Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why do some white folks ask what we should do, to be an ally, when a Black woman is being abused in public by a Black man?


image is from here
This post is in response to a discussion over to Crunk Feminist Collective. You can read that post and the comments there first if you want, but it's not necessary. But to do so, click on the title of that post just below:

On Black Men Showing Up for Black Women at the Scene of the Crime


The reason it's not necessary is because white folks are asking questions there what white folks ask far too often in the wrong spaces: What should I do to be a good ally to people of color? Usually this assumes people of color exist to educate whites about how to be anti-racist/anti-sexist. And usually in contexts where people of color are not there to teach whites anything. (I mean, like not in a classroom with bell hooks as the professor teaching a course to people of color and whites on how to support one another across various political struggles.)

Too often, in PoC spaces or in conversations led by people of color about something awful that happened to someone, white comments become a white-centered distraction from the main issues.


But related to the post above, I wonder to what extent the Brecht Center is a white-majority or white-run space, an academic space. I wonder how that contributed to the lack of response from the audience to Crunktastic being intimidated, threatened, and assaulted at a progressive political panel discussion, by a well-known Black male activist, Kazembe Balagun. My experience of white and class-privileged academic spaces is that there is an expectation that audiences remain passive witnesses to what's going on (or down) onstage. That to do otherwise is to break the unwritten cultural rules of (non)engagement. I wonder if that's part of this story.

But there are always plenty of explanations for why folks don't intervene on violence against women, including racist misogyny (rarely identified as such). It shows up in male-bonding rituals. It shows up in the refusal of the public to see the harassment, disrespect, disregard, harassment, violation, and abuse of women of color as violence. Other dynamics are described later on in this post.

At issue is our collective response-ability to co-create anti-colonial, anti-patriarchal spaces in which to organise and, well, just live with dignity and relative safety. I've seen response-ability shut down by anti-activist liberal white and male self-reflection. "What can I do that won't be seen as racist or sexist?" is a question in service to white male supremacy. Because "how privileged folks are perceived" already presumes the issue is the image of the oppressors, not the harm done to the oppressed.

I'm making space here, at a white person's blog, for some of that discussion. A white woman at CFC left a comment, which I'm excerpting just below. The reason I'm copying and pasting it here is because she acknowledges this is a conversation that maybe shouldn't happen there and then, at CFC. And I agree. Other whites on that comments page appear to me to be making this about liberal white guilt and the matter of whether we should do anything, rather than about what we must do to intervene when we witness violence occurring right before us in social spaces.

I can’t pretend that the dynamics of my interactions with black women aren’t colored by our different races. I do not want to presume to act or speak for a black woman who is perfectly capable of acting or speaking for herself. Nor do I want to appear to be attempting to exert authority over a space for black people based on my white skin. It can be difficult at times to decide whether my intervention in a tense situation would be seen as welcome support or as hijacking. In this situation, I think the answer is clear (both from my own judgment and from the message of the post), but it’s not always.
Obviously, how a white woman would have felt/what she should have done should not be the center of the discussion here. What happened should be. But there seems to be a substantial discussion going on around that, and thus probably room for a thread or two on this point: that is, how SHOULD an ally best respond in this situation? There may actually be a different answer for other black men, for white women, for white men, etc.
Should whites respond differently to violence happening when the aggressor is a Black man and the person harmed is a Black woman? Are the responsibilities of a white ally to a Black woman facing male supremacist hostility from a Black man (or from a white man, or a man of color who isn't Black) different than the responsibilities of an ally to a white woman facing male supremacist hostility--from a white or Black man, or another man of color?

Beyond, "Don't do something racist", I don't think so. 

But it is, unfortunately, the case that we whites can be confused about what it is to be racist.

One way racism shows up is whites thinking that intervening when a Black woman is being abused by a Black man is in and of itself racist. When, in fact, not intervening is the act of racism, and sexism.

This was going to be my reply at CFC but I've decided to put it here instead and link to this post over there.
 
Dynamics are raced, yes. Always. And gendered. Whatever I did there, if I were there, would have been the actions of a white male. But our race and gender doesn't mean we're not capable of responding to other humans as human beings. 
 
