Say it Ain’t So, Ko!: Kobe Bryant and the Incommensurability of Anti-Racist and Anti-Rape Advocacy

INCITE!, Critical Resistance, and the Journey Towards Intersecting Rhetoric

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INCITE!, Critical Resistance, and the Journey Towards Intersecting Rhetoric

Catharine MacKinnon’s battle with the state calls for increased actions by the state in attacking sexual violence. MacKinnon was instrumental in the drafting of the Violence Against Women Act, which mandates harsher penalties for and surveillance of sex offenders. The distance between anti-rape rhetoric and anti-racist arguments lies in a tension between the salvation of violence victims and survivors and projects that critique criminalization and incarceration as the only models offered by the state to address violence. A discourse which is truly invested in both projects requires finding a space that is not in-between the rhetorics but instead constructs an alternative space. The alternative space that INCITE! and Critical Resistance offers is outside of the state. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence focuses on ending “violence against women of color and their communities.”37 With the emphasis on “their communities,” INCITE places emphasis on the ways in which violence against women affects all people of color. They focus on “the state as the central organizer of violence which oppress women of color and our communities,” and thus see violence against women as state produced and sanctioned.

This is in keeping with MacKinnon’s radical framework which sees the state as organized around violence against women. MacKinnon, however works within the law to change the ways in which the state responds to sexual violence. For Critical Resistance, mandates of the anti-rape movement which include heavier incarceration, and labeling and surveillance of prosecuted sex offenders has not prevented assault and penalizes people after they’ve served their time. CR advocates producing community structures which support citizens and keep them outside of regulation by the state. They support community based economic resources, education models, and forums for resolving differences. They are committed to serving individuals who are not able to sustain themselves economically, psychically, and physically.

In the INCITE and Critical Resistance Statement they address how the movements combating violence against women have increasingly focused on getting support from the state and law enforcement, transforming the movement into more of a state sponsored social service industry than a revolution of people critiquing ideological and material actions against women and communities. Narratives of the anti-rape movement argue against seeing violence against women as something that can be excused because of social or cultural stresses on people who commit acts of violence. These movements would agree that feeling pain is not an excuse for inflicting it, but also believe that it is reductive to say that such factors don’t shape violent acts and citizens. These movements recognize that building activist communities that are effective, outside of state control, and focus on all of these factors is a difficult project, but they recognize that conversations need to be had that link anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalism, and anti-state structures. These movements ask for activists who envision new structures, new ways of seeing these issues, and a new ethics for approaching the imperfect complexity of intersectionality.
Working at an Ethic of Care in Response to Sexual Violence:

One Black Feminist Gaze

The central claims of the anti-rape and anti-racist activists have been fully illustrated in the discourse produced around the Kobe Bryant case. My argument here does not depend upon a belief in or statement about Bryant’s guilt, in fact, it depends upon my lack of knowledge about what went on in that room. It depends on a willingness to believe that Bryant may be innocent of the charge while also acknowledging that he could be guilty.

As a black feminist who has worked with sexual assault and domestic violence issues, I must straddle the line between a complete embrace of all of the claims of the anti-rape movement and the most nuanced arguments about the treatment of black men in the criminal justice system. The problem with that straddling is that my indecision will read to some people—and somewhat to myself—like willful ignorance and betrayal of rape survivors. Anti-rape advocates often point to the rarity of sexual assault accusations. As a rape advocate, I was trained to believe that only two-percent of rape accusations are false and to recognize that the process of reporting and possibly going through the process of a trial is so traumatic that women would not lie about the event. Even the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), however, now references an article on their website that indicates that the false reporting statistics are based on some questionable research and that many studies vary widely in their numbers.38 That said, almost all research indicates that most rape accusations are true, even though that research can be as questionable as studies that declare accusations to be false. We need a serious study to understand what counts as “unfounded” and “founded.” Are these statistics based on prosecution, conviction, collaborating evidence, police opinion, or counselors’ opinions? What kinds of questions were asked? The absence of unassailable numbers—as if such a thing existed—does not change the massive amount of evidence that indicates that sexual violence is a problem affecting large numbers of people. Empirical evidence is useful but is not the answer to every attack on an argument. I have thus realized, as those at RAINN must have realized, that blanket statements such as, “we know that the woman is telling the truth about rape because women do not lie about rape,” can only damage the anti-rape movement by encouraging those hostile to our work to find exceptions to always disprove the rule. It is enough to say that false rape claims appear to a number of experts to be infrequent, but that it is not impossible that false rape accusations may be made.

