[Warning: ugly language below, though not from me.]
Everyone, it seems, has seen this video that’s been going around showing a white Missouri woman blocking a black man from going into the apartment building where he lives. I find the issue interesting. It throws up some issues which, well, despite likely being ill-versed, I’d like to think out loud about for a while. (As often, I’m waffling into terrain wherein I’m not an expert. I invite criticism.)
So. I see two broad ways of looking at the video. I don’t know which, if either, of these ways of looking is ‘correct’. I’m just interested in unpacking them, and seeing if they relate in any way that’s illuminating.
One. A white person appears to wish to exclude a black person from a space they identify as their own. ‘Before I let you come into my building…’ There are clear overlaps with the rhetoric of anti-immigration; the white person appears to be defining a space as ‘white’ and questioning the presence of anyone who doesn’t fit that description. As such, the clear inference is that they hold racist views, and that their challenge to the black person is a simple, un-nuanced and direct expression of this. This is by far the most popular way of looking at the video, from what I’ve seen.
Two. A woman sees a man seeking to enter building where she lives. Apartment buildings tend to operate a policy of encouraging residents to be aware of who enters, and trying to confirm the right to enter of those who they don’t recognise. Not recognising the man, the woman asks for evidence he lives there. When he refuses, she maintains her position. I haven’t seen many people arguing for the video to be seen in this light.
So. It need hardly be noted, but still – women are, by far and away, more frequent victims of physical and sexual assault than are men. As importantly, men are by far and away the more frequent perpetrators of these assaults. (This doesn’t need to be rehearsed; it’s an established fact. At this point we shouldn’t be arguing about whether, by analogy, things fall when we drop them.) What’s the upshot? That women in a public space must be more or less constantly alive to the possibility of assault, and that any potential assaulter, on the overwhelming balance of probabilities, will be a man.
Probably you may imagine where this is going. But I’m not aiming to counter the popular racism-based understanding of the incident and offering a feminist narrative to replace it. That would be crude. I want to imagine the possibility of both playing a role in the situation. Things are always more complicated.
It’s perfectly likely that the woman’s perception of a threat was racially inflected. It’d be naive to think otherwise. Media tend to show black men as violent, dangerous and aggressive. This isn’t to absolve anyone of responsibility, but to indicate that we are subject to persistent pressures which manifest themselves not in our judgements but in our perceptions, which makes them that much harder to counter.
So women are more (much more) concerned with and more alert to issues of personal security than men are. This hardly seems a point that can be objected to. But this concern with security is strange, in that one of its central tactics is to obscure itself; a woman’s need for security demands that her need for security is the first thing to be hidden. Propositioned in the street? Smile – laugh. Otherwise, who knows, the response may be violent. This seems a distressingly widespread response to a horrifically widespread intrusion. In such cases, out of its own requirements, security is accomplished by dint of making the need for security invisible, a monstrous form of ‘tact’, and indeed by sacrificing a certain proportion of that which is being defended – personhood.
This is important. Because of the way women’s need for security must in large part disguise itself and yet sacrifice a part of that which it protects for the sake of the whole, it channels into the broader cultural assumption that woman are passive, men active. Yet a result of its hiddenness – the obscurity of the part played by male super-ordination, dominance, invasiveness – is to parlay that apparent passivity into being seen as a natural trait of ‘femininity’.
Just for the hell of it, now seems like a good point to list some of the comments on the video that I’ve seen, on its original posting. Be warned. These are ugly. I’m not being selective here, these are pretty much the first ones I found, made by both men and women, and there were a lot more I could have selected (by the way, I didn’t deliberately exclude comments which were supportive of the woman – as far as I could see, they didn’t exist to be found):
What a cunt lol if u want some dick just say it
She wasn’t really tryna stop him she was drunk tryna GO w him
Her fat ass wanna sleep with him
Bitch you don’t even own the place, you’re not a manager, and if you were the manager to the apartments, you would already know where everyone lived in that complex. Fucking honkey white trash cunt, go fuck yourself
Slap that bitch and move her ass out the way? You ain’t have no sister no girlfriend you could’ve called? You talking to much.!
She wanted the d
Naaaaw, she wants the D
She wanted to sleep with him
They make me sick to my core…she was wrong for leaving it open..she just wants that dick in her mouth.
He should of shoved that bitch on the back of her head.
I would have pushed the fuck outta her fat Amy Schumer looking ass
Tbh i think she wanted the dick
The demands of an individual woman’s security first must obscure that demand itself. Maybe this is a factor as to why responses to the incident boil over so quickly from anti-racist sentiment into misogyny. It entails that events like this are perceived in a manner that prioritises male agency and considers first from a male position. I’m not just talking about the people involved in the incident (who hardly matter by this stage, except as chaff for the internet to chew up and spit out) but the people perceiving it, who matter a great deal more in the internet age. ‘She wanted the d’. Jesus. Even if she was exhibiting clear racist behaviour I’d consider that an appalling assessment.
