I woke up yesterday to a slew of links on my Facebook and Twitter feeds about the New York Times article on the rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas. Many of you probably saw the article, and most of you probably read the endless blog entries posted yesterday shaming the New York Times for victim-blaming. And yes, what the New York Times did was absolutely victim-blaming and was absolutely shameful. I, too, was shocked that the New York Times would write an article from that angle. So I started poking around the interwebs trying to find more information about the case.
Here’s where I’m going to talk about my own prejudice: When the New York Times didn’t specifically state that the victim and her attackers were nonwhite, I assumed we were talking about a white girl and a group of white attackers. Maybe because I come from a small town that is almost completely white, when I hear “small town” and “abandoned trailer,” I think white folks making meth. That’s my prejudice here. So I was surprised to click a link to a Houston newspaper and to see row after row of black faces, images of the alleged attackers, looking back at me. All of a sudden something snapped in my brain: No one is talking about how race complicates this whole mess, even though race is staring all of us in the face.
Maybe I should rephrase that. It’s not that no one was talking about race. It’s that everyone was NOT talking about race, on purpose, in a way that left what we in the academic biz like to call a present absence. And when you reframe your reading of the articles under the assumption that race is actually a huge issue in this case and in the way it is being presented, all of a sudden you see that every news posting on the case wants us to understand that we aren’t talking about white folks here, without ever once coming out and saying so.
The attacks took place in an area of town called “The Quarters.” Local residents blamed the victim’s mother for not being more in control of her daughter. The New York Times infamously raised the issue of the victim dressing and acting like a “woman in her 20s.” After a brief survey of the news in circulation, I was convinced the victim was not a white girl. I couldn’t find a single article that told me whether I was right or not, but to be perfectly frank, news outlets don’t talk about white girls this way. Not on the first pass, anyhow. Old stereotypes–the Jezebel, the Welfare Queen–jumped off the pages of these articles, and the fact that the attack happened in a part of town named for the place enslaved black folks had to live on the plantation (in 20-fucking-11) all implied to me that racism and racist productions of “characters” in the story were already present in the news reporting on the rape case.
This morning both the Houston Chronicle and ABCNews posted articles that identified the victim as “Hispanic.” While that only complicates the racial dynamic of this story (this could be read now as two different groups of color being pitted against one another by systems of white power like the police force, for example), it reaffirmed to me that news reporting on the rape had been using a racist logic to produce an image of the victim. This instance of victim-blaming happened, at least in part, because the girl who was attacked was not white.
Why should it matter that the victim was nonwhite, you might be asking? Aren’t we, as feminists, meant to be a united front? A woman is a woman! I mean, right?
The problem with colorblind rhetoric in discussions of rape–and particularly in the case of a rape this egregious in which the victim, despite her age, is still somehow being painted as a willing participant–is that it masks the fact that no matter how long your skirt or how sensible your shoes, you cannot cease to don your skin color, every morning, day in and day out. We talk about how it shouldn’t matter what a woman wears, but we should also be talking about how women (or in this case, little girls) of color should not be read or portrayed as inherently sexualized just because they are nonwhite. Out of curiosity this morning, I read the first article the New York Times published on the JonBenet Ramsey case. Despite the fact that this was a girl who was purposefully dressed like an adult and painted with makeup and paraded around, not once does the newspaper mention that her lascivious behavior could perhaps have led to her death. JonBenet was a white girl, and white girls have the privilege of being read as innocent. Women and girls of color more often than not start out as temptresses in the popular imagination, even as children, before conduct and appearance even begin to enter into the equation.
The feminist blogging community yesterday cried out, “How dare you mention that she dressed older than she was! What does it matter that she wore makeup?” All of this is absolutely true. And yet no one said, “She is being blamed here because she isn’t a white girl. She is being blamed here because her skin is brown.” It is important for white feminists (like myself) to remember that our skin color still provides and marks a high level of privilege, and that if I, as a white woman of a certain socioeconomic class, get raped, that I will be read as a victim in a certain way. No group is exempt from victim-blaming (see the case of the reporter raped in Egypt for example), but if we continue to pretend that race doesn’t make a difference or if we refuse to talk about how race informs the way victims get read and judged, we risk perpetuating a system in which women of color remain more vulnerable to sexual assault and remain less likely to be protected by the legal system that should punish their attackers.
White feminists have to talk about race. Yes, rape is rape, and yes, victim-blaming is victim-blaming. But if we as white feminists pretend like violence against women isn’t colored, if we condemn this group of black male attackers without interrogating the social and systemic structures that produced this violent incident and will inform the attacker’s prosecution, we will fail to form and sustain alliances with people of color and groups that work for racial equality. As Quanell X, a member of Houston’s New Black Panther Party and local activist pointed out, “Every adult male that had sex with this child should go to prison, I don’t care what the color is. But I do not believe black males are the only ones that had contact with this young child.” I would agree. If we only condemn black male attackers, we allow violence against women to persist and we also fail to address the actual root cause of violence against women: a system of power that is both patriarchal AND white supremacist. Dismantling power structures is complicated and difficult, and we need to start (and keep) having hard and uncomfortable conversations about the interaction between race violence and gender violence if anything is ever going to actually change.