Shut Up and Sing: Why #BlackLivesSHOULDMatter and How This Impacts the Anti-Trafficking Movement

Last Monday night, like many people around the country, I watched the DA announce that there would be no indictment in the death of Michael Brown and plugged in to social media. I was saddened but not at all surprised, (which made it more saddening), that there would be no indictment. Like many Americans, I posted several comments on my personal Facebook page, but as the Founder and CEO of GEMS, the nation’s largest service provider to domestically trafficked and commercially sexually exploited girls and young women, an agency that serves over 90 percent girls and young women of color, and as an organization that has long taken a strong social justice stance, it didn’t feel like a night that GEMS could be silent. I posted on our organization’s Facebook page, Girls Are Not for Sale, the trending hashtag #blacklivesmatter.

The response was swift and the tone was angry. How dare we – as an organization working on trafficking – voice our opinion on something so unrelated? We were accused of “race baiting” and promoting “segregation” and “reckless journalism” and being “a little far-afield and off-topic”. We were told we were “instigating” and “discriminating” and that it was “poor timing”. These were comments made by people who all stated that they supported the cause, were against trafficking and had previously supported GEMS. Comments like ‘disappointed and unfollowing”, “will always support the cause but my energy will move to another, more focused organization” and “I go to you for relevant info on a cause I support, not solidarity with criminal activity” just kept coming. I tried to engage for a while but the responses became harsher and more vitriolic. Several people wrote “AllLivesMatter” and a man who wrote that he was a “huge supporter of women’s rights and the anti-trafficking movement” wrote “WhiteLivesMatter” and seemed confused when I responded that I didn’t actually think that required a hashtag.

Most confusing to me, however, was the idea that this wasn’t an issue that an organization working with victims and survivors of commercial sexual exploitation should comment on. “Just stick to your area, and we’ll be okay with you” seemed to be the common sentiment. But how could this not be ‘our area’? Surely people understood that all social justice issues are interconnected, and that given who we serve and who we are as organization we had both an opinion on the events in Ferguson and the right to express it?

I checked the social media feeds of a dozen leading anti-trafficking organizations to see if anyone else had posted in response to the Ferguson decision or in solidarity with communities of color, and they were silent. Many of these organizations provide direct services to victims of domestic trafficking in the US and see the disproportionate number of victims of color. But on one of the most important nights in the fight for racial justice they said nothing. On a night where people of color nationwide felt totally devalued and denied any justice, organizations serving trafficking victims (many of whom are youth and adults of color) were silent. There was nothing to be said in solidarity, nothing to be shared to say “We hear you, We see you, You matter.”

While Monday night was intense, and brought out some of the bizarre and racist commentary that is true of any comments section anywhere on the internet, I should not really have been surprised by the radio silence of the anti-trafficking movement. The truth is that there are very few organizations in the movement that explicitly and consistently address racial disparities, the over-representation of youth of color as victims, and particularly the criminal and juvenile justice systems and institutionalized racism that the individuals we serve encounter every day. I would say that I’m proud of the fact that we have always and will always speak up about these things and the impact on our girls, but to paraphrase Chris Rock, it doesn’t really feel like the kind of thing we should be getting a cookie for. It seems quite obviously the right thing to do.

Being anti-racist doesn’t just mean not saying the ‘n’ word or telling racist jokes. It means that you have to actively be engaged as an ally, question your own privilege and address all the subtle and not so subtle ways that structural racism interacts with your life.

Not only is the anti-trafficking movement eerily quiet when it comes to issues of race, but it’s also often covertly and sometimes overtly perpetuating racial stereotypes and institutional racism. The most overt form of this is the demonization of men of color, the portrayal of this issue as ‘white slavery’, the overwhelmingly depiction of little white girls in awareness campaign materials and an adherence to an idea of what a ‘real’ victim looks like; white, preferably blond, younger than 12, with a teddy-bear or some other symbol to suggest innocence and virginity. In fact, one of the most widely utilized awareness ads pictures a white girl with a black man’s hand over her mouth. It’s a disturbing picture and not for the reasons the creators probably intended. It feeds into every stereotype and fear of men of color that the viewer can relate to. Its ubiquitous nature even ensured that it showed up in the background of a recent TNT series set in a police headquarters, and has been used all over the country by a wide array of organizations to publicize conferences or accompany a media article. It’s hard to believe that each usage doesn’t at least, on a subconscious level, send a clear message about who the ‘bad guys’ are. On very close inspection, the man’s hand can be seen to actually not be the hand of a black man, but a white man’s hand with make-up on. Yes, it’s a black-face hand. I pointed this out on social media a while ago and someone protested and said that it was likely meant to represent a dirty hand. Unless this is supposed to be the hand of a coal miner, it’s hard to believe that this was intended to symbolize ‘dirt’ and it’s definitely not the concept that anyone takes away from the picture.

