Blaming the victim

I am, in almost all respects, a picture of white privilege. I’m white; grew up in a financially secure, well educated household (the only member of my family for four generations without a graduate degree is my nephew. He’s 8) in the suburbs; went to high quality public schools;  etc etc. True I’m female, and I’m Jewish, but the only time I recall experiencing anti-Semitism was as a freshman in college when playing cards and my roommate’s friend from home complained that another friend had “jewed” him. I’d never heard the expression, and the friend-from-home didn’t realize it was offensive.

My privilege has allowed me, if not to ignore, but to think-about-and-move-on lots of problems. Even issues like sexual assault and this crazy crap going on state legislatures regarding birth control have made me mad but not really affected me personally. I’ve never been in the company of the wrong man (yes, I’ve been with men who were wrong for me, but none who were the Wrong Man), and I’ve never had a problem accessing birth control. I’ve never been pregnant (and therefore never pregnant unexpectedly), and therefore not faced with what must be a heart-breakingly difficult decision about what is best for me and best for a fetus.

This time, the shooting* of Trayvon Martin, it’s pushed me over the edge somehow. I fully confess that it probably won’t change my actions long-term. I have the privilege to be flaky in my convictions. (Plus I don’t like to remember unpleasant things. I’m working on that with my therapist.)

A lot has been said about Trayvon. (I’m going to use his first name because he was just a kid, and that’s what what pretty much everyone else is calling him.) I don’t really need to use this space to talk about the injustice of it, or my fear for my brown nephew (who I ordinarily wouldn’t call “brown,” and I wonder why that is…also why I don’t call him Latino as if there’s some difference–maybe there is?–between being speaking-Spanish-at-home Latino and adopted-from-Central-America Latino) who lives in Florida, or how Stand Your Ground self-defense laws are awful, and so on and so forth.

I called this post “blaming the victim.” I don’t think anyone is saying that Trayvon shouldn’t have been where he was, shouldn’t have been dressed the way he was, and such. Unless there is some major piece of information out there that we in the public don’t know, it’s pretty clear that this really was a flat out hate crime. But let me take what looks to be a detour for a moment.

When women are sexually assaulted (and here I’m using the more general “sexual assault” instead of “rape,” not to hide rape or minimize how terrible it is, but only because what I’m going to say applies to all sexual assaults, which includes rape…all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares), there is a tendency to say “she shouldn’t have [blank].” She shouldn’t have been wearing such a short skirt. She shouldn’t have worn so much makeup. She shouldn’t have been in the car with him. And then there is the appropriate backlash “why are we telling women not to get raped, when we should be telling men not to rape women.” Blame the victim, or blame the perpetrator? (Henceforth to be shortened to perp simply because my fingers can’t handle the whole word.)

We’ve had a spate of anti LGBT hate crimes in DC recently. (How much is a spate, anyway?) I admit that I haven’t paid enough attention to this issue (corruption scandals are much more fun, and are getting much more press) but one of my tweeps JT is an advocate in the community and I hear from him regularly that (especially with regard to anti-trans hate crimes) the police response has been “they shouldn’t [blank].” And it seems that JT is the only one saying “no, the perps shouldn’t be perping.”

It can be a tough balance. No, you shouldn’t go around doing deliberately risky things just because if something happens to you, it’s the perp’s fault, not yours. At the same time, once something happens to you, it’s the perp’s fault, not yours. I had a teenage foster daughter, and one weekend night she was delivered to my door by a police officer who had given her a ride home after she had been assaulted (from her story, as things go, it seems to have been a relatively minor sexual assault, not that these things can ever be minor) and bolted from the guy’s car when stopped at a red light and then ran to a fire station. I knew that I needed to reassure her that she had done everything right. She got herself out of the situation. She ran to get help. It was Not. Her. Fault. Yet part of me wanted to scream at her “this is why I worry about you when you’re out past curfew! Why were you with a total stranger in his car anyway???”

And now back to Trayvon. There have been blog posts by white mothers of black** boys (I’d link to them but that would require me to look for them and not just spout my mouth off; just trust me that I read one and the comments to it) who have spent a lot of time even before Trayvon thinking about how to raise a black boy in a society that views black boys and black men as threats. These moms are rightfully scared for their sons. So they dress them in polo shirts and khakis, keep their hair short and neat…do everything they can to make their kids look upper-middle-class white, short of changing their skin color. They impress on their boys that there are people in the world who are going to judge them just based on their skin color so they need to do everything they can to keep themselves safe.

But is this just another way of saying “he shouldn’t have [blank]”? He shouldn’t have worn a hoodie, because he should know that the world isn’t safe for young black men. He shouldn’t have looked around as he walked because he should know that the world isn’t safe for young black men. He shouldn’t, he shouldn’t, he shouldn’t.

Why do our black sons have to live in fear, live without having the same freedom to express their style as our white sons do (though really we need to stop with the visible underwear on both men and women of all races), just because there are violent racist people out there?

How can we keep our kids alive without making it their fault if they are victims?


*I’m using the word “shooting” instead of what I believe to be more descriptive, based on everything I’ve read, “murder,” because I’m a fan of precision and “murder” is a legal term. So even the cold-blooded-est of cold-blooded killings is still a cold-blooded killing until the judge or jury says yes, it was murder.

**I don’t know if I’m supposed to be capitalizing “black.” I don’t know if it’s disrespectful not to, or if capitalizing it is meant as a statement of pride by people who are black. I’m ignorant of these things, want to be sensitive, but talking about race is such a scary thing for people that admitting you don’t know something is difficult. So I’m admitting: I don’t know. My intent is to be respectful. I might not succeed. (I probably usually don’t succeed.)


2 Comments on “Blaming the victim”

  1. Krystal White says:

    This truth rings so true for me: “My privilege has allowed me, if not to ignore, but to think-about-and-move-on lots of problems.” I do a lot of thinking about and moving on, until I get hit in the face with a new crisis in which case I start thinking about it again. It’s so hard to grapple with privilege and injustice and kyriarchy …. and so much easier to deal with “what am I making for dinner tonight?” Manageable problems. Problems I can resolve. Of course, having the luxury to to switch gears reflects such immense privilege that it makes me want to cry. (As if this entire situation doesn’t make me cry enough already.)

    I too read a blog post or two from black mothers …. One mother talked about her personal proverbs for her son. Her message “Don’t run in a neighborhood!” shook me to my core.

    Thank you for processing out loud and in public. You are not the only person who struggles with the language, with the implications, with the horror of hate.

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