How many times have you heard the excuses? She shouldn’t have had so much to drink. Her skirt shouldn’t have been so short. She shouldn’t have been at that place, at that time, with those people.
The same urge to blame the victim is in full, outrage-inducing force with the recent high profile cases of police violence. Michael Brown was a thug. Eric Garner was obese. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was a threat.
We live in a country full of racism, but no racists; rape, but no rapists. And the common denominator is power. To believe a rape survivor’s word over that of her male classmate, colleague, teacher, or superior officer is to upset the natural order of things, privileging the voice with less cultural authority over the one we expect to have all the answers. Likewise, believing Dorian Johnson’s testimony over Darren Wilson’s means rejecting lessons we’ve been taught from childhood, both explicitly (the police are there to help you) and implicitly (White people are more trustworthy than Black people).
Women of all backgrounds and African-American men also learn other lessons about surviving in a culture dominated by a group or groups they can never belong to. Don’t wear your skirt too short or your pants too low, for instance. Don’t flirt and don’t talk back. Whatever you do, don’t let yourself end up alone with one of them. If you follow these rules and you’re lucky, you’ll avoid provoking a more powerful White man to violence—and if you can’t avoid that, at least you’ll stand a chance of not being blamed for it.
The abstract concept is much easier for us to grapple with than the idea of horrible people in our midst. People not so different from us. People we were told we could trust. It’s easy to abhor rape when it’s dramatized on Law & Order: SVU; more complicated when it’s perpetrated by America’s television dad. As Harding writes, we’d prefer to think of these crimes as a series of “unfortunate misunderstandings”:
As a society, we’re happy to offer our love and support to victims of power-based violence, but holding actual human perpetrators accountable is another story. We prefer our racists in white hoods and our rapists in ski masks, so we never have to confront the abusive, domineering, murderous upstanding citizens in our midst. The ones who attend our churches, teach in our schools, and ostensibly protect our communities. The ones who couldn’t possibly do something like that. The ones who do things like that, every single day.
How long can we ignore patterns of violence and injustice? As long as we’re unwilling to come to terms with the reality that these evils exist in our society, and that our culture perpetuates them. As long as claiming ignorance of those patterns absolves us from tackling the difficult work of shifting our culture and fighting those injustices. At least we can look at the outrage flooding the streets everywhere from Ferguson to the campus of Columbia University and take comfort that fewer and fewer people are content to let that blissful ignorance live on.