With all the recent discussions on race after the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner, and feminist issues with recent campus responses to sexual assault, my attention has been focused on the very familiar act of victim-blaming.
Victim-blaming is when a victim of a wrongful act is held partially or entirely responsible for the harm that befell them, and is typically only applied to those with less privilege, which include individuals of color, those who are female, identify as lgbtq, are poor, or fit into a combination of these and other categories.
A core issue with victim-blaming is that the lived experiences of the underprivileged and their systematic harassment and abuse are discredited. It is not that as a black man, Eric Gardner had to deal with constant discrimination and police harassment that ultimately led to his death, instead the debate is framed by the privileged that the police simply responded with understandable force to protect himself from a large scary-looking (i.e., black) man who already had a history of arrest.
And more, isn’t it strange that dozens of women have come out with rape charges against Bill Cosby, yet most victims are immediately discredited and questioned, including, “why didn’t you report this sooner” (many did but where ignored!) “why did you return to his house?” or my favorite, ” you know, there are ways to avoid being raped.” WHAT?
As Cera Byer at Alternet points out “a possible first step is to listen to people with an open heart. By believing that other people’s reporting of their lived experience may be true, even though the dominant paradigm tells you it’s impossible.”
She continues in a letter to her male white friends:
Because some forms of injustice don’t happen to you, and the history you learned in school, and what you hear from a lot of the media, and from other white men, is that these things don’t happen, you might really believe they don’t exist. Being able to turn a blind eye to things that don’t happen to you is the essence of privilege.
I’d like to invite a thought exercise.
Your child comes to you and says, “Dad, I’m being harassed, bullied, threatened and terrorized at school.”And you say, “That is impossible. You go to a good school. All the adults I know say it is a good school, so you must be fine. Go back out there.”And you walk away, convinced that your child must be wrong. You’ve abandoned your child, because you’re not taking his or her report as possibly accurate.
Your wife or sister comes to you and says, “I am being harassed, threatened and terrorized out on the street by men. I experience gender inequality on a daily basis. I live in some degree of constant fear for my personal safety, just because I am a woman.”And you say, “That is impossible. Sexism is over. Women now occupy relatively high places of power in this country. You are fine.” And you walk away, convinced that your loved one must be wrong. You have abandoned her, because you are not taking her report as possibly accurate.
Your friends, community, neighbors, co-workers of color come to you and say, “I am harassed, threatened, terrorized on the street by police officers. I am experiencing systemic inequality on a daily basis. I live in constant fear that myself, my brother, my son, will be unfairly convicted of a crime, or shot on the street, simply because of what we look like.” And you say, “That is impossible. Racism has been conquered. We have a black president. Everyone lives an equal life here.” And you walk away, convinced that these people are wrong. You have abandoned them, because you are not taking their reports as possibly accurate.
This really appears to be the core of victim-blaming. For those with privilege, believing the victim can be so painful and threatening to their sense of reality, that it becomes easier to blame the victim for the crime.
What were you wearing? Why were you wearing a hoodie? Why were you walking outside at night? However, as Caitlin Kelly creatively points out, these attacks directed at the victim make little sense and can be a source of laughter when examined through a a crime that occurs to those with privilege (and thus is free of victim-blaming).
As we continue our conversations about race and gender equality in this country, let’s continue considering the role of privilege in changing systematic harassment, violence and abuse in our society. Listen to people’s lived experiences, even if they don’t match your sense of reality. Keep an open mind.