Not only is the anti-trafficking movement eerily quiet when it comes to issues of race, but it’s also often covertly and sometimes overtly perpetuating racial stereotypes and institutional racism.The most overt form of this is the demonization of men of color, the portrayal of this issue as ‘white slavery’, the overwhelmingly depiction of little white girls in awareness campaign materials and an adherence to an idea of what a ‘real’ victim looks like; white.

Every week, anti-trafficking groups post mug shots on their social media feeds that feature men of color arrested for pimping and trafficking. Trainings show mug shot after mug shot of men of color who were arrested for trafficking. Conversations about pimps and traffickers within taskforces and criminal justice professionals often include coded terminology that makes it clear the disdain that they have for men of color as a whole, not just those who pimp.

A casual observer or an enthusiastic recruit to the anti-trafficking movement could be forgiven for thinking that most black men were pimps and that trafficking was specific to this group of men. They’d be unlikely to hear that traffickers exploit those that they have the most access to, Ukrainian men traffic Ukrainian girls, Mexican men traffic Mexican girls, and in the US, most street traffickers are indeed likely to be men of color selling girls and young women of color. This isn’t, however, representative of men of color in America, nor is it indicative of those who make the most money through the exploitation of women and girls. Furthermore, it doesn’t even begin to represent the multitudes of men who actually purchase children and youth for sex, but in a media that seizes upon every image of black men as ‘thugs’ and criminals, there are few voices in the anti-trafficking community speaking out against a flawed depiction of the issue. When the leaders of the largest anti-trafficking organizations are predominately white men, (yes, I said it), perhaps that’s not so surprising. But it is problematic when we are serving girls and women of color who are related to and love men of color and are raising black sons.

That’s the part we seem to forget when we vilify men of color, that we are vilifying fathers and brothers and uncles and cousins and boyfriends and partners and sons. I know many of my girls and young women who are raising black boys who are scared for them, who worry about how they will be perceived as they get older, who are already confronting issues in elementary and junior high school, who are well aware that they are raising boys in a society that says their lives aren’t of value. And they’re more than aware that they are living in a world where their lives are also seen as less worthy, less valuable, not important. They live in a world where being a girl or a woman is viewed negatively, and then we send the message that being black or brown is to be less than. Even the President’s own initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, leaves out girls of color who are disproportionately facing discrimination in school, struggling with self-worth issues and victimized by violence. Both young men and women of color are less likely to be seen as ‘real’ victims, a fact which the anti-trafficking movement should by now be well-aware of given the issues we’ve seen in how domestic trafficking victims – again, overwhelmingly girls of color – are viewed, treated, criminalized and stigmatized.

In the years after the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, when it was close to impossible to get funding, support or even empathy for domestic trafficking victims, it was crystal clear that – had we been talking about victims of another class and another race – we would’ve seen a much quicker and stronger political and social response. When we were fighting in New York for the nation’s Safe Harbor Act, a memo from an upstate lobbying group stated that ‘these young adults’, (actually specifically children under 16), were on a ‘life path leading to incarceration anyway’ therefore, the memo concluded, we should continue to criminalize children for the commercial sexual exploitation that was done to them. Words like ‘hardened’ and “streetwise” were thrown around to describe 12 and 13 year olds who were being sold by adult men to adult men. Coded and not so coded commentary about who ‘these girls’ were permeated every argument and discussion about the Safe Harbor bill. The fact that these were all low-income children and overwhelmingly children of color and not the 12 and 13 year old white children of prosecutors, politicians, or cops meant that it took almost five years to stop New York State from prosecuting children for an act of prostitution when they couldn’t even legally consent to sex.
Even in the last few years, as domestic trafficking has become more of an issue and finally been afforded the spotlight, there is fairly vocal criticism that domestically trafficked girls are receiving too much interest, too much support, too much funding. Is it actually possible that we could be saying that low-income, marginalized girls of color who’ve been sexually abused and exploited are getting more than their fair share? Because that would just be ludicrous.

