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Miller and Cullors Talk Intersection of Race and Gender at Women’s Summit

According to Chanel Miller, sexual violence awareness activist and one of two keynote speakers at Boston College’s annual Women’s Summit, the #MeToo movement was long overdue—it took far too many survivors speaking up to elicit a response from the public to the history of sexual assault. 

“It reminds me of like, there’s a little light going on in your car and someone’s alerting you to something,” Miller said. “We waited until all of the tires were blown and gone.”

Keynote speakers Miller and Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, discussed sexual assault and the intersection of race and gender at the BC Women’s Summit on Saturday. 

The summit also included eight workshops which focused on a variety of topics, including women in software engineering and the importance of self-compassion.

In 2015, Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer, sexually assaulted Miller at a fraternity party. At the conclusion of the trial during which Turner was sentenced to six months in prison, Miller delivered a victim impact statement. 

BuzzFeed published her statement anonymously in 2016, which quickly went viral and prompted a nationwide discussion about rape and sexual assault. 

Miller discussed the unpredictability of the emotions that she experienced throughout her journey as a survivor of sexual assault.

“So I’m much more interested in hearing about just where our emotional peaks were,” she said. “And even with something like the verdict, you would think that’s my party day, like my happiest day. It was so sad, I was crying so hard and I wasn’t even, after it was announced, I wasn’t even thinking about him.”

One of those emotional moments, she said, was telling her parents about her encounter at the party with Turner. 

“I think about what moment the assault really hit me, and I think it was when I told my parents,” Miller said. “And seeing the look on my mom’s face was so scary, right. It was like that seared into me, and that tipped something over.”

Miller said that being able to issue her statement anonymously made her feel secure, but she was also on edge because the public could discover her identity at any moment. It was her mother who gave her the courage to go public, she said. 

“She’s a big reason why I feel bold enough to come forward,” Miller said. “Getting her blessing was really important [to me], because your mom wants to protect you from everything in the world and she had to sort of let go of the idea that she could in order to let me just go out and let whatever happen, happen.”

Miller went public with her identity in a 60 Minutes interview in 2019. She said that the experience of going public was not isolating because she joined many others who were telling their stories and building the #MeToo movement. 

“When you come forward, you’re like stepping into line with all of us who are beside you,” she said. “You’re just like taking this place in this long line of powerful women who know your experiences rather than, like, ‘It’s me, I’m in the little spotlight, now you can ask me all the questions you want.’”

In going public with her story, Miller amassed a global audience. Her autobiography, Know My Name: A Memoir, landed a No. 5 spot on The New York Times Best Seller List. Still, Miller said that she focused on going at her own pace and suggested that others do the same.

“But again, you move as fast as you can go, and if anyone’s pulling you faster than you feel like you should be going, cut it off because you don’t need to be going anywhere,” Miller said. “Truly, it’s all up to you.”

Miller contrasted Turner’s treatment in his trial to the killing of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed by a police officer in a suburb of Saint Paul, Minn. in 2016. Turner was given all the legal resources necessary to make his case, she said, but Castile was killed before he even got the opportunity to speak. 

“I think it’s disturbing how much care there is around white reputations and carelessness around Black life,” she said. “The fact that, you know, Philando Castile wasn’t able to get a single word in and my assailant was able to fly in his high school French teacher, high school swimming coach, and devote a full day to their testimonies, really says a lot to me.”

Cullors touched on the intersection of race and gender, sharing her experience as a Black woman speaking out against mass incarceration and co-founding the Black Lives Matter movement. She defines herself as an abolitionist evangelist who calls for the end of mass criminalization, policing, and surveillance. 

“I mean that every single time I wake up in the morning, I’m thinking about, ‘How do I build a city, a county, and a country that is invested in the care of human beings?’” Cullors said. “That is invested in the dignity of human beings?”

Cullors said that she became an advocate at 16 years old by creating a petition at her high school. Two years later, she became an organizer for the Bus Riders Union and since then, she has advocated for both environmental and racial justice, including working the last 15 years to push an abolitionist agenda.

Cullors also discussed how though she didn’t intend on writing her autobiography, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, she decided to challenge people who called BLM a terrorist organization and share what she believes the movement is really about. 

“Our intention from the very beginning was for it to be a global movement,” Cullors said. “We set the seeds for that. We spent our time going, literally, around the globe, meeting with Black people saying, ‘Go forth and set a flame.’”

When moderator Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, associate professor of French and of African and African Diaspora Studies at BC, asked about the common misunderstandings of the BLM movement, Cullors said the patriarchy has created false perceptions that Black women cannot lead galvanizing movements. 

“I think people were really confused that three Black women created something this big,” Cullors said. “I don’t think they knew how to wrap their heads around it.”

In order to reinforce Black feminist history, Cullors said that it is important to tell the story of the movement and its founders. 

“Tell the story,” Cullors said. “Black women created this movement, but also tell the story that Black women keep it going.” 

Cullors said that being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize was an honor that she never expected, especially because accolades have never been a large focus of her work.

“I do this work so I can hopefully change the material conditions for the people who are most impacted by the system that we live in,” she said. “ … I see it as a nomination for all of us who showed up in the streets, and who have been showing up in the streets. I also see it as a nomination for all of the all the Black folks who have fought for centuries to try to get us closer to freedom.”

Cullors also discussed hope for the future, referencing the promise of a passionate young generation. 

“What gives me hope?” Cullors said. “There’s a new generation of Black leaders and brown leaders and queer and trans and disabled leaders who are stepping up to the moment … and challenging all the things from race [to] gender to class. And they’re doing it in some of the most innovative, creative, and hilarious ways. That gives me all the hope.”

Featured Image by Aneesa Wemers / Heights Staff

February 7, 2021