Monday, August 18, 2008

Safety, racism and guilt (by Suzie)

         This is related to what I posted Friday about women’s safety vs. men’s feelings. I want to go back to a well-known anecdote about Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham. In his memoir, he wrote about her being so upset by an aggressive panhandler that she didn’t want to take the bus to work. His grandfather accused her of being scared of the panhandler because he was black. Obama talked to family friend Frank Davis, a journalist and poet.
Davis told the teenager that his grandmother was correct to feel scared because she understood African-Americans "have a reason to hate."
          In Obama’s speech on race, he said his grandmother “once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.”
         Did she fear any black man who passed her on the street? Is it possible that she would have been wary of any man, no matter his race, who pursued her for money?
        First Obama, then others, have discussed his grandmother’s fears to illustrate attitudes about race. But her fears also speak to the harassment women (of all colors) face on the street and in public transportation. 
         I understand that it’s incendiary to talk about white women and black men. I’m not saying white women should fear black men more than white men. In regard to violence, women are more likely to be victims of men of their own race whom they know than they are of a stranger of another race. Nevertheless, if a woman (of any color) is afraid of a guy on the street, I think she has the right to be heard. Also, if a woman (of any color) has no problem taking precautions against a strange white guy, she should feel free to do the same when confronted by a man of color.
          This dovetails with a fascinating series I’ve mentioned before in which a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer talks about many issues connected to her rape, including race. Joanna Connors is white; the rapist was black. She encountered him in a theater, and he was the only other person there.
I ignored my instinct not to trust a stranger, because the stranger was young and black, and I did not want to look like a racist white woman who automatically does not trust young black men.  If he had been white? I'm not sure -- but I think I would have left. 
          In another situation, a white woman might have trusted a white man, and still gotten raped. Or, a woman of color might have trusted a man of color. Or, she might not have wanted to look afraid in front of a white man. You can complicate the scenario with different ethnicities or different rationales, such as a woman needing to do her job. No matter what, women who get raped may still feel shame in a society that second-guesses their decisions. Connors continues:
        The rape made me fear black men I did not know, especially young black men. I hated this fear. I tried to reason my way out of it, and I spent a lot of my time in therapy trying to overcome it.
          Finally, a psychologist asked me the obvious, common-sense question: "But do you also fear and avoid strange white men?"
           My answer was yes, of course. The difference was that fearing white men did not make me feel bad about myself. It did not make me feel like a closet racist. It did not bring me shame.
          As in the previous post, I’m not saying women have to live in fear of, or distrust, all men all the time. Nor am I saying that whites should not examine their feelings about race. What I’m saying is: As progressives, let’s not forget women when we talk about civil liberties.