I read another comment, in response to the one quoted above, stating clearly that the woman assaulted is a human being and ought to be responded to as the human being that she is
 
I thought about how whites use our whiteness as a way (and too often an excuse) to not do something we'd do if it were happening to someone white. We don't tend to ask ourselves, when in an all-white forum or social space, "How might my whiteness be a problem here, in possibly intervening when a white man is harming a white woman?" I'm just as white in all-white spaces too. That whole way of responding or not and acting or not is white supremacist to me. 

Black, Brown, white, female, trans, male: if I'm a person in the room, and I see someone being assaulted, I intervene, if I care and if I can. I do what I can do, given my own limitations, strengths, privileges, and experiences of trauma and resistance.  
 
One thing I've seen play out far too often is that whites assume a Black woman (a particular Black woman, any Black woman, or all Black women) is strong enough to handle things on her own. While whites often want someone (of color) to have our back, it is assumed by whites that a Black woman has her own back and doesn't need anything more. The misogynist-racist Super-woman stereotype. There's the issue of Black woman-as-mammy whose only role is to take care of whites. In such a racist imagination, how could she possibly need whites to emotionally or physically take care of her? In reality, in what spaces would whites do so at all without expecting public or private props?
 
I've seen how Black women's womanness is erased and how Black women's Blackness is eraced. Each of which contributes to how Black women's humanity is made invisible socially by white and male supremacy.
 
When women's liberation is discussed in white spaces, the talk often assumes an alleged common denominator of white experience. So Black women, and other women of color, are assumed to be part of that struggle--to be "women"--only to the extent that they share the experiences, analysis, and agendas of whites. Usually unasked and unanswered in such spaces is this question: how could white experience be a common denominator for all women, most of whom are not white?) In my experience, when women of color assert their womanness not in white or colonial terms, or outside a white frame of experience, whites often claim they are being divisive, disruptive, or collaborators with patriarchy. (In truth, whites invisibilising whiteness is always in service to colonial patriarchy.)
  
When Black liberation is discussed in Black spaces, the talk often assumes a common denominator of Black men's experience. So Black women, again, are assumed to be part of the struggle only to the extent that their lives and struggles match up with men's. When Black women assert their own experiences as distinct from men's, the men often rebuke, retaliate, and revolt against the women, proving the point far too predictably.

What gets lost, obviously, is the humanity of Black women as Black, as women, and as Black Women whose lives, however personally complex and culturally dissimilar, do not and cannot only mirror the struggles Black men and white women face, in part because Black women are oppressed by both groups and by white men too.
 
I open the post to comments and conversation.




16 comments:

S Baldwin said...

This is hard for me to comment on this as a Black woman. I know we Black women as a collective have been dumped on and scapegoated by Whites of both genders and Black men. It's hard because we're connected to Black men. When we get abused by men of our race in public, some whites want to play the savior, rescuing us from the so-called abusive Black men while covering up their abuse towards us Black women. Other whites just ignore the violence and blame the woman for provoking the Black man such as the ABC Nightline experiment where the abused Black woman was ignored by white patrons at a busy NJ restaurant. The two White women at the restaurant blamed the woman for being "provocative" and for creating a scene.

Whites go both ways when responding to public violence against Black women.

What are your take on this complicated issue of whites intervening in situations where violence against Black women are being perpetuated by our Brothers?

S.B.

Julian Real said...

Hello and welcome, S.B.

I really appreciate your contribution to this conversation. The whole White Savior thing. Yeah. I've seen that, and the Male Savior thing too.

"Whites go both ways when responding to public violence against Black women." Yes. Thank you for saying so here.

And of course someone with race privilege attempting to intervene in the abuse we're talking about can be motivated by a desire to be the savior, rescuer, or Great White Hero.

My views are shaped strongly by the women I know. And the women I know personally say they would not consider it at all supportive of me to stand by and watch as she was abused by any man, or any white person.