My indecision feels less like a betrayal of an anti-racist project because no reasonable anti-racist worker would make a similar argument—that no African American man ever commits rape. Furthermore, to make that claim disavows the experiences of mostly African-American women, and as many feminists haven noted—both male and female—condemning violence against women must be an essential aspect of anti-racist work as well. Claims that link Bryant’s case to critiques of black men’s treatment in the criminal justice system are more complicated arguments and deserve more attention, but should only invite sincere interrogation of the charges, and not a blanket denial of the possibility that a sexual assault occurred. The most common refutation of the charge that functions in the same way that the “women never lie about rape” argument, is a claim that comes in the form of a question: “What did she expect?” Despite decades of rape education, anti-rape activists still need to answer this question with references to the ways in which theft, assault, and murders are still prosecuted when people are in places that they might have expected could be dangerous for them. One of the reasons these arguments still do not have mass appeal is because there are still incredibly varied narratives about what counts as consent and when consent can be withheld. The belief that someone can withhold consent after physical intimacy has begun or even after penetration has begun is still highly contested. While I’m willing to agree that consent may not always be as clear cut to both men and women as some anti-rape activists claim, I am old fashioned enough of an anti-racist thinker and pro-men enough to believe that men—no matter how annoyed they might be by the request or demand to stop sexual activity—have enough control over themselves and their bodies that they are capable of discontinuing physical intimacy if rejection is clear to them.

As a black feminist or womanist, I am, as Alice Walker articulates, “committed” to the “survival of entire people, male and female” (xi).39 When the news that Kobe Bryant had been charged with felony sexual assault reached me, I know that I was not alone in feeling pain that he was accused and hoping that it was not true. Because African Americans are so rarely represented positively in the media, many of us hold our breath when a particularly heinous crime is committed and hope that that the accused is not African American. When a respected African American is accused of wrong doing, it is a rare African American who would want the accusation to be true. The guilty African American—like the guilty Arab man—can serve to represent the entire race to a hostile dominant culture. The possible guilt of an affluent and successful African American like Kobe Bryant is also distressing because the power and respect he holds when so few African American men have such assets are in danger of being lost. Ironically, the false rape accusation can also be as detrimental to all women—a hostile culture will also use it to characterize all women who come forward with acquaintance rape accusations as liars.

Kobe Bryant and the woman who may have been his victim thus hold more meanings with their bodies and stories than individuals ever should. I thus understand myself as taking an ethical position by beginning my approach to this event by stating that I don’t know what happened in that room. A black feminist ethics is most often discussed in relationship to womanist theology, as womanist theologians have articulated a moral position based on the African American women’s history of oppression and cultural spiritual attachments.40 The ethics I’m articulating here is not at its foundation religious—but it does not exclude a theological approach. Utilizing C.G. Christians’ definition of the practice of theorizing ethics as “an effort to articulate moral obligation within the fallible and irresolute voices of everyday life,” I see the ethical position of the anti-racist and anti-rape activist as one which believes in the fallibility of both men and women and in acknowledging and responding to the needs of all subjected groups at varied times.41 The anti-racist and anti-rape activist may not always be able to serve groups simultaneously, and in fact, may be ethically obligated not to do so. As many workers who combat sexual assault know, an anti-rape advocate who is actively supporting rape survivors should not also treat sex offenders because it is incredibly difficult to respond to such varied needs without revealing conflicting sympathies. The ability and willingness to shift allegiance does not mean that the activist will fall prey to bad arguments which vilify the alleged victim or alleged rapist and disavow knowledge of the problems facing one group when with the other. It does mean, however, that the activist sees sexual violence as harming everyone and is committed to helping both men and women escape and prevent the cycle which perpetuates it.

I am articulating an ethic of care that, as Carol Gilligan states, is “an activity of a relationship, of seeing and responding to need, taking care of the world by sustaining a web of connection so that no one is left alone.”42 But unlike Gilligan, I do not see this as a natural or even socialized approach that black women are more likely to have in response to those affected by sexual violence. I see it as an approach that must be constructed by all who are invested in both these projects and laboriously maintained. This ethics of care in response to sexual violence must begin with acknowledgement of ignorance. Ignorance does not always mean that one does not know if an assault occurs. It simply (and complexly) means that no one can ever know exactly what the person who is assaulted is feeling or what causes an offender to attack another. In the rare cases where a false accusation might occur, no one can know all the events or private pains that might cause someone to begin a process that will result in their own extensive suffering.

Admitting to ignorance in this case is evidence of knowledge of and commitment to both movements and arguments. A willingness to state, “I don’t know” signifies a openness to withholding judgment prior to gaining more information and a willingness to accept the possibility that complete knowledge is impossible. Resisting a rush to lay judgment is central to a project seeking to combine anti-racist and anti-rape work because judgment is inextricably linked with personal responsibility narratives that ignore the ways in which experience, culture, and structures of power shape the behavior of everyone. Both anti-racist and anti-rape projects have attacked the ways in which the personal responsibility narrative –a discourse that views all actions as operating in a vacuum separate from social factors that shape action—has produced an inequitable judicial system which produces unfair sentencing, criminalizes lifestyle choices, and blames the victim. Personal responsibility narratives hold women responsible for being assaulted when they go places that may leave them vulnerable to sexual assault. Personal responsibility narratives result in an absence of prevention programs or radical changes in culture which could affect the creation of sex offenders. Personal responsibility narratives invite political support for the lengthy incarceration of adolescents without devoting energy to programs that would decrease the possibility of recidivism when they are released.

