On November 17th, International House hosted a panel discussion about sexual violence in communities of color. This event, entitled “Save Our Sisters,” featured writer and political analyst Zerlina Maxwell, Ebony Senior Editor Jamilah Lemelux, and Dr. Dwayne Collier, an obstetrician-gynecologist who practices in Plainfield, Illinois. The panel was sponsored by the Global Voices Lecture Series, the Beta Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., RSVP, the Center for the Study of Gender & Sexuality, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, & Culture, and the Student Government Finance Committee.
Before the event, Gate Co-Editor-in-Chief Patrick Reilly spoke with Ms. Maxwell and Dr. Collier about their experiences and perspectives on this topic. Here’s what they had to say:
Gate: I'd like to start with a question for you as a journalist. During the incident two weeks ago at Mizzou, did the claims made by either side - that the journalists were being invasive of the students, or that the protesters were shutting down freedom of the press - strike a chord with you?
Maxwell: At the time, I thought there was an overemphasis on the First Amendment part of the conversation because I think that it is true that the media can be a little bit invasive. And it is important for people in college, people who are just beginning to mature...to be conscious of the fact that not every journalist is their friend. But you also [have to] balance that with allowing access. It has to be reasonable. I found that the conversation about the free speech stuff was a little bit of a tangent from why we were even paying attention to what was happening at Mizzou...I think young people of color - in particular, ones that use social media a lot - are hyper-aware of the fact that not every journalist has good intentions, and not every journalist has an "objective" perspective. And I put “objective” in quotes because I think that there are so many different [media] outlets right now, [and some] will take your quote and say "Black Lives Matter said this" and it's...I mean, who knows who it was, right? So I thought that conversation was interesting, but I think I fell on the side of having empathy for the students just because they were the less powerful [ones] in the situation.
Gate: How would you, if you had been there, approached it as a journalist?
Maxwell: I think that the number one thing, from the perspective of students, [is to make sure that] they're fine with [who] the journalists are, what outlets they write for, what previous work they've done, what else have they written about Black Lives Matter, what have they written about Mizzou in particular. [Once the students know those facts, they can] vet all of the journalists that they're willing to speak to so that you're not in a situation where your one quote gets taken out of context and [becomes] "Black LIves Matter said this." I think that it's important to be aware of those things and sometimes, when you're so young...you're just so trusting, particularly because [with] journalism, there's an authority figure, coming to you saying "I work for X outlet, I'm- I work for CNN."
So I think, from the perspective of a journalist, I would just be trying to build trust with the students and show that my body of work shows that I have not only an empathy for their perspective, but a willingness to be fair in telling the story, and not put my own bias on to the story, or try to harm the movement in any way...In the case of Mizzou, I think it's helpful [to be] a journalist of color. Students may even be able to relate to someone like me more easily because I'm a little bit younger. [I would make sure to have] conversations with them about how to vet the sources they're speaking with so that it doesn't end up on Breitbart and you didn't know that you were talking to somebody who doesn't have your best interests.
Gate: UChicago's currently revising its sexual assault policy after the Chicago Reader published an article in September that was very damning about its treatment of rape victims at the university. A lot of people might view this as a win for the press. As a reporter, do you have any issues with how the media is covering campus sexual assault?
Maxwell: Yes. I have a lot of problems. With the help of survivors-turned-advocates and activists, the conversation is shifting, [and] because [of] political powers, like the White House [and] the Department of Education, college presidents [are] being forced to care about this issue, [and] you've seen a shift in the way the media's talking about it. But that doesn't mean that they're doing a good job. It just means that they're doing a better job than the horrible job they were doing before. And I think part of the [media’s] problem is shifting [coverage] completely to the point where we...lead first with empathy for anyone who's coming forward to tell their story, instead [of] with the default skepticism: "Are you sure that really happened to you?" or "Maybe you misunderstood" or "What were you wearing?" or "What were you drinking?" [There are all these] victim-blaming questions that we sort of always lead with, and even the media falls victim to that narrative. So I think part of the problem is that the media is just made up of people and we all live in the same culture ,and so even people in the media have the wrong idea about some of these things. It's important for people who advocate on behalf of survivors, but also people who are in positions of power, to continue shifting that conversation. And there are some folks in the media who are starting to get it, and that's really helpful. I think something like Bill Cosby changes the entire game a little bit, [especially with] that New York Magazine cover. I think, when it's all said and done, like twenty years from now, we're gonna look back and and say that the empty chair on that particular cover represented so many people that aren't able to speak about their experience, but [also that] it changed minds about whether or not we should wait until there's a full page full of people before we start taking accusations more seriously.
Gate: Dr. Collier, do you think there's anything that the medical community could be doing better or differently to handle the issue of sexual assault on campus?
Collier: I think our vantage point is different because we're looking at the person that's sitting in front of us, so I'm looking at the patient, and immediately what I can do for her immediately and [in the] long-term, in terms of getting her into counselling, or getting her into a place where that is addressed. So it's a little bit different for us because we're more hands-on. I think that a body like ACOG* could probably take a stance on certain things. And I was trying to do some research before I got here to see what the stance is, and I didn't see much of it. But I think [that within] the medical community, we just have to make sure that we have avenues for assaulted women concerning how they're counselled after. That's the main thing for me.
*American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
This interview has also been published on International House’s website as part of the Gate’s partnership with the Global Voices Lecture Series. The photo in this article was taken by Alpha Kappa Alpha’s Corey Simpson and can also be found here.