically stagnant? Two distinct reasons come to mind: willful ignorance and increased allowance of hate speech, microaggressions, and other such red-flag indications of dangerous lines of thinking, and the common practice of compliance rooted in our collective conditioning not to question authority. These components work in concert to stretch the boundaries of morality, creating a pathway for the unthinkable, rather than stopping it in its tracks.

To paraphrase Anne Frank, I would like to believe most people are inherently good, and such violations as the allegations describe are reflective of a morally bankrupt select few. I would like to believe images of sterilization, kidnapping, and other such crimes against humanity would elicit great opposition from the majority. However, history has proved otherwise, as did an experience I had as a doctoral student at the University of Southern California. It was eye-opening; at once profoundly universal and deeply personal.

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When I received my acceptance letter to the program, I thought of my great-great-grandparents, Eliza Wheeler and George Washington Johnson, who were born into slavery in Virginia and had the unimaginable courage to escape through the Underground Railroad. They were prohibited from reading, writing, or having agency over their own lives. And now, their great-great-granddaughter would be earning the highest degree possible. As someone of African American, Native American, and Eastern European Jewish heritage, I come from a legacy of survival and resilience. Embarking on my doctorate, I rejoiced at how far we had come, how proud my ancestors might have been of me, and how grateful I was for the journey ahead.

Just weeks into the program, however, all of that changed. I was in a class where students were broken into small groups and instructed to input solutions to social problems into a shared document. One topic was “Increasing the number of women of color who receive prenatal care,” to which one group responded: “Sterilize them” and “Take away their babies at birth.” I froze; someone in that room had written those vile words. This was either a joke in terribly poor taste, or someone sitting only a few feet away saw my body and my children as disposable; as theirs to violate. Within the course of a few seconds, the classroom had transformed into a hostile environment.

I immediately flagged the instructor, an Asian American woman, who assured me it would be addressed. My mind flooded with the women of my heritage: First Nations women sterilized by federally sanctioned “ethnic cleansing,” Black women in the segregated South sterilized during routine check-ups, Jewish women sterilized in concentration camps at the hands of Nazi eugenics: entire populations severed in unthinkable numbers. I thought of the millions of enslaved women whose babies were stolen, lost to them forever to be bought and sold on auction blocks.

I thought of countless others violated in parallel ways: Japanese women sterilized in internment camps, Mexican and Puerto Rican women sterilized for “population control,” Armenian women sterilized under the Ottoman empire; women violated en masse throughout the history of global colonization, from the Aboriginals of Australia to the Polynesians of Hawaii. I thought of the tragic headlines about children currently sitting in cages, kidnapped from their parents, possibly separated forever. The historical and present-day relevance of those two short statements—“Sterilize them” and “Take away their babies at birth”—encompassed communal trauma beyond anything I could even begin to articulate.

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At the close of the exercise, the instructor opened the floor for discussion and asked if anything had been written that was objectionable, glancing in my direction, thus passing the baton back to me. My mind spun in disbelief. Was she signaling me to address this? As a professor myself, I understood the challenge of navigating complex issues in a classroom setting, but she couldn’t possibly think this was somehow my responsibility.

After an awkward silence, a white female student admitted she had written the statements, stating her group, which included her and two Latinx women, did not “agree” with the sentiments but had offered them as a solution, as that was their understanding of the exercise. Another student began to ask about an unrelated topic, and it became clear the instructor was not going to address the statements further. My distress swelled as I sat in astonishment that there would be neither resolution nor accountability unless I myself spoke up. I felt sick, already emotionally exhausted by the task at hand. It was the wounded explaining the wound; the irony of being burdened with something I not only did not provoke but that in the very act of my having to give it voice, illustrated inequity.

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I took a deep breath and said I did not think we should move on, and that I was stunned by the insensitivity of the statements. I stated that we were in fact on stolen land, in a country built by people brought here by force, many of whom had their children taken from them. I detailed the offensive nature of the statements, given the historical context, as well as the relevance of current immigration policies separating families.

What happened next was such an impeccable example of the tenets of Critical Race Theory, it could have been right out of a textbook. The student stated she was “part Native American” and that she was “not racist,” and began to cry. A white male student rushed to her defense, stating I was “attacking her” for something unintended, and that he himself felt “attacked” by what I had said. The social positionalities were so comically clear, it could have been an SNL skit: the white man swoops in to protect his white damsel in distress from the wrath of the angry Black woman, who, to be clear, did not raise my voice, utter a single curse word, nor say anything I would not say in front of my grandmother (a proud woman of Black and Native descent who would’ve been gravely disappointed from her seat in the heavens had I not spoken up).

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The instructor took a neutral stance, emphasizing she wanted to maintain “a comfortable learning environment where no one feels blamed,” and at no point condemning the statements. The majority of the room (comprised of a diverse group of students) followed the diplomatic barometer she had set, accommodating the student who had written the statements, some even consoling her as she continued to cry, rather than addressing the deeply problematic (arguably psychopathic) indications of what had been said. I stood alone in an unwavering stance that the statements were unacceptable. It felt eerily similar to the Emperor’s New Clothes, where no one wants to say out loud what is abundantly clear. At that moment, I understood how slavery, the Holocaust, and other inconceivable brutalities were possible: in the face of what is blatantly wrong, most choose the safety of silence.

