#StayWokeAdvent: On How We Dismiss Gender and Racial Violence as Other People’s Problems

Last week I wrote my debut blog post about differing racial realities, and I am glad that it has resonated well with some people. My only expertise in this area, however, is my own experience: growing up in the South, going to a high school where racial tensions were sometimes in evidence, and being awake for a while now, paying attention and listening to the stories of others. My academic expertise is on a different topic: gender ideology and violence against women. I have read thousands and written hundreds of pages on those topics, and as I was chatting with someone about last week’s post, I realized that there is a troubling parallel between reactions to racial violence and reactions to gender violence.

Before I jump into the comparison, though, I want to clarify my terms: racial violence and gender violence. Although the term is not perfect, I am using “racial violence” instead of “police brutality” or “police violence” because while the police have been a focus of this problem recently, I want to cast a broader net that includes individuals like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn.

On the other side of the comparison, “gender violence” is a another term for “domestic violence”: physical, sexual, or psychological violence perpetrated on the victim (most often, but not always, a woman) by a current or former romantic partner or spouse.

Like racism, gender violence has always existed in our culture, but it has not always been a subject of critique and activism. It was (and to a lamentable extent, still is) a normal part of life in a society dominated by men where laws were written by men in favor of men.

Centuries ago, patriarchal ideology put men in charge and relegated women to a status similar to that of children. Men were the rule makers and the disciplinarians upon whom the stability of society rested, and a man who exercised physical discipline to keep his family in line was fulfilling his role in society. Even if some men were abusive, it was better for discipline to be kept, for women to be in their place and controlled, than to take power away from men. Obviously, parallels can be drawn between male dominance and white supremacy and the abuses that they foster.

We have gotten better at identifying and critiquing the ideologies behind racial and gender violence, and many people in privileged positions (white, male) genuinely reject those ideologies and seek to give respect and dignity to people of any color or gender. However, even people who would never intentionally be racist or misogynist often make a harmful mistake in the way that they react to gender or racial violence. That mistake is in attributing the blame for these violent acts solely to the individuals involved, rather than extending it to a broader system of ideology and power structures.

The aggressor becomes an aberration from the norm, a pathological case, a lone wolf. The abusive husband or boyfriend is simply a drunk or a jackass; he isn’t a representative of centuries of gender ideology that have told him that he has the right to be in charge; the right to enforce his power over a woman who is lower on the totem pole simply because she is female.

The flip-side of that coin is victim blaming. The crudest form of victim-blaming in gender violence scenarios is to assume that the victim deserves it, but equally damaging is the assumption that the victim could easily prevent or escape violence if only she took the initiative. People ask, “Why does she choose men who treat her that way?” or “Why doesn’t she just leave?” as if there are always easy answers to these questions.

Just as ingrained ideology still encourages male dominance, it still encourages female submission. Just as societal structures still favor men economically, they make it harder for women, especially women with children, to make a living independently. And even these reasons do not take into account the psychological effects of violence, which can leave victims without self-esteem, feeling that they can never act effectively to end their victimization. We do the victim an injustice when we assume that by herself she can make a simple decision and change the outcome.

In regard to racial violence, the same dynamics operate when well-meaning people ask “Why do we have to make everything about race? Why can’t we just be upset that one person shot another person?” and similar questions. It is true that individuals do commit these acts of violence, and those individuals should face the consequences of their actions. It is also true that victims sometimes make mistakes or act in a way that precipitates or exacerbates violence, but that does not mean that the violence is justified or that the victim is solely to blame for their victimization.

Maybe someone did make a bad decision out of fear, frustration, or desperation that caused them to become a victim (or an aggressor) more easily. However, we are complicit in the problem if we do not ask what helped make that person fearful or frustrated or desperate and how our society may have contributed to those conditions. Individual choices are certainly significant, but they are always contextual, always informed by ideology, history, and lived experience.

The problem with reducing racial violence to the decisions and actions of certain individuals (whether we vilify the aggressor, blame the victim, or some combination of the two) is that it puts all of the blame for the problem on someone else. Someone we can contrast ourselves with, someone we can blame, someone we can scapegoat. It relieves us, the “good” and “well-meaning” people of all responsibility.

It perpetuates the illusion that the system works, that equality has been achieved, but that there are outliers–racists, psychopaths, etc.–who will always commit these types of crimes no matter what we do as a society. In short, it excuses us–the good people–from having to act to create a society that is as egalitarian and as just as we want to imagine that it is already.

If we want to stop the victimization of disempowered people in our society–whether it is an abused wife or a murdered black youth–we have to go beyond the individual aggressors. We have to wake up, step up, and rewrite the ideology that empowers some and disempowers others.

