#MeToo (but not you): Black women are being left out of the conversation on violence, says El Jones
El Jones says she has met girls who were sexually assaulted at the age of 12 or 13, while in the custody of the care system.
When these girls reported the abuse, they were dismissed as "streetwalkers and prostitutes."
"One girl told me that in her file it said: 'Well her body is very curvy, like an adult,' and this was used to deny her report of being sexually assaulted."
Jones, an activist and the former poet laureate of Halifax, says that it's just one of the ways that the bodies of black women and girls are criminalized.
"Right now there's an international conversation really going on with #MeToo," she says, "but often only some women are making that conversation."
#MeToo testimonies show that being white and rich does not protect women from sexual violence, she notes.
But many of the women she works with — who are caught up in the criminal justice system or were in care — are not being allowed to tell their stories.
"When we're talking about #MeToo, we're not talking about the state violence that women are experiencing in prisons," she says.
"So it's not only that some women are being left out, we're also only talking about some kinds of violence, and some kinds of power."
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Jones is a Nancy's Chair in Women's Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, a role designed to raise awareness of women's issues.
"What we're not talking about is how from the beginning of black women's existence in this country," she says, "black women's bodies have been raped, black women's bodies have been exploited, black women's bodies have been state property in particular ways, and that is still going on."
Jones also hosts a radio show where she talks to inmates in Nova Scotia. The women she speaks to highlight a lack of basic necessities, including everything from mental health care to feminine hygiene products.
"I don't know if you can imagine what it's like to be in jail, and to have to bleed through your underwear because you don't have access to a tampon or a pad," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, at a town hall event in Halifax.
"In Canada?" asks Tremonti.
"In Canada, yes."
"So we know that the justice system doesn't serve black woman and girls or Indigenous women and girls," Jones says.
Women get sucked in this system, she added. Their children are often taken away and they in turn get sucked into the system.
Types of violence
Black women and girls experience violence in all kinds of ways, she says.
"We experience violence in the way our children are taken from us, the way our parenting is critiqued, the way that we're seen as bad mothers," she says.
When black women's hair products are locked up behind the counter at a drugstore, that sends a message that black women are thieves, she says.
"That's putting a particular criminalization on to black women's bodies, that marginalizes our bodies and that makes us more vulnerable in other ways to violence."
"The way we move around our workplaces, the way our hair is critiqued — having natural hair makes you less professional."
This is all racialized violence, she says, which the #MeToo movement's focus on workplace harassment is in danger of ignoring.
A system failing black girls
The problems begin at a very young age, she says, with a school system that fails young black girls.
When children express anxiety or depression to teachers, it is often misread as attitude.
"They're seen consistently as being bad, as acting out rather than needing help or needing assistance, or having something going on that meets a conversation." she says.
"This again is the way that black women's bodies tend to be criminalized and seen as a problem, rather than seen as people who are human beings."
Tony Ince, Minister of African Nova Scotia Affairs, said that the problems faced by the black community in Halifax are not easy ones to solve.
He pointed to an official apology from the province — over abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, a former Halifax orphanage — as progress, but said that issues stretching back centuries take time to resolve.
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Jones says the solutions are already in place, the community just needs the space to enact them.
"The solutions are to give us the dignity that we have," she said, "to allow black women to live our lives in the way that we know how to live our lives."
"To allow us to love each other, to allow us to care for each other, hold each other accountable in our communities, to allow us to do the work of raising our families."
"And to stop being so cruel to us all the time, and interfering with us — and if people would stop doing that we already have the solutions."
Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.
The Halifax town hall event on race relations in Canada was produced by The Current's Yamri Taddese, Pacinthe Mattar and Ruby Buiza.