Unconditional lovers of this column (hey, mom and Asali!) may have noticed that I've been on a bit of a hiatus. That I haven't offered an intersectional analysis of, say, Black History Month 2013, International Women's Day 2013, or even Black Twitter "Scandal" Appreciation Week. I do have an excuse, though. I got a jobby job.
During my time "off," I have been obsessing over reflecting on the potential danger of dwelling in an echo chamber. I've been spending energy worrying about the efficacy and ethics of producing news, social media and other messages that only seem to immediately resonate with truly dedicated consumers (mom!) and bricks-and-mortar homies.
Two recent events interrupted this self-indulgent audit:
First, writer, activist and political strategist Zerlina Maxwell appeared on Sean Hannity's very fine, extremely objective FOX News program to debate the idea that ladies can protect themselves from sexual assault simply by packing heat. Maxwell--a survivor of an acquaintance rape in her own home--shut down the opposition's NRA-flavored talking points by suggesting that any conversation about prevention should center on what men can do.
Some Colorlines.com readers were highly critical of Maxwell's approach, but I think they missed the point. Maxwell risked her body and self to push a nuanced conversation into a hostile, reductive space. She even followed up in writing. Now it's our job to play echo chambermaids and chambermen (is that a thing?).
My contribution: It's a class, white and hetero-normative privilege to imply that all women survivors of rape and, by extension, intimate partner violence will be supported after they stop said terror by shooting a gun. Just ask Marissa Alexander. When you and yours are automatically criminalized; when police are doing arbitrary stop-and-frisks in your neighborhood to pad their numbers; when you've been routinely stereotyped as, say, a Jezebel, or a welfare queen, or a ratchet princess, or a hoodrat, or an overheated Latina, or a "mannish" aggressive, chances are your gunfire won't be perceived as defensive. The same goes for girls and women who are assaulted when drunk or high. And, as Maxwell pointed out, most women are raped by people they know. They could have a gun but hesitate to shoot their roommate's friend, or their ex-coworker after his going away party, or their second cousin, or the person they've been dating for four months.
Sunday's verdict in the horrific Steubenville, OH, rape case drove home this kind of complexity. As I'm sure you've heard, two high school football players from the small town (one white, one black) were found guilty of sexually assaulting an intoxicated 16-year-old at several parties. The conviction was based in large part on the testimony of bystanders who received immunity. The two football players, Trent Mays, 17, and Ma'lik Richmond,16, were tried as minors. Mays will serve at least two years in a juvenile facility; Richmond will serve at least a year.
I got the Steubenville news through Twitter. And since I don't follow that many folks, I saw a bunch of smart and sensitive reactions that didn't blame the victim in this horrible case. They also didn't call for the execution or castration of the two boys who committed this violence within a community that tacitly condoned it via social media and adult protection.
On a purely selfish yet mentally healthy level, living in that echo chamber allowed me to travel through the mercies of thinkers like Dave Zirin, who really broke down the connection between rape and jock culture; Mychal Denzel Smith, who has called Steubenville a dangerously ordinary consequence of toxic masculinity; and Mia McKenzie who wrote on her Black Girl Dangerous blog that "elevating the experience of these boys above the experience of their victim is not okay," but that it is "also OK" to include these boys in our feelings of sadness.
Armed with this kind of subtly, I was able to filter out the male-centered assholery of CNN and victim-blaming randoms on Twitter. Since Sunday, I've even had a couple of honest (and yes, compassionate) conversations with a few men I know who, as adolescents participated in or witnessed assaults similar to those that occurred in Steubenville. They brought it up because they wanted to talk to someone about it and figure out what they can do to teach young men and boys to identify and resist rape culture. I believe that they will follow through.
And ultimately, that's the point--or my point--in writing and talking about these issues. Men and boys have got to learn and believe that sexual assault takes on many forms from a criminal justice, moral and mental health perspective. Then they need to teach one another that rapists aren't just psychos jumping out of the bushes or trolling Craigslist for potential victims. They need to know, believe, then teach one another that nice guys and silly boys can and do commit rape, videotape it, gossip about it via Twitter and Instagram and still cry if they get caught. They need to know that "running a train" is gang rape and should therefore be off the table as a bonding ritual despite what their friends, frenemies, teammates, media or male relatives tell them. And they need to understand--as do young women and girls--that rape is not an automatic or genetic consequence of masculinity.
For those of us who already know this stuff: It's our job to say it and keep saying it--and, if needed, to shield ourselves from people who disagree. In a case like this one, I'm using my echo chamber as a sanctuary.
And that's OK.