I probably should have expanded on what I meant when I wrote, "Don't do something racist". What I meant, in part, is: Don't attempt to rescue her. Don't deny her the agency she has. Don't consider her in more danger from a Black man than from a white man. Don't think of her as someone who necessarily needs your help BECAUSE you're a white person.

The White Savior motive, to me, is a slick form of racism dressed in condescending clothing. I don't recommend anyone white attempt to 'save' anyone, including a Black woman, from abuse by anyone of any color or gender.

I think people being abused should be offered effective support to do what they need to do to take care of themselves.

What I advocate is anyone intervening when public abuse happens. But to do so, even if unsuccessfully, while recognising the power the abused person has, not to take power from her (in this case "her"). But also not to assume she has more power than her abuser. Or to think "she can take care of herself" because she's a Black woman. In what you're writing, I'm reminded of how whites can assume either that Black women need white protection, or that Black women are so strong and invulnerable that they should be left to fend for themselves.

Unfortunately, as you describe, whites (and men) can far too often assume that offering support must look like "taking charge" or "rescuing" someone in danger.

I hope more folks weigh in. And I think knowing the specific circumstances can be crucial in determining what is likely to come across as racist misogyny or anti-Black racism.

S.B., what would you appreciate an individual white person doing if they were nearby when a Black man was publicly threatening you, assuming most people around you were doing nothing at all?

S Baldwin said...

That's a good question. Yes, whites can intervene when a Black woman or myself is in danger when a Black man threatens my life. But don't use stereotypes of men of color nor to suppose that Black men are far more dangerous than white men. All women, regardless of race, fear the violence of men of all races, esp. privileged white men. Privileged white men can come into communities of Color, rape/abuse woc without consequence. They have the backing of the legal system to do so along with public opinion. Those men tend to blame the victim instead of themselves.

Yes, whites can intervene and help women of Color without the preconceived racist assumptions and stereotypes of men of color or that we need to be rescued from our Brothers. I do appreciate whites intervening in cases when Black men are harming Black women. That should be across the board and I would have Black men intervening when white women are harmed by men of any race.

The racial misogynystic culture must be destroyed in order of women to be safe.

S.B.

Julian Real said...

I agree with what you wrote 100%.

Your comments have inspired me to write here in more detail about the great and grave dangers of economically privileged white men.

As you well note, white men disproportionately to men of color in the U.S., abuse and violate white women and women of color using the medical and psychiatric industrial complex, the criminal injustice system, the prison industrial complex, the military industrial complex, all levels of government, religious and educational institutions, systems of prostitution, and globalized corporate capitalism including the maintenance of poverty from unemployment, poverty from working for shitty wages. And of this disproportionately impacts children of color and women of color.

It is well known in many parts of this country that white men harass, abuse, attempt to procure, do procure, attempt to pimp, do pimp, violate, molest, rape, traffic, and enslave women and girls, particularly of color. And this is done, in part, by invading communities of color.

The staggering reality that by some estimates one in four U.S. women will be raped in her lifetime by a man, usually by a man of the same race. While American Indian/Native American/First Nations women are raped, overwhelmingly mostly by white men, at a rate of one in three women, often on Native land which is not where the rapists reside.

Also, class-privileged white U.S. men more than other races of U.S. men, travel to Central and South America, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and many other places including across North America, for the express purpose of abusing, raping, trafficking, and enslaving girls in poverty, girls sold into prostitution, girls who are homeless, and girls across class who for many reasons are homeless or are otherwise economically and socially vulnerable.

A significant problem which I've identified far too little on this blog, is that public and private interpersonal violence is focused on by white-male controlled media as a way to scapegoat racially and ethnically oppressed classes of men for the more far-reaching institutional crimes of euro-white men.

Corporate colonial white-male controlled media portrays classes of poor men and men of color as "the main problem" when it comes to violence against women--and, ridiculously, against white men.

For example, such media pretends poor Black and Brown men are more likely to be criminals than class-privileged white men. It pretends that Central Asian men inside and outside the U.S. are more likely to be terrorists than U.S. and European white men (including white male soldiers and their commanding officers). And immigrant men and undocumented working men who aren't white are scapegoated as being a social and economic threat to whites.

