May 17, 2009

Guest Commentary: Tabatha on Rape, Racism, and Recent Protests

On May 15th, a racist, anti-immigrant group going under the name Oregonian's For Immigration Reform (OFIR) hosted a demonstration outside a Wendy's restaurant in Milwaukee, Oregon. In response to media reports of the rape of one worker at the hands of another at the restaurant, OFIR seized on the immigration status of the accused rapist as the defining factor, protesting the alleged failure of the restaurant to investigate the immigration status of their employees. Do OFIR's calls actually have anything to do with an interest in women's rights, worker safety, or justice?

The woman's mother reported that she was previously abused by her attacker, but didn't report it.

This brings the spotlight to an often ignored issue (violence against women), framing it in well within a long history veiling racist attacks in the guise of defending white women. This is bad for women and immigrants, pulling focus off the real issues at hand, and pitting oppressed people against each other.

Why would a woman feel that she couldn't report her previous sexual assault, even to her mother? Our society is harsh towards rape survivors. After experiencing these terrible crimes, a woman's life becomes scrutinized under a magnifying glass. The "justice system" is very unresponsive to most rape and sexual assault, often only prosecuting cases on behalf of women who meet very strict standards of what it means to be a "good" woman (white, thin, virginal or married--mother, modestly dressed, and straight, and assaulted by a stranger). Any deviation and a woman is perceived to hold some blame. Rape survivors are shamed, often in the media, as people from right-wing pundits to self-proclaimed feminists question their accountability if they have been drinking, flirting, wearing a short-skirt, or any other "dangerous" activity. If the rapist is an acquaintance, every interaction is questioned. Did she lead him on?

In fact, women are more likely to be assaulted by someone we know (coworker, partner, friend, family member). By portraying rapists as unknown and undocumented menaces, OFIR is "othering" rapists. This allows us to be free from questioning the culture that supports rape, and our role in perpetuating this. We don't have to question consent, patriarchy, misogyny or sexism. "Othering" rapists supports these systems. Women need to be protected from these "Illegal Aliens"; we need to be protected by the state and by men. Women are framed weaker, which falls right into the hand of the patriarchy. Protecting women's "virtue" from other men then becomes vital to our society. Whipping up a media-fueled panic encourages us to concede rights for protection. In doing so, we lose autonomy.

Historically, rape (and the casting of people of color as "primal", '"animalistic" or "hypersexual") has actually perpetuated the culture and systems of violence either through lynch mob "justice" in the South or, more recently, at the hands of the judicial system. The recent media, state, and even progressive demonization of Lovell Mixon in Oakland is a useful metric of this. Further, men of color are less likely to receive fair treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. They are jailed at higher rates and more likely to receive longer sentences than their white counterparts. Women of color sometimes find themselves unwilling to turn their abusers into a system that they know to be racist, as they don't want to cause more injustice from their experiences. Pitting men of color against white women in such a context invokes racist stereotypes from the early history of American racism, without acknowledging the realities of rape.

This obsession with rape and sexualized violence by white supremacists deserves investigation. Thomas Wenning, whose anti-immigrant protests at Portland's Day Labor Center, has been a speaker at OFIR meetings, and his protests have been supported and promoted via OFIR's mobilization infrastructure. By his own public admission, Wenning was convicted of rape in the early 70's. In December of 2007, another member of OFIR was arrested and charged on five counts of using a child in a display of sexually explicit conduct, two counts of sex abuse and two counts of hindering prosecution for acts alleged to have occurred in his small town barbershop. There is obviously no fair argument that OFIR members (or white men for that matter), are more inclined to rape than any other demographic. It does, however, point to the hypocrisy of OFIR's stance on the Wendy's assault by reflecting the realities of rape. Rape is prevalent, it is common, it is under reported, and it is typically perpetuated between people who know each other and in relationships of relative social power.

Rape is always egregious. Our culture supports rape no matter the social strata, but poor women are more at risk. At their workplaces, they have less power and are more unlikely to risk their jobs relying on a justice system that doesn't support them. The most vulnerable are undocumented women workers. These women have more sexual harassment, assault, and rape at the hands of their coworkers and bosses than their documented counterparts, and they face fear of reporting and deportation in reporting to hospitals, police, and other authorities. This is a common story that the news doesn't report. If they did in accordance with its frequency, you'd see on every channel every day. It would be on the morning news programs, breaking news at noon, at five, again at six, and before the late shows. But it doesn't support our power structures, so you won't see it, unless you look for it.

Our class system is reliant on sexism and racism to divide us. By offering racism to white women and sexism to men, capitalists exploit us all while we are busy caught up fighting each other. The "other" noted above are the enemy, and whatever structures need to be put into place to protect us from them we will welcome. At our own peril, we hand sole power to arbitrate violence within our communities in the form of increased policing and increased incarceration in institutional systems entirely rooted in often sexualized violence (note popular conceptions of prison rape).

Not only does our fear control us, but we've failed to posit solutions outside of handing power and hope for justice to the same state responsible for mass violence, terror, and the enforcement of color and class lines in our communities. For rape survivors, justice is often at the expense of dignity, when seldom won.

The question worth asking, then, is what is OFIR's real goal? And what CAN we do, short of appeals to a flawed, racist, and violent criminal "justice" system, to create safety, justice, and accountability for all victims of sexual violence in our society?


Anonymous said...

great article, sharp analysis! keep up the good work.

Barbara said...

Thanks for writing about the relationship between white supremacy and violence against women (or gender based violence -- because we know that people of color whose gender is non-conforming are also more susceptible / more targeted because of their identity).

As a white, middle class, educated female worker in the domestic and sexual violence non-profit industrial complex, my work is primarily that of educating new volunteers to complexities of domestic and sexual violence and the intersectionality of oppressions and the nuances of barriers people who've experienced interpersonal violence face in relation to seeking services in this capitalist system or just simply speaking out and telling their story. My hope is that folks who come into our programs as volunteers are understanding their role as the gatekeepers of access to resources and referrals for folks. Part of that work is teaching & discussing oppression theories and definitions and examining the built-in white supremacy of the institutions designed to support survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

It is so important to acknowledge that when women are already considered criminal -- by virtue of the immigration status, their race, or nationality, their economic class, or their addiction or mental health status -- they are incredibly limited in their options for "getting out" of an abusive situation because these so-called "criminal" pieces of their identity will be used against them to invalidate their actual lived experience of violence.

We also know that rape (which has an incredibly narrow definition) and sexual assault (a much broader definition) are usually acts metted out on the bodies of women who are in domestic violence situations. In other words, people who experience violence at the hands of their intimate partner -- pushing, shoving, verbal abuse, financial manipulation, isolation from friends and family -- also experience sexual assault as part of a continuum of increasing violence.

And in this woman-hating, victim-blaming culture, when a woman experiences violence at the hands of an intimate partner and she is poor, of color, or living with disabilities, she is often-times considered without credibility, so people and institutions dismiss her experience. The outcome is usually revictimization.

I'll be adding your blog as a resource for folks to check out for ongoing race analysis.

Check out PWCL (Portland Women's Crisis Line) for more info about our services, supporting survivors, and more on our websites:
we're also on facebook and twitter.

in solidarity!

Imagine 2050 said...

Great article! We cross posted on Imagine 2050.


Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Way to call OFIR out. I suspect the cowards over there won't be responding too soon.