Many feminist theorists of color and others with self-identified progressive politics have long emphasized the importance of coalition building as the foundation of any political project that combats institutionalized and informal subjugation.1 Rhetoric concerning intersectionality and coalition building between overlapping communities of feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and pro-GLBT activists is now clichéd, the obligatory opening of progressive academic and mainstream discourse. The “race, class, gender, and sexuality” mantra depends on an a priori belief that the maintenance of power depends on the simultaneous oppression of varied but overlapping groups which construct each other.2 The seamless utterance is buttressed by the fact that the disparate attacks on the bodies of women, people of color, the poor, and the queer serve to support the same ideological constructs supported by the state. An attack on welfare affects a disproportionate number of women and people of color. The heralding of family values is an attack on all groups which do not adhere to socially validated models of the family. Women of color so often fall into multiple categories that the integrity of their activism often depends on treating intersectionality as a given. “We’re all in this together” may be a cliché, but for many activists it is a statement which emphasizes that for their needs to be legible their concerns cannot be identified as singularly located.
The language characterizing relations between subjected groups may have become effortless, but the process of doing work based on intersectionality is and has always been troubled and laborious.3 Despite the fact that these subject positions overlap, political projects in the service of the subjected do sometimes conflict. The politics undergirding these conflicts can be specious or intellectually compelling. Some conflicts result from activists sacrificing solidarity with others in the service of gaining power or because they hold religious or cultural values which conflict with other aspects of their progressive politics. Examples of specious arguments include those committed by some first wave feminists who purposefully positioned themselves as superior to African Americans in order to make an argument for why they deserved suffrage, and many African American Christian ministers who support a Defense of Marriage act, thus rejecting the GLBT community as citizens who should be a protected as an equal class.4Those kinds of moves, while perhaps strategic, are ethically spurious and examples of problematic actions and arguments which harm political projects but do not currently provoke serious and earnest intellectual conflicts for most people committed to progressive politics. Arguments born out of substantive intellectual conflicts, however, are much more problematic for activists because they reveal conflicts of interest that are not about jockeying for acknowledgement by powerful elites—although that goes on— but instead reflect true divergences in the claims made by different political groups. In this essay, I will examine the conflict between claims made by anti-rape activists and those made by anti-racist activists. Specifically, I ask how the claims by anti-rape activists which focus on the rarity of false reports of sexual assault and the necessity of improving the legal system’s response to sexual assault survivors can work with the project of anti-racist activists who critique the high number of incarcerated African American men, the legal system’s treatment of people of color, and the history of false sexual misconduct and sexual assault accusations that have resulted in not only incarceration but lynching.
Both movements, of course, have occasionally been burdened by members who adhere to racist or sexist beliefs (men of color are more violent, women consistently lie about rape to be vindictive or get attention), but attacking these bad, easily assailable arguments is less difficult than contending with well-informed claims and strategies which are directly opposed to each other. The radical feminists of color organization INCITE! in connection with the Critical Resistance movement—which attacks the prison-industrial complex— have addressed these tensions. Their projects are rigorously attentive to both race and gender, but they recognize that the movements combating violence against women and the prison system cannot be reconciled on certain issues at this present political moment. This irreconcilability does not mean that there cannot be coalitions around a number of issues, but that activists may have to accept the incompatibility of certain central premises of the movements. This essay examines this issue by focusing on evidence of irreconcilability between people on the issue of sexual assault that is evidenced by the lay, activist, and legal discourse circulating around the arrest and failed prosecution of celebrity basketball star Kobe Bryant for felony sexual assault. Bryant’s celebrity status ostensibly marks this case as too atypical to stand as a representative narrative about race and sexual violence. Celebrity functions here, however, as an excessive marker that allows for the possibility of seeing what conversations about rape and sexual violence circulate in the United States. The public nature of the case produced widespread conversations that are common but rarely have the national platform that celebrity produces.
The deep divisions in rhetoric about this case demonstrate a need for public intervention in understanding what ethical role advocates and citizens should be encouraged to perform. Intellectually compelling and specious arguments often overlapped in this case, as complicated discussions about consent and histories of racial and gender discrimination became conflated with those sometimes derisively attentive to one side of the discriminatory histories but not the other. Support of an alleged victim—be it Bryant’s accuser or Bryant himself—requires that advocates privilege one discriminatory history but should also require that the other history cannot be denied. Explicitly framing our advocacy as productively and ethically biased should be an essential part of our political work. As anti-racist and anti-sexual and intimate violence activists, we will have to recognize that pragmatically we cannot always perform the same level of advocacy with each project—the needs of the supported will sometimes conflict. I argue in this paper for recognition of this fact, and for promoting advocacy as a productive ethic of care in dealing with sexual assault. While advocacy is an accepted part of the legal system, professional and political bias is routinely besieged. Through an examination of anti-rape and anti-racist rhetoric, I shall trace the histories that produce necessary biases in these cases and outline what advocacy should look like in response to accusations of sexual assault.