White male-perpetrated institutional violence and other systematised violence is not allowed to be focused on by such media. Or if it is, it is spun as a problem maintained by the victims of capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy.

That is one tactic for manipulating the public in various ways. Other tactics include the press identifying harmed white women and girls--and harmed women of color and girls, who rarely get any corporate news coverage--as the populations of females who endure violence that is interpersonal. But the press ignores the institutional violence that is far more prevalent. Also, public interpersonal violence is misrepresented as being perpetrated primarily by Black and Brown men.

So all this feeds into the realities you have described here about who the real danger is to white women and women of color and why white intervention is likely to be tainted with racism against Black men and racist misogyny against Black women.

S Baldwin said...

Brilliant analysis, Julian. Can I use some of your writings on my Blog? This gets me thinking about an essay I read over at Jezebel regarding white men's abuse of white and black women and how it impacted race and gender relationships from slavery onwards. Michaela Angela Davis wrote that essay about the ways white men prevent alliances between white and black women and how they were oppressed.

Here's the article:
http://jezebel.com/12-years-a-slave-rage-privilege-black-women-and-whit-1452173238

This is an interesting read, considering that she brought to the mainstream feminist blog of what us Black women knew for centuries and white women tend to forget due to racism and racist socialization.

What are your thoughts on this one?

S.B.

Julian Real said...

Certainly, S.B., please feel free to use my writings as you see fit. I'm honored by the request.

I apologise for taking two days to get your latest response posted.

I want to be sure the website you recommended to me is available here as a working link for any and all visitors to this blog:

12 Years A Slave: Rage, Privilege, Black Women and White Women, by Michaela angela Davis, at Jezebel

S.B., that was, undoubtedly, the best analysis contained within a movie review I've ever read. Thank you so much for directing me there!!

I think the observations by Ms. Davis, rooted in hundreds of years of the white Masters' calculated misery, is five steps beyond brilliant. I can't say enough about her article: so astute but also so superbly written. Her work as an artist and an activist is fused into political poetry.

So astoundingly and so painfully truthful. Brava to her.

I will be sharing the link widely to every politically-minded and socially active person I know.


mathildadiehl said...

After reading the original article, I was thinking about being an ally (naturally) and since I'm White, I (naturally?) put myself in the shoes of the female White panelist. I've got to say that I think, in the moment, that I probably would have done what she did--move my chair to physically ally myself with her, but be hesitant to speak up.

And that's pretty dumb. I mean, she was a panelist. Of COURSE she has the right to talk in that space--she was invited to do it. What I'm not so sure about is whether that comes from latent racism or a general fear of Angry Men. If the woman being attacked was White, I have a feeling I'd have done the same thing.

And yet, my initial response to the crowd's refusal to get involved is "Why didn't they SAY anything??!!" So I guess it all boils down to holding myself to the same standard that I hold "them" to.

Courage (and solidarity!) is for everybody.

Julian Real said...

I appreciate your comment and participation in the conversation, mathildadiehl.

I like the challenge for all of us to not put the expectation of action/intervention on others without also putting the same expectation on ourselves.

enchantedghosts said...

It's been a few months, but I am interested in this question. With a background in psychology, my first reaction to the question of why no one stood up for the panelist is The Bystander Effect. With so many people in the audience, there is a general diffusion of responsibility. Everyone was just waiting for everyone else to take a stand. It's also interesting to note that the moderator (a position that comes with some sense of authority) was the only one who made any real verbal attempt to mediate the situation.

I also think that this particular situation, where a Black man is threatening a Black woman, is one where many White people feel uncomfortable intervening, for fear of "not doing it right." I think the fear of looking like someone who is trying to play the White Hero overshadows the feeling of responsibility to help out a fellow human being.

I will admit that I feel terribly out of place to offer any critique of feminism. So take this as an outsider's non-academic opinion, please. But it seems as though at least part of the problem is that people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing or making the wrong move. There is a fear of being labeled as racist or sexist-- so in defense of one's ego and sense of their own moral goodness-- people choose to not act at all.

