Friday, January 31, 2014


It's a straightforward picture. An elderly, bespectacled, white woman, in a blue sweater and black slacks, seated at an angle on a chair; one arm resting across her knees, the other propped lightly against her chin. She looks directly into the camera.

"Irma Katz suggested," reads the caption, "in an interview this week that women should not get drunk around men because it put them at risk of being raped."

Cue the outrage. The same outrage that sought out Emily Yoffe when she said much the same thing on Slate. I think that it should be remarkable how polarizing this is, but I'm unsurprised, I think.

I guess it's just as matter of how you're taught to understand it. As an African-American. I was taught to always be careful around police officers and other authority figures. My father told me lynching stories that could keep you awake nights. I've never encountered anyone who says, when African-American parents give their children "the talk," that they're engaging in victim blaming. Or that we're somehow going to be judged poorly by whites for not standing up for ourselves. (Hell, we're taught that we're going to be judged poorly by whites no matter what we do.) We're taught that this is the sad reality of what we need to do to stay safe. The first time I had to ask a police officer in an unfamiliar town for directions, the poor man was confronted with someone who was ready to bolt at the slightest indication that anything was amiss. I had spent three years in college working with the police officers on my college campus, and I still treated any officer that I didn't know as a potential threat. And so I was careful. I took every precaution that occurred to me.

Not because I would be blamed by the people who cared enough about me to give me the advice. My parents, my aunts and uncles. They would have all stood up for me. I knew that if things between me and a police officer had gone south, the simple fact that I am black wouldn't have been an affirmative defense within a court of law. But I also knew that being in the right doesn't heal broken bones, staunch the flow of blood or repair sundered nerves. And I knew, they knew, we all knew - that if my number came up, none of it, no precaution I could take, would make a difference. My parents had moved from the City to the distant Suburbs to bring me up somewhere that would be free of many of the things that they understood to be a threat. (They, and I, paid a price for that. I have decided it was worth it. I'm uncertain that they would both agree.) But in their understanding, and thus in mine, nowhere was ever truly safe. There was never any telling when things would go horribly wrong, I would be on my own (no matter who else was there) and I would become just another statistic. The police would have their story. And I would have mine. That, we knew. What they didn't know, and feared to find out, was whether my story would be told by me, or by the medical examiner.

Sometimes, I bristled. It wasn't fair. Why did I always have to be the one who needed to know all of the rules, and follow them to the letter while the people whose job it was to enforce the rules could violate them at will? But, as my father reminded me, life wasn't fair. And he wasn't the only one. My whole childhood, and even through my adolescence, was a series of reminders of how life wasn't fair.

Of course, that was many years ago. I've matured in the interim and come to understand that parents and elder relations prepare you for their lives, and not your own. And my life has been different. But I haven't forgotten. I understand that I have casually undertaken things that, in my grandparents' time, could easily have been a messy (and very, very painful) form of suicide. And that shadow still lingers.

I understand why women become upset when they're told to take precautions against sexual assault. (To a degree, I envy them their anger. Outside the walls of my home, anger was something to be guarded against, lest it be seen as a provocation.) But I also understand why those warnings are made, and why the people who make them see themselves as well meaning. They're no happier about the state of affairs than we are. Their world is different from ours. We should count ourselves fortunate for that.

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