men, masculinities and gender politics

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What the heck is wrong with “those people”? (How society tends to talk about violence against women of color.)

Every now and then the North American media makes a startling (re)discovery: that the rate at which women of color are mistreated by men is a good deal higher than the rate at which white women are harmed by men. Just recently a national television news program in Canada led with a powerful story of the high rate of sexual abuse in one northern First Nations community. The reporter interviewed several courageous survivors on camera. These women gave poignant accounts of horrors they have experienced during their lives.

Finally! An issue that has long been deeply buried by society was being unearthed, and it was the focus of a significant chunk of the newscast that night! That is not something one often sees!

And as someone who cares deeply about the lives of women and children and who works to end the abuse that is perpetrated against them, and as someone who cares deeply about social inequalities and is increasing my antiracist efforts as well, I should have been thrilled with this new media attention to an issue in which both sexism and racism are so deeply implicated.

But I wasn’t. And here’s why:

A distraction from the issue of the day. The community that was being featured in the newscast is called Attawapiskat – and it is the exact same community that has received a huge amount of media attention in Canada lately for the horrific living conditions that exist there. The community’s elected leadership recently deeply embarrassed the Government of Canada by declaring a “state of emergency” in regards to housing in the town, and pointed out that many people in the community are living in tents and in wooden sheds (without running water) in a place where winter temperatures are often below minus 40 degrees! (For my international readers, that’s both minus 40 degrees Celsius and minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit – the brutally frigid temperature where those scales actually meet.) A second event that greatly embarrassed the federal government was when the Red Cross, seeing a disaster that needed an immediate response, flew into the community with emergency relief supplies in order to help ensure that the people there would in fact survive the winter.

You just know that you have a real problem in your country when the Red Cross comes in to save the day when there has been no sudden calamity! No, the disaster in Canada’s First Nation communities is a slow-motion one, the result of three centuries of brutal colonization and malignant neglect.

For weeks the horrific living conditions in Attawapiskat – and the response of the Red Cross – had been filling the airwaves and covering the front pages of newspapers throughout the country. This was deeply embarrassing not only to the government, but also to much of the Canadian public, who tend to regard themselves (with some justification) as very compassionate people who care about (and for) their neighbours. Unfortunately, when it comes to Canada’s First Nations communities, the situation can generally be best described as “out of sight, out of mind.” And that was why it was so startling for so many people to hear about the abysmal living conditions in Attawapiskat. Who knew that fellow Canadians were living in like this? That it was so bad that the Red Cross would need to go rushing in?

It was a very, very uncomfortable feeling. Something needed to be done!

And just what was the thing that the media did? They inexplicably shifted the focus from the immediate crisis of people possibly not surviving the winter to the more enduring issue of a history of endemic sexual abuse in the community. They shifted the narrative from “White Canadians have thoroughly exploited – and then utterly ignored – the First Nations people of this land!” to “Those people rape their children!” Just like that, the site of dysfunction was moved from racist policies and governmental incompetence to a seemingly deep pathology within the Native community itself. And the stories of terrible abuse were presented utterly without context and without any attempt whatsoever to make any kind of causal explanation. To me, this sudden media shift communicated a message of “Sure they might have it rough, but look at what they do to their own kids!”

And it sure felt like a smokescreen to me.

Discussing violence against women of color: Three familiar patterns.

Pattern one: Bring up violence in communities of color in order to shift the focus away from “us”! I have seen this same pattern occur at conferences and in classes where men’s violence against women is discussed. And it plays out something like this: for a while we people of mostly European descent will talk about the painful realities and difficult challenges facing us in society. But then someone brings up the higher rates of sexual violence in First Nations communities. And suddenly the energy in the room shifts. The tension eases and the finger-pointing begins.

I think this occurs because it is so much easier to talk about the bad things that “those people” do rather than the bad things that “we” do.

Pattern two: Ignore contextual realities! The second pattern I see is that – just like in the news report the other night – the discussion of the higher rates of sexual violence against First Nations women almost never incorporates an understanding of how the legacies of European racism, colonization, and attempted cultural genocide have been – and continue to be – implicated in this issue. (For a powerful recounting of the historical roots of the abuse of First Nations women in North America, see Jackie Lynne’s article Colonialism and the Sexual Exploitation of Canada's First Nations Women http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/colonialism.html.)

Pattern three: Blame the culture itself! Bringing attention to a higher reported rate of abuse within a certain ethnic group without paying due attention to current contextual realities and to inter-group relations necessarily leads to the blaming of the culture itself. Because without any additional information, what other explanation could there possibly be? The inevitable outcome here is that outsiders begin to closely analyze the oppressed community itself in an attempt to discern the deep pathologies within that culture that must certainly be leading to these high rates of abuse. Isn’t all of this abuse the result of the past trauma inflicted at residential schools that generations of First Nations people were forced to attend? Or, in the case of North Americans of African descent, isn’t it all just a repeat of the hundreds of years of physical and sexual brutality experienced at the hands of white slave owners? Are not these people just so wounded by the traumatic events they have experienced that such abuse is just to be expected? And, in addition, isn’t there just something deeply pathological about the cultures themselves?

