A Call for Co-Strugglers

DEMAND JUSTICE © 2018 Michele Beaulieux

Black and Indigenous activists call for white people, like myself, to go beyond being allies—merely being supportive—to take race struggles on as our own. In the Indigenous rights and #blacklivesmatter movements, such people have been described as accomplices, co-conspirators, collaborators, and comrades. In organizational and institutional settings, they may be called whistleblowers. In anti-bullying programs, bystanders who take action are called upstanders. They see what happens and intervene, interrupt, or speak up to stop the bullying. In my work against sexual violence, I follow the lead of Black anti-violence organizer Mariame Kaba and use the term “co-strugglers.” Co-strugglers are actively engaged in collective action for structural change. They work to transform oppressive systems, not just as helpers, but in mutuality and collective responsibility. The call for co-strugglers is best understood within the context of upholding community accountability. Co-strugglers are engaged community citizens who recognize that individual problems are community problems.

The essence of co-struggling

Black and Indigenous activists have asked others to own their struggles with them. African American author Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “one has to even abandon the phrase ‘ally’ and understand that you are not helping someone in a particular struggle; the fight is yours.” Professor of African American Studies Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor made a similiar observation. For her, solidarity means finding our common humanity in oppression.

It is the willingness to engage in struggle even when a particular issue might not affect you personally. . . . Solidarity means recognizing someone else’s suffering and taking on the burden of fighting to end it or even recognizing it not as a point of difference but as an opportunity for connection.”

Such empathy is ultimately self-interested. Such co-struggling recognizes the truth of what African American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer famously said: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Likewise, Lilla Watson, Aboriginal educator and activist said, “If you come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Neutrality not an option

Taking a stand is critical. Staying on the sidelines may be safe, but it is not neutral, because neutrality isn’t neutral: It supports the status quo, and the status quo belongs to those in power. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa points out the fallacy of neutrality in situations of great power differentials:

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel implores us to take the side of the oppressed. Whether you like it or not, when you don’t take a side, you take a side:

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

Challenges of co-struggling

Co-struggling is a commitment. Taking on struggles against oppression and injustice is not easy. It can involve significant costs—losing friends, family, jobs, and, in extreme cases, lives. Being a co-struggler means having the courage to take risks. As Dante Barry, founder and executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, said,

“I want comrades who will show up when I’m most vulnerable and be in active solidarity with my struggle as a person in a black body and take some risks, because I’m putting my life out on the line every single day.”

Naomi Shulman explains that co-strugglers aren’t “nice people.” They aren’t silent. They make waves. They aren’t conflict-averse. They speak up and that can make people uncomfortable. Co-struggling can make you very unpopular.

“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.” 

Deciding to co-struggle

Co-struggling—if you really co-struggle—will take time and emotional energy. So if possible, before engaging, take a moment to consider whether you want to co-struggle, whether you can co-struggle, and the extent to which you can co-struggle. Contact your support network and ask whether they will be able to be there for you while you are there for others. Consider your boundaries on the help that you will offer. Your limits may evolve but know that you can set them.

How to co-struggle

A challenge of co-struggling is taking the struggle on as one’s own without taking over. Co-strugglers let the people with whom they are co-struggling lead. Privileged people may naturally default to leading so it can take conscious work to stand back as co-strugglers. At the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival, I asked Black feminist author Roxane Gay for her advice on co-struggling, she said, “Know when to talk and when to listen.”

Co-strugglers do not burden a person experiencing trauma with their own issues. Susan Silk and Barry Goldman’s “Ring Theory” provides good direction for dealing with people in trauma. Visualize the person experiencing the trauma in the center with people around them in rings according to how close they are to the trauma. The theory advocates dealing with people in rings smaller than yours differently from those in further rings: “Comfort IN, dump OUT.”

It can be tempting to make suggestions, but unsolicited advice is seldom welcome. “Should” is not a word that co-strugglers use.

Co-struggling with victim-survivors of sexual violence

In addition to the issues outlined above, co-struggling with people who have experienced sexual violence presents its own set of challenges. The focus on this blog is sexual violence, but struggles against oppression intersect. Sexual violence intersects with discrimination and privilege based on race, class, gender and myriad other factors, and those accumulations compound trauma.

Often, co-strugglers are secondary victim-survivors themselves: a family member or close friend has experienced sexual violence. For them, following the ring theory—”comfort in, dump out”—may be especially challenging.

Be prepared to co-struggle

People who have been abused and assaulted turn to informal networks first. They disclose to friends, partners, and family members. So it’s likely that at some point someone you know will confide in you. How you respond can impact their healing. Be prepared.

How to listen to people who have experienced sexual violence

Victim-survivors of sexual violence may have difficulty acknowledging and naming what happened to them. Shame may keep them silent. Once they do speak, victim-survivors often have challenges simply being heard and believed.

Be trauma-informed

When co-struggling with people who have experienced sexual violence, a trauma-informed approach is critical. The trauma that victim-survivors of sexual violence have experienced may cause them to respond in ways that are initially difficult to understand. For example, victim-survivors often don’t tell anyone, not because the sexual violence didn’t happen, but because they wish it hadn’t, doubt they will be believed, fear retaliation, or myriad other reasons.

Start by believing

Unlike victim-survivors of other crimes, sexual assault victim-survivors face the challenge of simply being believed. Even though studies have shown that between 90% and 98% of allegations are true, victim-survivors are often not given the benefit of the doubt.

The just world hypothesis is one explanation of why people tend not to believe victims. We want life to be fair, and we want to believe that people deserve what happens to them, that victims somehow bring on their fates. With that logic, if we don’t do what they did, bad things won’t happen to us, and we can continue to feel safe. 

