Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion

One U Thriving

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Women's Week   

Agitating for justice

Keynote Ericka Hart reminded Women’s Week attendees that discomfort and agitation are requisites for social justice work and fighting intersecting systems of oppression.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion  •  March 16, 2022

Ericka Hart (she/they) has always believed in speaking up for others. The Black queer femme activist and sexuality educator gets her inspiration from her mother, who died of breast cancer when Hart was 13 years old. After Hart was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer in 2014 at age 28, they experienced firsthand the intersectional inequities faced by marginalized people. Two years later, she went topless, showing their double mastectomy scars to raise awareness of breast cancer, particularly among queer and trans people of color.

“The work I do around breast cancer awareness, my mother absolutely inspired me. She inspired me to relate to my body in a way that was that it wasn’t going to be thin or any particular size that the world wanted it to be,” Hart said. “But she also inspired me in other ways – to speak up and to not hold whatever it is that you have to say to support other people and to be in community with people. Those were things that my mother did, and that I hope to continue that legacy.”

In her keynote address on March 14 to kick off Women’s Week at the University of Utah, Hart upheld their mother’s legacy in a candid and thought-provoking discussion on agitating against systemic injustice and who gets to be seen as a woman.

The Women’s Week theme, “Shift. Strive. Thrive,” aimed to validate and acknowledge the struggles of the past two years, marked by a global pandemic, political division, and racial tension.

Hart began her talk with a content warning that their conversation may cause discomfort.

With PowerPoint slides to illustrate her points, Hart called out structural injustices of White supremacy that still prevail – from anti-Black racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia to medical racism, White feminism, and stolen land. They also encouraged the Women’s Week attendees to foster a campus community of support to care for everyone, including groundskeepers, custodians, and dining hall workers who exist in marginalized genders. 

With a map showing the land of Utah’s original inhabitants, Hart thanked the university for its Indigenous Land Acknowledgment and questioned the sufficiency of a memorandum of understanding with the Ute Tribe that allows sports teams to use the name Utes.

“What are the actions that the University of Utah is taking to give back the land as they benefit from it, as all of you benefit from it as students, faculty?” Hart asked. “And I leave you with that rhetorical question.”

Hart then presented a redlining map of Salt Lake City, which was used to maintain racial segregation and limited investment in Black neighborhoods. They talked about the negative impacts of gentrification, such as the forced displacement of low-income residents.

“So you may be asking why am I discussing stolen land acknowledgment, redlining, and gentrification at a Women’s Week event? That is also a gender issue,” they said. “We cannot separate what gender issues are. We are humans navigating structural oppression.”

She also called out cultural appropriation and insensitive messaging, such as reality show star Kim Kardashian’s comments urging women in business to work harder. 

“There are people who have been physically disabled or who have been kept out of jobs or lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Kim Kardashian was born into wealth. Beyond the classism, the fact is that Kim Kardashian has literally created an entire business and an entire career off of profiting from Black people,” Hart said. “Who are the women who are not getting up and working? And why exactly is that a measure of who you are? So this question of who gets to be seen as a woman, it’s a question that has been present for a very long time in this country.” 

Hart then discussed how White women contribute to White supremacy. 

For example, she noted that Susan B. Anthony, a pioneering women’s rights activist, championed voting rights for White women and opposed the vote for Black people. Carolyn Bryant Donham accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of sexual harassment, which led to his murder. And Margaret Sanger, founder of the American birth control movement, supported eugenics and the forced sterilization of Black women and other marginalized people.

In a more recent example, Hart talked about the 2017 Women’s March on Washington the day after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration to protest offensive statements he made about women. “And even with that being the case, White women still voted for Trump,” Hart said.

While it’s difficult moving forward when dealing with deeply entrenched systems of oppression, Hart stressed the importance of continuing to agitate for change. 

“Calling things out and actually naming things for what they are is a way to agitate because in White supremacy, that is not something that’s desired,” Hart said. “People want to cover up what’s happening. They don’t actually want to name things what they are, and it’s important to push up against that.”

She ended their talk with an exercise that encouraged attendees to look out for each other. 

“That’s just a reminder that we move forward in community by actually caring for each other. There’s no way to do any sort of racial and social justice work outside of community. It doesn’t happen individually,” Hart said.

As for their next steps, Hart wants to have children. She’s also writing a book about systems of oppression related to sexuality and gender.

“We’re now living in a time where legislation is being passed that people cannot be who they want to be. They cannot be trans when they say they want to go through certain HRT or any sort of hormone replacement therapy,” Hart said. “It’s important that people know structurally what keeps them from actually existing and that keeps them from thriving and striving. It’s important to be looking at the powers that be and how they have a vested interest in us not caring for ourselves.”

Despite the challenges, Hart remains hopeful.

“I think I’m hopeful because I’ve seen young people agitating the state, I see people fighting back structures of oppression,” Hart said. “I stay hopeful just because the very existence of Black people, period, is powerful. And that’s what keeps me going is that we can be here and create a whole culture and identity truly out of nothing. That for me, brings me hope that so much more can happen and so much more can shift in this country and the world.”

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