No. No. No. And no. While the past certainly impacts the present, I also think there are other issues at play... issues that suggest that in areas where sexual abuse is (reportedly) higher than in mainstream society, these little vortices of horror are not so much the result of brutal historical legacies as they are the inevitable outcome of our current and ongoing failure to protect the women and children in those communities. History may play a role. But in my opinion it is our continuing inaction that facilitates and perpetuates the abuse.

An illustration: Tales from the Island. There is an island in the South Pacific where, it came to light only as recently as 2004, there was a culture of sexually abusing girls. Most girls, it turned out, were involuntarily “broken in” by the men of the island at about the age of 12. And most girls on the island were in fact bearing their first children between the ages of 12 and 15. This epidemic of sexually-aggressive behaviour by men towards girls was well-known, and largely tolerated by the powers-that-be. In fact, it was often the powers themselves who were doing the raping of these young women! Seven men on the small island were tried for crimes of sexual abuse – as were another six men who had emigrated to other parts of the world. Among those charged were the island’s Mayor, the island’s former Magistrate, the island’s Chairman of the government’s “Internal Committee,” and the island’s Postmaster.

Six of these seven men were found guilty. The Mayor was convicted of five rapes. The Chairman of the Internal Committee was convicted of four rapes and five indecent assaults. The Postmaster pleaded guilty to two charges of sexual assault and to one charge of indecent assault against young girls. Another man was convicted of two rapes. Yet another man pleaded guilty to two charges of assault against a 14 year old girl and to molesting a 15 year-old girl. He was then found guilty of another nine indecent assaults against three different girls. A final man was convicted of one rape and six indecent assaults. (The former Magistrate was the only man acquitted of all charges.)

So, what were the roots of this South Pacific island’s horrific treatment of its young women? What backward ancient traditions was this culture following? What historical victimization had this culture endured that might explain this horrific behaviour?

Well, none, really.

The island in question is Pitcairn Island, and the people involved were all descendants of the British mutineers who famously rebelled and took over the ship HMS Bounty. After setting Captain Bligh adrift, the sailor Fletcher Christian, along with eight other British crewmen, and six Tahitian men and 11 Tahitian women – who by some accounts were unwilling captives – set sail for Pitcairn. (Conflicts over white men stealing the Polynesian women from their Polynesian husbands ultimately led to the murder of all of the Polynesian men.)

So just what was it in 2004 about “those people” on that one island that led them to rape nearly all of their young women? We don’t really know. Because it never really even occurred to us to ask. After all:

* The island became a British colony in 1838.

* The flag boldly features the Union Jack.

* The people are largely of British Descent.

* The culture is mainly European-based.

Given these facts, how was the horrific rate of sexual abuse of young women to be explained? Simply that the accused were just bad men who did very bad things. Their actions were not seen as somehow being representative of an entire people or of an entire culture. Because when the perpetrators of a crime are of European descent, society does not see their bad acts as evidence of cultural pathology. On the other hand, when we discover pockets of abuse within communities of color, we are all too eager to see it as evidence of deep, enduring, and entrenched dysfunction of an entire people. It’s a pretty stark difference.

Some commonalities. A brutal society that has its roots in Europe is not seen as sick, but communities of color that experience high rates of violence are seen as sick – perhaps hopelessly so. But the fact that such abuse can – and does – occur in many different communities – of any ethnicity – suggests that perhaps we should not be focusing so much on issues of historical trauma or “cultural pathology” but rather on the current situation of malignant neglect. Feminist anti-violence activists have long asserted that “violence and abuse thrive on silence.” If there is no easy and comfortable access to supportive services, to helpful law enforcement, and to a responsive court system, then violent crimes simply go unreported and unpunished.

And to me, what Attawapiskat and Pitcairn Island have in common is just that: a lack of access to justice. They are isolated. They have almost no social services or concrete assistance for victims. And formal justice is a long, long way away.

Perpetrators of sexual abuse don’t need much in order to get away with their horrific behavior. All they really need are potential victims who lack resources. Who can’t cry out. Who can’t fight back. And that was exactly what they had… in Attawapiskat. On Pitcairn Island. And in countless other places around the world.

High rates of sexual violence toward women have a lot less to do with the past (or with a person’s culture) than they do with the fact that all too many young women remain terribly disempowered and lack access to help. Even to this very day.