This seems to stem from a very closed, angry and unforgiving conversation about these topics. A lot of judgement is thrown around, with very few people willing to extend any understanding towards the fellow people they are supposed to be engaged with. Instead of conversation and dialogue, there is an attempt to prove oneself right at the expense of shaming someone else.

I don't know how much of this is simply because the internet is a forum which tends to bring out the worst in people's ability to engage in dialogue. Again, this is not my academic field and I am more familiar with what is available via the internet, while acknowledging that this is in no way a forum which speaks for the entire discipline. However, I do believe that if real, social change is something that people want to see happen then there needs to be space for people to make mistakes.

I don't mean that people engaging in White Hero behavior (or any sexist/racist behavior) should be ignored or encouraged, but that gentle critiques may be better than constant shaming and anger in certain situations. Human beings can only take so much.

Julian Real said...

Hello enchantedghosts.

Your response reminds me of how privilege in some ways constructs not only our views and experiences but also what we believe the terms ought to be when engaging with one another.

I'll try and clarify this using portions of your comment, below.

With a background in psychology, my first reaction to the question of why no one stood up for the panelist is The Bystander Effect. With so many people in the audience, there is a general diffusion of responsibility. Everyone was just waiting for everyone else to take a stand.

I agree that The Bystander Effect is one layer of explanation. This layer would likely be operative regardless of race, at least in a country like the U.S. I'm not sure The Bystander Effect is a phenomenon across cultures, however. It's not clear to me whether being a person in an oppressor class fearing judgment from oppressed people is in any way universal.

There'd have to be a solid level of privilege-backed liberalism in place, I think. Because if this were a more flagrantly white supremacist context, whites in the audience would be cheering the abuse on, or shouting epithets at both the Black woman and Black man.

But your point is well taken in the context in which this incident happened. But I think there's more going on.

Julian Real said...

It's also interesting to note that the moderator (a position that comes with some sense of authority) was the only one who made any real verbal attempt to mediate the situation.

One would hope anyone so positionally empowered would be quick to do so.

I also think that this particular situation, where a Black man is threatening a Black woman, is one where many White people feel uncomfortable intervening, for fear of "not doing it right." I think the fear of looking like someone who is trying to play the White Hero overshadows the feeling of responsibility to help out a fellow human being.

While I agree with you, I'm reluctant to let that point of analysis go without deeper examination.

Let's take the context of Nazi Germany, and non-Jewish white Germans not doing much to intervene on Jews being forcibly removed from neighborhoods, cities, and regions (after increasingly anti-Semitic propaganda and violence prior to removal and mass murder).

What some non-Jewish Germans have said is either, "I didn't know what was going on", or "If I'd tried to intervene, I'd have been shot on the spot."

In schools where bullying is a problem, the Bystander Effect often amounts to someone not wanting the stigma of the abused being attached to someone standing up for the bullied person.

In situations where gang rape is horrifically occurring, some men on the sidelines might argue that they feared being seen as "not a man" if they verbally or violently intervened against the sexual terrorists/thugs/normal guys. And some of those not-so-innocent bystanders might also become one of the rapists, to prove alliance with his peers.

Taken together, we see that The Bystander Effect has several functions: to allow someone to believe they alone have no particular responsibility to stop unjust violence is one. To allow someone the freedom to not be stigmatised and/or mistreated by the abuser/oppressor. To avoid death, including to the point of becoming one of the abusers/oppressors.

What also must be exposed is what oppressor-class people have to gain by not intervening. It's easy enough for us to think, "The whites did nothing because they didn't want to be misperceived as The White Hero", which sort of sounds like the position is rooted in an egocentric desire to always been seen as good and moral. The key there is "seen as". Because their actions are not good and are not moral, of course.

What oppressor-class people REALLY give a shit what oppressed-class people think of them/us? Only those who are judged by other liberal oppressor-class people. The situation linked to in the post here demonstrates to me whites want to be seen as not-racist by other whites. And to the extent they don't want to be seen as not-racist by people of color, it is only to maintain a false appearance in order to maintain white power and position. Because whites who did, really, intervene against white violence against people of color, and men who have, really, intervened against male violence against women, do face the real prospect of having that violence turned on them.