Honoring a victim-survivor’s reality requires careful listening, but not reflexive belief. The End Violence Against Women International campaign Start by Believing suggests we start—but not necessarily end—from a default position of believing. Alexis Adams-Clark and Jennifer Freyd point out that “Both reflexive disbelief and reflexive belief can take power away from the survivor to be the author of her own experience.” Founder of the #MeToo movement Tarana Burke advocates “listening to all claims and taking seriously all claims of sexual violence and giving them as much credence as possible, as much interrogation as possible.” 

Be empathetic

Co-strugglers play a crucial role by being empathetic. Believing victim-survivors requires an act of radical empathy. We often have difficulty imagining the fear that victim-survivors feel when they are sexually harassed. We think we would act in anger but studies show that, in reality, people don’t. We have difficulty imagining the factors involved in a victim-survivors’ decisions and the steps involved in making those decisions. This empathy gap between how we think we’d act when we’re reflecting in a calm rational state of mind and how we actually act in an emotionally charged situation makes us judgmental of others. We think we would have acted differently when, in fact, we most likely wouldn’t have.

Forensic psychologist David Lisak explains why it is psychologically difficult for people to identify with victim-survivors of sexual violence:

“Vulnerability scares us, very deeply. To feel your body being forcibly penetrated by another human being is an experience of such utter, terrifying vulnerability and helplessness that most people recoil from the thought. To overcome that resistance, to actually identify with the experience and the person who suffers it, is an act of profound empathy, and considerable courage. Most people, frankly, are not up to the challenge; certainly not without a lot of support . . . . 

“This is the fertile ground in which the issue of false reports has taken root. When a room full of people feels the urgent need to shun and discard a rape victim, nothing makes it easier than adopting the belief that she made the whole thing up.” 

Or again, Roxane Gay:

“Rape is an appalling crime. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around it, really – that a person can feel so entitled to the body of another that the person forces himself inside another person. . . . Crime hardly feels like an adequate word.”

How to listen to people who have harmed

Listening to people who have violated and harmed others means beginning by listening to ourselves. We have all stepped over boundaries knowingly or unwittingly at one time or another. A first step in co-struggling is identifying the times we have been wrong and getting in touch with how difficult taking responsibility and apologizing is.

The acronym, DARVO, summarizes the reactions that chronic perpetrators of wrongdoing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being confronted about their behavior. DARVO stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim—or the whistle blower—into an alleged offender. DARVO is very effective. Studies have shown, however, that once people are educated about it, it loses its potency.

People who have harmed don’t harm in a vacuum. It’s important to consider their behavior within the community context in which they did it. People who violate boundaries are part of an ecosystem, or rape culture, that supports them. Rape culture is a community problem.

Co-struggle in community

Co-strugglers are essential in eliminating rape culture and creating, in its stead, a culture of consent. As a victim-survivor of sexual violence, I call for co-strugglers. I ask people to speak up and intervene when witnessing sexual violence, to be supportive in its aftermath, and to work to dismantle the rape culture in which we live. When evaluating whether spaces are safer brave spaces, co-strugglers ask not just whether they feel safe being brave in a space but whether other people—especially marginalized people—would. And if people without power or privilege don’t feel safe enough to be brave, then co-strugglers work to change the spaces or they leave. They refuse to be complicit.

What victim-survivors ask

In rape culture, people seldom speak up when witnessing questionable behavior. They may turn around, though, and ask victim-survivors why we don’t report. They miss the irony: they want us to do what they don’t do, and we want them to do what they want us to do: speak up.

Those of us who have been harmed ask that the onus for action not fall on us. Victim-survivor Margaret Hillman explains that victim-survivors want help with the heavy lifting. We need co-strugglers. If we all share the burden, we’ll spread the weight and it won’t be so heavy for any of us individually. It won’t fall disproportionately on victim-survivors and marginalized and oppressed people.

Co-struggling with sexual assault victim-survivors isn’t easy. It requires active engagement, energy, and commitment. It means standing up against the status quo, and that can take courage and fortitude. Professor of psychiatry Judith Herman explains in her seminal book, Trauma and Recovery:

“All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. . . . The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

Or as Roxane Gay explains,

“This is the ugly truth. Rapists make us less uncomfortable than rape victims. Predators demand so much less than victims; they aren’t as inconvenient. They don’t bleed or hurt or reveal their gaping wounds. If we don’t doubt them, we do not have to doubt ourselves.”

For co-strugglers working with victim-survivors, taking the struggle on as their own without taking over is especially critical. Sexual violence is a crime of power and being sexually violated is the ultimate loss of control. Victim-survivors heal by retaking control of our bodies and our lives, one decision at a time. Sometimes, that may entail the decision to ask a co-struggler to do something for us and, sometimes, we may want to take action ourselves. Co-strugglers will want to be careful not to overstep the requests of victim-survivors.

When people go beyond being allies to become co-strugglers working in tandem with victim-survivors, we can build a culture of consent and create safer brave spaces. We can speak out while respecting victim-survivors’ wishes and working in tandem with them. We can model social norms for appropriate behavior. With co-strugglers and victim-survivors working together, we can create safer brave spaces and make the our counterstories the common stories.

Tools for Co-Struggling

The Our Choices Solution Facilitator is specifically designed for co-struggling with people impacted by sexual violence. It provides specific tasks that co-strugglers can do to support victim-survivors and it also outlines tasks best left to victim-survivors.

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© 2020-2023 Michele Beaulieux … Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. That means you are free to share and adapt as long as you attribute Michele Beaulieux, don’t use for commercial purposes, and use this same license. And if you do share, I’d love to know! I continue to revise, so to avoid sharing an outdated version, I recommend linking to this page, where I provide the date of the current iteration: 3.1.2023

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