The possibility seems as strong to me that this woman is being vilified so much because she exhibited ‘non-female’ agency and action, and hence the tendency to read the incident as racist is as much owing to an unacknowledged desire to correct this ‘breach’, and correct it through sexual violence, rather than out of a genuine concern for minority rights. ‘She wanted the d’, ‘He should of shoved that bitch on the back of her head,’ ‘I would have pushed the fuck outta her fat Amy Schumer looking ass’. Is this what outrage over minority oppression looks like? (Only one comment above is critical in any way of the man – for the fact that he talked too much, and should’ve ‘slapped that bitch’. What does this say about the perception of the correct way men should express themselves? Another breach in convention?)
So. Summary – it seems reasonable to assert that the woman in the video was at least partially concerned for her own safety, and maybe that of others in the building, but that, yes, this concern was inflected strongly by racist stereotyping. To be prejudiced is not to be racist; prejudice constitutes a part of the framework by which we perceive the world. To act unthinkingly on any and all of our prejudices puts us at risk of prejudicial action, including racism. Or accusations of racism.
It seems to me the woman is in an impossible position. She has the right – maybe even the responsibility – to question those entering the building she shares with others. The issue becomes more difficult if we wonder whether she would have perceived a threat to her safety if the man were white? But then we can ask – would she have worried at all if she were not required to live her life with her own safety in it a frequent, conscious concern? These are hypotheticals – they can’t be answered.
Recently I’ve been reading up on the term ‘kyriarchy‘. This was a term suggested by Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza to replace ‘patriarchy’. ‘Kyriarchy’ translates as ‘rulership of the lord, the master’, as opposed to ‘patriarchy’, ‘rulership of the father’; both terms also carry the general implication ‘man’, but ‘patriarchy’ does so with greater force and an emphasis too easily and too often viewed as exclusive. I gather that one of the central struggles of feminism, particularly intersectional feminism, is to de-toxify the term ‘patriarchy’ to suggest oppression across all gender (and non-) identities. Patriarchy, the argument goes, hurts men as well as women.
‘Kyriarchy’ is intended to take up this project by referring to a complex system of overlapping dominations and submissions – male/female, white/black, straight/queer, cisgender/non-cisgender – which reinforce one another in ways that multiply their effects. To be a white cisgender male is to be privileged, under the terms of kyriarchy, to an nth degree more than the terms of patriarchy, as typically understood. To be a black homosexual male is to be privileged in patriarchal terms, but oppressed in others, as is the case in being a white heterosexual female. Unpacking these overlaps and analysing their operations is part of the work of the word ‘kyriarchy’ – by which Schussler Fiorenza aimed to ‘destabilise the centre’ of the societal structure that supports them.
An issue with the language of rights is that it reduces freedom to the mere ability to access and enjoy certain institutions. Service, employment, marriage; social institutions, political institutions, legal institutions. To be free, in the language of rights, is to be able to ‘gain entry’ to these things. (It is not, by the way, to actually gain entry to them – a right is granted only in general. I have the right to own property, not to own any particular property, or even to own any property. A right does not constitute a guarantee. Thus is it possible to be homeless, property-less, in our society, and yet to still be considered ‘free’, because one still enjoys the right to own property. Our society accords both the rich and the poor alike the right to sleep under bridges. The uncomfortable implication – from the perspective of the rights-driven project – is that if Hannah Arendt is correct in her assertion that the ‘righted being’ is the one who has ‘the right to rights’, then the specific rights which are enjoyed are not relevant.) The problem is that such concern with rights – inevitably access-based – tends to isolate struggles into different and competing arenas. In this case, it seems to me, the struggles are against racism on one hand and misogyny on the other. Their interactions, their overlaps, are pushed into the distance, while the dissonances come to the fore – where they are interpreted according to the demands of only one of these competing systems. Given the requirement that women efface their efforts towards their own security, as part of that security, it seems reasonable that the male perspective – in the guise of a concern for minority rights – comes to the fore.
This is not to say that racism isn’t a problem, or that there isn’t a problem with racism. It’s to say that this isn’t the only problem.
Here, to my view, two systems of oppression have met and tended to reinforce one another negatively, particularly in the fallout. An opportunity to reveal their interactions, their mutual reinforcements, which a ‘kyriarchal’ reading might reveal, has been missed. This isn’t surprising. The system of rights, encountering conflict between them, seeks via legal dispute to establish an order of precedent in rights – whether the right to service, for example, is overborne by the right to freedom of expression. Hence, the language of rights has the dangerous tendency to simplify our readings to concerns – in this case, literally – with mere access, rather than the more difficult and grand struggle for justice.