Ironically, what drew me to this doctorate program was its mission statement: 

The mission of the USC Rossier School of Education is to prepare leaders to achieve educational equity through practice, research and policy. We work to improve learning opportunities and outcomes in urban settings and to address disparities that affect historically marginalized groups. We teach our students to value and respect the cultural context of the communities in which they work and to interrogate the systems of power that shape policies and practices.

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I met with the instructor, requesting she resolve the incident by acknowledging the statements as inappropriate, but it was clear her allegiance was to the offending student. I realized how deeply woven the colonial mindset is: here was a woman of color so unwavering in her alliance to oppressive conditioning, she could not see her own connection to the abhorrent statements. To make matters worse, the next lesson plan was a case study surrounding the disproportionately high pregnancy-related mortality rates of women of color. The incident was thus not only unresolved, it was subsequently magnified!

In search of a resolution, I spoke with the program director, the assistant dean, the Race and Equity Center, the Black Cultural Center, the Latinx Cultural Center, and the Ombuds—and in every case, as if they were all reading from the same script, there was a clear stance not to align with me in any substantial way. I felt like I was trapped in the movie Get Out, the lone person who had not been hypnotized into a brainwashed stupor. I eventually met with the dean, who was hostile, dismissive, and bureaucratically deflective. I was identified as the “afflicted individual,” as if my objection was a personal reaction, not a culturally relevant response, and was even asked if I planned to continue the program—as if the onus of the wrongdoing should fall on me.

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In an even more disturbing twist, I discovered the school had a shocking link to sterilization as a tool of systemic racism: the documentary No Mas Bebes recounts the little-known story of a group of Mexican women who were sterilized after giving birth at USC Medical Center during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is nonsensical that an institution with such an egregious history with this issue would be so lacking in humility, let alone treat a student with disdain for requesting the topic be addressed with integrity.

Several students thanked me privately, some expressing deeply emotional responses to the statements—but in the end, no one from the class chose to stand with me publicly. I began to feel like a pariah; someone whose courage was admired, but who no one wanted to be closely associated with. It should also be noted that after creating an online petition, I was trolled with racist comments on social media, emailed anonymous “warnings,” and became the subject of discussion on several right-wing online publications. The backward nature of this incident—a student responsible for hate speech in a classroom is enabled and protected, while a student who respectfully objects is unsupported and chastised‚ is a paramount illustration of an unwavering commitment to prioritize and preserve the social capital of whiteness.

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The values students display in the classroom are likely to be the same values they will embody as working professionals. The school’s failure to acknowledge the unethical magnitude of the statements speaks to an implicit acceptance of the dehumanization of women of color, as well as a profound insensitivity to misogynistic tools of oppression like the current legislative attack on reproductive rights. USC and institutions of its kind are microcosms of society: an environment where people are conditioned not to disrupt status-quo at all costs.

With every avenue exhausted (and the effects of race-based stress revealed in high blood pressure for the first time in my life), I realized I was not willing to stay in such a diseased environment. I transferred to Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black school with a revered parallel doctorate program. While my first year as a doctoral student was unexpectedly stressful and surreal, what the experience gifted me with is absolute clarity about who I am and what I believe in. There is still much for me to learn, but I stand in my choice to walk in morality; a stance I hope would make my great-great-grandparents proud.

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Gina Loring, MFA is a poet, vocalist, and activist who has performed her work in over ten countries as guest cultural attaché under the Obama administration. She teaches poetry workshops with incarcerated teens and has been commissioned to write poems honoring Quincy Jones and Prince.

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DISCUSSION

saulderrity
Chuck_Wagon

Thank you for writing this. My spouse obtained a graduate degree from USC, and if there is one thing that school cares about it is money. It is a school for wealthy California conservatives to send their kids to. I find your experience to be utterly in keeping with the culture of a school that shows little interest in challenging power structures or building a more equitable society (which would naturally force them to cede a bit of their own considerable power).

I think it’s also interesting to consider that America also has a history of forced sterilization of white women as well. In fact, the 1927 Supreme Court case that established the precedent is Buck v. Bell, and it involved a poor, young white woman in Virginia who was institutionalized along with her mother on grounds of hereditary “feeblemindedness.” In the eugenics era, feeblemindedness was code for being poor white trash and having children out of wedlock. This goes to your larger point that forced sterilization is a weapon of extreme social control; in this respect the damage that it inflicts on the target group is obvious.

But, it is also important for us to remember that sterilization is often less about the desire to actively hurt a marginalized group, than it is an attempt to strengthen the power of the group in power (white upper-caste Americans, Boers, Nazis, Savarna Indians, Communist Chinese in Xinjiang, etc.). For the woman who tried to derail your conversation by weaponizing her tears, I have no doubt that she genuinely views herself as having no hatred toward people of color or the marginalized. The problem is she also has no empathy, love, compassion, or solidarity with them either. She has ties of loyalty to her own in-group and the rest is relatively irrelevant, stories of sterilized women are sad to be sure, but nothing to lose sleep about. I’m sure that night after being consoled by her loved ones over your “attack,” she brushed her hair 100 times, hugged her childhood teddy bear and slept the sleep of the dead.

And as the professor illustrated, there will always be middle and lower caste members willing to turn a blind-eye if it means consolidating their own personal position. They forget that they’ll always be “the Chinese family that lives down the street...even if they’re Korean. I’m very sorry that you had this experience, but you did the ancestors proud by being their voice.