What we see is that whites will excuse each other not intervening. And that's white supremacy in action. Men will excuse each other not intervening. That's male supremacy at work. I offer all that as a foundation for the following challenges to what you offer by way of explanation.

Julian Real said...

... But it seems as though at least part of the problem is that people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing or making the wrong move.

What constitutes "the wrong thing" or "the wrong move"? As I already described, this is not universal. It is not even regionally or locally predictable.

The wrong thing/the wrong move is usually and overwhelmingly to allow oppressive violence to continue uninterrupted. That's our status quo. To deny the violence is happening, to encourage it to happen, or to commit it.

It's rare for whites/males to give a shit about what happens to Black people/women, historically and presently. If we really cared, we'd work collectively to eradicate white/male supremacy and the economic and cultural manifestations of it. We don't. Instead a small minority of us care what others think about us when we don't do what we assume others think we should do, as described here:

There is a fear of being labeled as racist or sexist-- so in defense of one's ego and sense of their own moral goodness-- people choose to not act at all.

That's white/male supremacy at work, not just egocentric (im)moral action. Where you go from here is, for me, increasingly problematic and victim-blaming.

This seems to stem from a very closed, angry and unforgiving conversation about these topics.

Who is being "very closed, angry, and unforgiving"? Other whites or people of color?

A lot of judgement is thrown around, with very few people willing to extend any understanding towards the fellow people they are supposed to be engaged with.

Who is throwing judgment? Who is not willing to extend understanding? And who can afford to see their oppressors as "fellow people they are supposed to be engaged with"?

Those who have been systematically and chronically sexually or racially discriminated against, harassed, ignored, and terrorised? The people with severe PTSD developed over years from enduring daily racism and misogyny?

As I read it, you're speaking of people of color being too angry, too unforgiving, too closed, too judgmental, too shaming, and too stingy with understanding and compassion.

Instead of conversation and dialogue, there is an attempt to prove oneself right at the expense of shaming someone else.

Among men and among whites, I've seen this occur. Many times. Whites wanting to demonstrate who is the better ally to POC; men fighting over who is the better feminist. And so on. But we're talking about minority populations of whites and men, of course. Because very few men interrupt misogynist violence; very few non-Jewish Germans interrupt anti-Semitic Nazi violence; most whites were privately disdainful of Martin Luther King, Jr., or were publicly hostile when discussing his efforts. Most whites are still hostile or disdainful and reluctantly endure "Martin Luther King, Jr. Day". Just yesterday--no joke--I heard two whites being irritated that he has "a Day" at all.

Julian Real said...

I don't know how much of this is simply because the internet is a forum which tends to bring out the worst in people's ability to engage in dialogue.

The anonymity factor is likely operating on the internet, but that, too, is a very partial explanation, and misses the politics of what is going down. Because people's ability to engage in dialogue about racism and sexism is far more impaired by racism and sexism among whites and men than it is by anything else. When I see conversations between whites and POC online, what I see time and again is whites wanting always to be seen as intending to be good, and becoming defensive or hostile when they are called out--appropriately--for being racist. I've seen how some POC will attempt to get some white person to see things from their point of view, to identify some interaction or statement as racist, only to have the white person claim the person of color is wrongfully judging them, as if the white person's character was ever the issue. The same with men. Having their behavior called "sexist" or "misogynistic" becomes something they pretend is a personal attack. And they don't see their own defensiveness and/or hostility as any form of attack at all.

...I am more familiar with what is available via the internet, while acknowledging that this is in no way a forum which speaks for the entire discipline. However, I do believe that if real, social change is something that people want to see happen then there needs to be space for people to make mistakes.

Systematic oppression and flagrant, violent resistance to change, to accountability, to responsibility, ought not be termed "people making mistakes". Whites don't make mistakes, nor to men. What whites and men do is protect our power, privileges, entitlements, and status. There's no mistake about it. When you narrow the lens down to a few internet interactions, it may be too easy to lose sight of the larger political picture, the broader social context for those few interactions.

