[UPDATE, 12/6/14: I have added links with updates to the Marissa Alexander and Janay Rice stories at the end of the post.]
[TW for discussion and stock photos of domestic violence]
Lemme start with the obvious: one of the more persistent — and corrosive — tropes in the American imaginary positions white men as neutral Human, the default, the ideal from which the rest of us depart in our own varied, marked ways. The more one deviates from this Default Human — the more “deviant” one is — the less one gets recognized, or has their needs and issues attended to. Black feminist authors Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith pointed to this problem in the title of their 1982 book: All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men but Some of Us are Brave.
I work very hard to keep this awareness at the forefront of my thinking: that the sexism and misogyny that I experience — and thus rail about most loudly — function not simply as an attack upon my gender but upon my raced gender. As a white woman (who also generally passes as straight), I am keenly aware of being at the top of the heap, when it comes to most sexual and gender-based violence.
To be clear, I’m not claiming #SurvivorPrivilege as some great shakes, or saying “if I had to be abused by my husband, at least I got to be beaten-while-white!” More like:
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and for the last few weeks I’ve been posting occasional articles, hotline numbers, and DV infographics on my Facebook page. (Admittedly, Facebook posts are about the lowest-grade activism one can participate in. This public commitment has been as much — or more — about making my affiliations clear to myself, as to any old chums from childhood.) Disturbing as web-searching for this content has been, I find myself increasingly bothered by the accompanying visuals.
Let’s see if you spot why:
From Think Progress: South Carolina Prosecutors Say Stand Your Ground Doesn’t Apply To Victims Of Domestic Violence
From The Guardian: Scotland’s got it right on domestic abuse: it takes it seriously
From phillyinfocus.com: What You May Not Know About Domestic Violence and its Warning Signs
From ABC News: Live Blog: The Health Impact of Domestic Violence
From Slate: Why Give Violent Domestic Abusers a Gun?
Yup! I knew you’d see it, too.
According to the visuals: Domestic violence is primarily a problem of scared, sad white women. Domestic violence is perpetrated by (when it is perpetrated by anyone at all) the angry hands of headless, white, male bodies.
Some of this is absolutely a broader issue of stock photos and representation.*+ But let me be clear: the only stock images I have come across featuring people of color are attached to articles centering on the intersection of race and DV, usually with an “it happens here too!” kinda vibe.
As for non-stock photos? Plenty of articles about DV feature photographs of real people, either because the individual(s) in the pics are the subject of the story or because the real example is being used as an entry-point to a larger discussion. Mug shots, publicity photos, images from press conferences. Think: Rihanna and Chris Brown. Janay Palmer and Ray Rice. Recently, more NFL players than I can keep count.
Think: Black bodies. Think: Black women and men.
Is this, then, my #WhiteSurvivorPrivilege^? Public discourse centers my concerns and my safety, yet still preserves my anonymity. I get to be The Face of domestic violence…without having my actual face ever in jeopardy of being re-victimized through wide distribution of my image.
What relief! Especially to know that, even if I should I be abused by a person with some fame or celebrity, I am unlikely to be conscripted against my will into being a perennial poster child — and cautionary tale — for all “abuse victims.” As a white woman, I am far more likely to be granted a veil of public discretion behind which I can do my healing in private. (Such privacy can also end up equaling “secrecy” — which I’ll leave as another issue, for another day’s rant.)
Of course, qualifying for all the perks of white woman survivorhood requires that I embody the Perfect Victim™ in ways beyond just race and gender. Look at those pictures again. Even as the privileged victim, I can’t fight back. I can’t stand up for myself, or exhibit any other forms of agency. I can’t respond with my own anger — or even with the strategic violence of self-defense. I may at most throw up my hands in fear, or put down my head in sorrow.
I say: TO HELL WITH THAT.
As I write these words, Marissa Alexander still lives under the threat of 60 years incarceration for firing a single warning shot into a wall in order to defend herself from her abusive estranged husband. Her story reminds me of the urgency to speak up and speak out.
Not all of the victims are white women.
All who survive — however they do so — are brave.
Nikky Finney Reads “Flare” A Poem Dedicated to Marissa Alexander
(h/t Prison Culture)
*I’m not even touching here on the grotesquery of stock images centered around women’s injured faces and bodies, with tears falling from elegantly makeup’ed black eyes and dramatic blood smears echoing red font captions. But should you decide to brave The Google, you’ll find the vast majority of those bruises, too, get painted onto white-skinned female bodies.
+Oh, and that way-too-popular-in-DV-blogposts image of the scared white woman’s face, with the black man’s hands gripped around her throat? Yeah, I’m not gonna touch that one either. Not with the longest pole available in Christendom, Middle Earth, and Sunnydale, CA, put together.
^The hashtag #SurvivorPrivilege that I am borrowing from here was begun by Wagatwe Wanjuki as part of her activism on behalf of rape survivors, especially students assaulted on college campuses. Wanjuki, herself an African-American woman and rape survivor, has written about how debates over campus rape also erase the experiences of women of color and center on white women as victims (or “victims,” depending on how distorted one’s view is of the role drinking plays in sexual assault). See also: Jessica Valenti’s photo array depicting “Fun-Loving White Girls Just Asking To Be Raped.”
12/6/14: UPDATES TO DV STORIES CURRENTLY IN THE NEWS
In late November, Marissa Alexander accepted a plea deal that got her out from under the threat of 60 years incarceration — but that also put her back behind bars until late January, with another 2 years of house arrest to follow. Prison Culture details in a pained and poignant essay how the stories of Alexander and Michael Brown are “inextricably linked.”
Just this week, Janay Rice told her story of what occurred in Atlantic City to ESPN’s Jemele Hill. [NB: Video starts playing at the link. I am assuming — given the tenor of the article — that the ~6min clip does not include footage from the elevator tape, but I have not watched it, just on the chance that it might.]
I commend the respectful way Jemele Hill appears to have approached this whole article, such as conducting the interview at a time and place without Ray Rice present and giving Ms. Rice approval of both content and release date. I do not think the issues of intimate partner violence can — or should — be addressed without putting the voices and wishes of survivors first. That said, however, this interview is painful to read, and not for the reasons one might expect. Amanda Marcotte shares some critical perspectives on how this piece does and doesn’t come across the way Ms. Rice seems to intend.