Embracing an ethic of care and resisting totalizing personal responsibility narratives do not mean that anti-racist and anti-rape activists should withhold judgment or argue that people are entirely victims of power. On the contrary, it is important for anti-rape and anti-racist activists to move from ignorance to knowledge gathering and on to judgment. In a case as high profile as Kobe Bryant’s, people will form opinions based on the reported evidence and the public platform does produce an opportunity to discuss issues of race and sexual assault. While it is true that complete knowledge of an event is impossible, and acquaintance rape cases are particularly vulnerable to reasonable doubt no matter what the outcome, the anti-rape and anti-racist activist should be prepared to make an argument for having arrived at an informed belief about guilt, innocence, or—occasionally—the impossibility of forming an opinion. Judgment in support of or condemnation of someone’s actions can demonstrate an ethics of care. An activist does not exhibit care for an offender by excusing an assault. The most care is exhibited by condemning actions which harm others and requiring that they stop being offenders.

Anti-rape activists must acknowledge that doubt of the rape testimony is an ethical imperative in some arenas just as belief is an ethical imperative in their own. Anti-racist workers must continue to purge the movement of supporters who rely on old rape narratives because they believe that history erases the possibility of any contemporary culpability. We must understand INCITE! and Critical Resistance as the activist organizations that need most of our attention and support because they focus on prevention and a truly radical transformation of the state—even if we continue to need state support in addressing violence towards women. My work lies at the intersection of these discourses and pushes against facile rhetoric which understands that the logic of intersectionality would necessarily lead to a seamless building of coalitions between right thinking people if groups could only enlighten the racist and sexist members in their ranks. My work lies outside of legal scholarship but also seeks to encourage citizens to informally occupy the legal role of a jury—to perform an absence of bias even as they know that bias exists—as an ethical imperative for a more just society. My work lies, ultimately, among scholarship and activist treatises that understand ethics not as a turn away from politics but as the backbone of progressive action.

The story I have told here is about imagining a utopian project which has implications in the structure of our activism and the ethical behavior of citizens who confront these issues. Kobe Bryant, a star, is only the most recent of the most visible signs marking the complex affective and intellectual paths we are obligated to take to ensure interpersonal justice.

1 See Lisa Albrecht and Rose M. Brewer,. eds. 1990. Bridges of power: Women’s Multicultural Alliances. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers; eds. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzadula This Bridge Called by Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color., Bernice Johnson Reagon. 1983. “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century.” Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, ed. Barbara Smith, pp. 356-8. New York:Kitchen Table—Women of Color Press; Forging Radical Alliances Across Differences: Coalition Politics for the New Millenium. Ed. Jill M. Bystydzienski and Steven P. Scacht. Lanahm, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield. 2001.

2 Patrica Hill Collins. “Toward a New Vision: Race Class and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection.” 1993. Race, Sex and Class, 1 (1): 25-45.

3 In her influential essay, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Kimberle Crenshaw says that she sees intersectionality as only a “provisional concept linking contemporary politics with postmodern theory. In mapping the intersections of race and gender, the conept does engage dominant assumptions that race and gender are essentially separate categories. By trading the categories to their intersections, I hope to suggest a methodology that will ultimately disrupt the tendencies to see race and gender and exclusive and separable.” Stanford Law Review. 43 Stan. L Rev. 1241: 1244.

4 See Paula Giddings. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Morrow, 1984; Jim Tharpe and Ernie Suggs. “Gay marriage ban vote urged.” The Atlanta Journal Constitution. March 23, 2004..

5 Crenshaw 1271-1272.

6 Patrick O’Driscoll and Tom Kenworthy. “Whites, blacks, see Bryant case differently.” USA Today. August 8, 2003. pg. 3A.

7 See Gerdes, E. P., Dammann, E. J., & Heilig, K. E. (1988). Perceptions of rape victims and

assailants: Effects of physical attractiveness, acquaintance, and subject gender. Sex

Roles, 19, 141- 153.

8 See Gerdes et al.

9 See Varelas, Nicole; Foley, Linda A. "Blacks' and whites' perceptions of interracial and intraracial date rape." Journal of Social Psychology. 138.3 (1998): 392-401; 399.

10 Take for example, the Moynihan Report, which argues that a black matriarchy exists which emasculates African American men.