Now as a victim of commercial sexual exploitation and/or trafficking, you can be American, you can even be a youth of color, (sometimes) but you probably shouldn’t be older than 16 if you want real empathy and if you’re brown or black and older than 18? Then you’ll be viewed once again as a prostitute, as a willing participant or even a co-conspirator and you’ll be treated accordingly by the criminal justice system. For black boys turned legal adults, they’re seen as thugs. Black girls at 18? Hoes. None of this is a secret in the anti-trafficking movement and yet it’s rarely addressed.

Organizations that predominately serve girls of color often have few staff of color, particularly black staff, and when they do it’s in entry level jobs or ‘working with the girls’, not in positions of management, decision making or leadership. Conferences and panels frequently fail to include critical voices of color, the fight against sex-trafficking often looks like large rooms of white people tip-toeing around the fact that its girls of color that we most frequently see victimized. There are leaders of color in the fight against trafficking but there aren’t enough, and they don’t tend to have the largest platforms or the most resources. The anti-trafficking movement would be well-served to start asking why and what it can do to stop perpetuating this inequity.

This would, at least, require us to have a conversation and be uncomfortable addressing race; yet anti-trafficking trainings and seminars rarely address issues of race, or even class, and the underlying social issues that make trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation possible. There is little if any conversation of the challenges that survivors of color face in finding living wage employment, the systems that are designed to fail them and the challenges they face, not only through the intersection of race, class and gender, but also a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation that may not be viewed as a ‘real’ victim. The media stories about the issue tend to seek out victims that people can ‘relate to’; as if it’s impossible for white Middle America to care about youth of color or that we don’t have a responsibility to address the fact that many don’t.

We all are aware of ‘missing white woman syndrome’ in the media and yet do little to call it out and address it, despite the fact that we serve girls and women of color who go missing every day without any media interest or fanfare. Organizations don’t talk to victims and survivors in their programs about institutional racism, race and class, poverty, disparities in the criminal and juvenile justice systems or even the micro-aggressions they face, despite the fact that these are major factors in their daily lives and add to the complexities of trauma and recovery. One of my young women recently said that she was glad that GEMS was a program where you could talk about racism and white privilege and that staff members, (including white staff members) were comfortable talking about that. I was glad she felt heard and supported but disturbed by how surprised she was that there was a space created for her to address her real challenges as a young woman of color. Clearly it’s not happening in a lot of the other spaces she’s been in, and as someone who was been working on this issue for almost 18 years, it’s definitely not happening in a lot of the spaces that I’m in unless I bring it up. Even then the silence can be deafening.

When we, those of us who are engaged in the fight against commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, stay silent on issues of race and racism and racial justice, we are sending the message to the very individuals we serve and advocate for that at best this is something they imagine, that it’s not our problem, that they just need to ‘get over it’, and at worst we are sending the message that we don’t truly see their lives as valuable either.
I don’t believe that’s the intention for most folks. While today I was unfortunate enough to read a post from a woman that is trying to start a ‘safe house’ that was blatantly and proudly xenophobic and racist, that’s not necessarily the case for most of the people who are actively involved in the movement. But silence and apathy ultimately have the same outcome. The truth is that you can’t claim to be ‘anti-trafficking’ and not be anti-racism. Being anti-racist doesn’t just mean not saying the ‘n’ word or telling racist jokes. It means that you have to actively be engaged as an ally, question your own privilege and address all the subtle and not so subtle ways that structural racism interacts with your life.

You can’t say you care about trafficking victims of color, but not take a moment to understand how race impacts their lives. You can’t talk about prevention of commercial sexual exploitation without addressing poverty and how race and class are inextricably linked in this country. You can’t talk about options for survivors and ‘aftercare’ without acknowledging that those options look different for different survivors. You can’t sit quietly by on the sidelines because all this talk about race makes you uncomfortable. And you can’t pick and choose your social justice issues like you’re at a buffet bar. All of this is linked, all of it is interconnected and all of this is indeed related to commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, in all of its forms. As a movement with momentum and interest and a huge amount of support right now, we need to ensure that we’re a movement that is headed in the right direction on all issues of equality and justice, and we need to leverage that momentum to create real, lasting change. Black lives matter and it’s past the time for the anti-trafficking movement to send that message loud and clear.

Rachel Lloyd is the Founder and CEO of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, one of the largest service providers dedicated to ending the commercial sexual exploitation of girls and young women and domestic trafficking. Rachel Lloyd is the author of the best selling memoir Girls Like Us and was recently honored in Marie Claire as one of  the Twenty Women Changing the World.

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Thursday, December 4th, 2014, 1:16 pm
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