People Don’t Like It When Your Sexual Assault Doesn’t Fit a Certain Narrative
I learned today that my experiences with sexual harassment/street harassment are not as painful as those of women of color, because I am white. I read the story of a woman of color, and I related to what she wrote in every aspect. But she told me I couldn’t. I believe her. At the same time, I get frustrated at the total silence I always get from white and black alike when I tell my stories of sexual harassment and assault.
Charlene Haparimwi had a horrible experience with street harassment. Her story was disturbing, because it reveals the kind of gendered sexual dominance men assert in public places with little recourse for women. But, Charlene wrote, “ I know that when my white girl friends walk down the street they are harassed as well, but not in the same way or aggression as my fellow women of color. Because you see, if a man, especially a man of color harasses a white woman extensively, follows her, grabs at her, it’s game over. He is more likely to face consequences, to get reprimanded by fellow civilians, by the police, maybe even taken to jail [emphasis mine].”
This conclusion about the likelihood of consequences is no doubt true. The statistics bear out when there is a crime against a white person by a black person, there is a greater chance of consequences than if it is a black person harmed by a white person. Yesterday, I saw a headline that a Baltimore police officer had just been found guilty of the first on-duty shooting in years, and I read the headline out loud to my husband. Before I opened the article, we turned to each other said, “What do you want to bet the victim was a white person?” It was. Then, today the DOJ’s report came out today on the Baltimore police and their interactions with the black community. It couldn’t be more ugly.
White privilege is everywhere. It seeps into everything. I spend part of every day attending to it. Finding examples in the news. In my life. Writing articles about it. My special mission is to help white people who are low-income realize they have white privilege. Too often, they — formerly me — confuse economic privilege with race privilege.
With all of those things being true, I would ask one question with regard to sexual harassment and assault. If I can’t experience what a woman of color experiences, how can a woman of color know what I experience? My sense of fairness was triggered by my deeply embedded trauma. I spent my youth growing up in my hometown’s “black triangle.” It was a part of our city where black people had been segregated for decades after they came North for work. They didn’t realize they had been recruited as strikebreakers, so when they arrived on the train, they were greeted by pitchforks. The white people in the city kept black people tightly penned into this 20-block neighborhood until the 1970–80s.
My mother moved us into this neighborhood, because the rent was cheap, and she wanted to move out of government housing where they had surprise inspections on a regular basis. She was paranoid we would lose the government housing after being written up for storing pots and pans in the oven. So she preemptively found a cheap house.
I made friends quickly. Black people are just more accepting than white people. It isn’t a stereotype. It’s a reality. Had the people in my new neighborhood tried to move into the white areas of town, they would have faced racism and hostility. Our family found kindness and tolerance.
However, as we settled in for a few years and became part of the community, I had negative experiences. There was street harassment where men or boys aggressively put their hands on me or me and my friends, dependent on the day. No one intervened.
Then, there was the first rape in eighth grade. I went over to my best friend’s house. Her brother told me she was out with her mother, but would be home any time. He asked me if I wanted to see the new mural his brother had painted on the wall of their bedroom. DeAngelo was an outstanding artist. He had been commissioned to do work for the city. When we got to the bedroom though, Archie pushed me on the bed, pulled my pants down, and raped me. He also gave me crabs. When I told Sharra, she didn’t believe her beloved brother would do that. I still couldn’t believe he would either. At any rate, I lost my best friend, because she thought I was lying.
A few years later, one of the football players on our high school team, vice president of the Student Senate, handsome and popular, James asked me out. He wanted to go to the movies. He then drove me to Riverside Park and forced me to have sex with him before he would take me home. I never told anyone what happened.
Sexual assault is definitely an equal opportunity crime. I was also attacked by my boyfriend, Tony, while babysitting. He was white. I know better than to think the two black teens are any different than innumerable white teens. Here’s the problem. I don’t know if it is because white men raped black women for hundreds of years. I don’t know if it is because everyone is scared to talk about race, white and black alike. But I feel so invalidated about the trauma I experienced. It’s the deafening silence.
When I went to write about it in my memoir, I processed the experiences some more with my former therapist. She actually suggested I leave out the race of the perpetrators in the book, because it would be “too inflammatory.” If you’ve ever experienced a trauma, when someone tells you to lie, even by omission, about anything related to it, it just feels ugly as hell.
The race of who attacks you is really irrelevant in the end. I think so, anyway. I do think the truth matters, though. It makes white and black alike too uncomfortable to comment. Ultimately, white people as a collective are to blame for the circumstances that make race conversations so hard to have. I just wish I didn’t have to pay the price.