11 CNN. Law: Bryant: “I want to apologize” to the young woman.

12 Recent high profile African American men who have critiqued violence against women in the black community include Kevin Powell, black women not with the anti-rape movement?

13 Angela Y. Davis. Women, Race, and Class. New York: Vintage, 1981: 189 (from the 1931 Southern Commision on the Study of Lynching).

14 For more on the Scottsboro case, see Gabriel J. Chin . “A white woman's word: the Scottsboro case.” Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2002. Ed. Annette Gordon Reed; Bat-Ami Bar On. “The "Scottsboro Case": On Responsibility, Rape, Race, Gender, and Class.” A Most Detestable Crime: New Philosophical Essays on Rape. Keith Burgess-Jackson. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

15 See Stephen J. Whitfield. A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till. New York, The Free Press, 1988.

16 Avery Gordon. Ghostly Matters:Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997: 8.

17 See Davis and Gunning.

18 Thomas Dixon, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Klu Klux Klan (New York: Doubleday, 1905), 304-305.

19 Dixon 306.

20 See David C. Anderson. Crime and the Politics of Hysteria: How Willie Horton Changed American Justice. New York: Times Books: 1995. In 1988, Bush campaigners rand an ad attacking a Prison Furlough program in Massachusetts. It featured an African American man named Willie Horton who escaped on the furlough and raped a woman in Maryland.

21 Angela Y. davis “Rape, Racism, and the Capitalist Stting.” Black Scholar 9(7): 24-30: 25. See also Davis’ discussion of Susan Browmiller’s seminal text, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape in Women, Race and Class, 178-199.

22 Phil McCombs. “T-Shirt With A One-Two Punch.” The Washington Post. August 6, 1993. D1

23 Kelefa Sanneh  Tarnished but Still Platinum.” The New York Times. November 6, 2003. E 1 Column 3.

24 Cynthia Burack. Healing Identities: Black Feminist Thought and the Politics of Groups. Cornell University Press, 2004: 164.

25 I use the pronoun “her” here, not to exclude male rape victims, but for simplicity. Most rape counselors have female clients, and in the Bryant case, the client would be female. But this pronoun choice does not erase the fact that sexual assault does affect boys and men, who are even more burdened by shame in reporting—so our numbers for them are woefully inadequate.

26 Neil Gotanda. “A Critique of Our Constitution is Color Blind” 44 Stanford Law Review 1. November 1991; Robin West, "Jurisprudence and Gender"55 U. CHI. L. REV. 1 (1988).

27 Jackson Katz. “When You’re Asked About the Kobe Bryant Case.”

28 Some feminists have also critiqued the anti-violence movement’s rhetoric as underestimating women’s power, the most important essay in this group is Sharon Marcus’s “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention” Feminists Theorize the Political (New York: Routledge, 1992).

29 See Robin Warshaw. I Never Called It Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape. Harper Collins: 1988.

30 U.S. Department of Justice. “Full report on the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women.” November 2000.

31 See Susan Brownmiller Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster) 1975, 6; Marilyn French The Women’s Room (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977); Catharine MacKinnon “A Rally Against Rape” Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989).

32 One of the most popular backlash texts is Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus (Boston: Little Brown, 1993), in which the author produces primarily anecdotal evidence to contest claims that rape is widespread. She joins Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990) in a discussion of the ways that women can defend themselves and that some feminists have produced a culture of rape hysteria.

33 See Judith Butler “The Force of Fantasy: Feminism, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Discursive Excess” Feminism and Pornography(Oxford Readings in Feminism) Ed. Drucilla Cornell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000: 487-508.

34 Catharine MacKinnon . Cambridge, Mass: Havard Univ. Press, 1991. Toward A Feminist Theory of the State. 170

35 See Christine Helliwell’s critique of homogenized, western readings of rape. Christine Helliwell, “It’s Only a Penis”: Rape, Feminism, and Difference.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 2000 25:3. Also look at Carine M. Mardorossian “Toward a New Feminist Theory of Rape.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 27:3, 2002 and Pamela Haag. Putting Your Body on the Line’: The Question of Violence, Victims and the Legacies of Second-Wave Feminism.” differences 8(2):23-68.

36 MacKinnon 249.


38 Dick Haws. “The Elusive Numbers on False Rape. Columbia Journalism Review. November/December 1997. Http:// available at This is the only article referring to statistics on false rape accusations. There are other articles discussing false police reporting of statistics.

39 Alice Walker. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Provse. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983: xi.

40 See Katie Canon. Black Womanist Ethics. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1988.

41 C.G. Christians. “The ethics of being in a communications context. C. Christians and M. Traber. Eds. Communication ethics and universal values (3-23). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage: 76.

42 Carol Gilligan. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1982: 62.

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