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#StayWokeAdvent: Reflections on Waking Up to Another’s Reality

This morning as I scanned my social media feeds I felt overwhelmingly burdened by the tragic story of Eric Garner, as if the weight of all the other stories that have haunted us recently—Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice . . .—had come to rest together with his on my chest. #Icantbreathe became more than a hashtag; it became a physical reality. Part of the pressure forcing air out of my lungs was the weight of injustice and the sadness of such a senseless loss of life. The other part was the weight that kept me from adding my voice to the protest: there are police officers among my family and friends. Do I stay silent? Do I run the risk of offending people that I love? In the end I decided to write this piece in observation of #StayWokeAdvent because silence is complicity. It’s high time to wake up and speak out. I am writing as a white American, and when I say “us” I am talking first to myself and second to people like me.

I have seen a meme circulating on Facebook that says “Not all cops are bad. Not all black people are criminals. Not all white people are racist. #StopLabeling.” All of those statements are true, and “Stop Labeling” is an admirable sentiment, but there are two problems: 1) When there is injustice, we need to label it for exactly what it is, vocally and incessantly, and 2) We need to realize that even those of us who reject those labels are complicit in the system that perpetuates injustice. This is especially true when we remain silent, when we take refuge in the dream that we can simply reject labels and everything will be okay. We need to be awakened. Even more, we need to #StayWoke.

It is easy to reject a label. We see people do it all the time when they say “I’m not racist, but . . .” followed by something that is invariably racist to some extent. We can tell ourselves that we are not racist, and even comfort and justify ourselves with that thought in the face of the systemic injustices that often play out on television or via social media without affecting us directly. We can easily excuse ourselves and think that this is not our problem. We may be momentarily jolted awake by a tragedy, but then we shrug it off—after all, it isn’t our fault—and we sink back into our dream.

Like many white kids in the south, I grew up exposed to racist language and ideology. Most of it came from people who would reject the label “racist,” and most of them were good people. But they were, and probably still are, asleep, unaware of the divide between their ideology and reality. All of those words and ideas that I heard in my youth have not gone away; they still rattle around in my brain and sometimes surface. Although I hate to admit it, sometimes they probably do affect my actions even though I make a conscious effort to avoid them. As the Avenue Q cast sings with truthful humor, “Everyone’s a little bit racist,” and though sometimes the effects are inconsequential, other times they are deadly. That’s why it’s so important to #StayWoke. To pay attention. To actively work against the stereotypes and assumptions that have been subtly or not-so-subtly ingrained into us since childhood. To listen to one another’s stories and see the truth of how people of color experience the world and of how we are complicit in that experience, whether by commission or omission.

At various moments in my life, events have broken through to wake me from my complacent “I’m not a racist, it’s not my problem” slumber. I may share more of them before #StayWokeAdvent is over, but for now I will only share one. It isn’t an event that I can pinpoint precisely, but rather a gradual realization that solidified and hit me one day with a jolt hard enough to startle me awake.

I have several black female friends and acquaintances who, like me, have sons. I identify with them when I see pictures of their kids on Facebook or on a desk at work. We are moms of boys. We are alike.

But when a black man—especially a young black man—dies unjustly, we are not alike. I am sad. I am perhaps indignant. I think something needs to be done to keep this from happening to someone else’s child. But they . . . they are afraid. They are angry, I’m sure, but from what I see (and I see only a tiny glimpse), mostly they are frightened and worried about how to raise and protect their little boys. About how to ensure that this does not happen to their child.

I cannot imagine that anguish. I worry about my boys, but not in that way. I lie in bed at night with my boys and read books filled with police cars and police motorcycles. The boys point to them excitedly and we talk about sirens and lights and policemen who are there to help when someone is in trouble. That is our reality, but assuming that everyone else participates in that reality is only a dream. At some point I woke up. Now I lie there and I wonder if the black moms that I know read those same books to their little boys. If they do, what do they say? I suspect that it isn’t the same thing that I say. Their reality is not my reality.

To assume that our version of reality is the truth is to be asleep. In the light of recent events, however, it is even more pernicious than that. It is to intentionally ignore the stories that have startled us out of our slumber. It is to turn down the volume, roll over, snuggle into our blanket of privilege, and drift back into an American dream that exists only for some of us.

I don’t want to be caught sleeping through the pain of others like the disciples in the garden.

I want to #StayWoke.

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For more information about #StayWokeAdvent, search the hashtag or visit Theology of Ferguson on Twitter. 

Feel free to join the conversation! For verification purposes, commenters will be asked to provide a name and email address. Your email will not be displayed, shared, or used in any way. If you would like to follow the blog via email, use the button in the righthand column of the blog.