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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