I don't mean that people engaging in White Hero behavior (or any sexist/racist behavior) should be ignored or encouraged, but that gentle critiques may be better than constant shaming and anger in certain situations. Human beings can only take so much.

White Hero and White Abuser behavior is both ignored and encouraged. So we have to start there. "Gentle critiques" as defined by whom? Probably only by whites and men, right? This request for the oppressed to offer only "gentle critiques" is, in and of itself, a form of oppressive white/male supremacist behavior. Because oppressors are always trying to control the behavior of those we oppress, including by telling them how we might best be able to learn from them--if they'd only speak the way we demand they do. But even then we don't hear it, so what usually happens is the behavior becomes a tad less gentle. But the behavior I'm talking about isn't that of the oppressed; it's that of the oppressor, who is behaving violently all along but is denying it at every turn.

mike3 said...

So I'm curious. It seems you suggest that "white hero" is bad, but also that doing nothing is bad. You also mention "don't rescue", but also that intervention is required. Where does intervention cross the line to the bad "rescuing"? You say this:

"What I advocate is anyone intervening when public abuse happens. But to do so, even if unsuccessfully, while recognising the power the abused person has, not to take power from her (in this case "her"). But also not to assume she has more power than her abuser. Or to think "she can take care of herself" because she's a Black woman. In what you're writing, I'm reminded of how whites can assume either that Black women need white protection, or that Black women are so strong and invulnerable that they should be left to fend for themselves."

But what kind of action would be "taking power" and so should be avoided? And also, if you don't assume they have more power than the abuser, how do you avoid falling into the "white hero" trap (and therefore hurting people and blowing the morality ("goodness") of your attempt at a good deed) if you exert aid to help overcome the greater power of the abuser? If the abuser has more power, how do you handle the situation in a manner that's not "taking charge"?

You also say, in another post:

"In situations where gang rape is horrifically occurring, some men on the sidelines might argue that they feared being seen as "not a man" if they verbally or violently intervened against the sexual terrorists/thugs/normal guys. And some of those not-so-innocent bystanders might also become one of the rapists, to prove alliance with his peers.

Taken together, we see that The Bystander Effect has several functions: to allow someone to believe they alone have no particular responsibility to stop unjust violence is one. To allow someone the freedom to not be stigmatised and/or mistreated by the abuser/oppressor. To avoid death, including to the point of becoming one of the abusers/oppressors."

Yet when does "stopping unjust violence" (if one is white) cross the line into "rescuing" and "white hero" and therefore become wrong too, in light of what I mentioned earlier? Am I also right in seeing this as the following spectrum?

From Inaction to Action:
(Assuming actor/inactor is white)

Total Inaction:
Irresponsible
Allowing oppresion
Maybe becoming an oppressor

"Middle Ground":
Responsible
Stops oppression
GOODNESS

Total Action:
"White Hero"/"Rescuer"
Racist
Exerting white supremacy, therefore being Oppressive

In other words, both too little and too much action makes one act in the role of oppressor, and therefore a force for evil in the world and part of the problem. Whereas the right amount of action is somewhere in the middle. Is this a good way to grasp this?

And I'll admit: I'm white and a guy. And yes, you can go ahead and point out if something I say is racist, that way I can identify it and so change that behavior to get less racist.

Julian Real said...

Hi mike3,

I'd probably have similar questions were I in the position of reader (not author) of this post. So thanks for asking!

I'm challenged in a good way to come up with a succinct answer or set of answers to your questions. I'm not great at "succinct". ;)

So, here goes:

First, I don't really practice generalized ethical rules, although I probably believe in some ethical principles, which are revealed in what I state above.

What I do or don't do comes down to so many variables. The situation that is linked to is one where people witnessing violence often find reasons to not do anything at all. So in that regard, "doing too little" isn't good. But my next follow-up post gets to the problem of privileged people caring more about "being good" than "doing the right thing". What's right or useful or anti-oppressive in one situation, may not be in another. So this can appear to be confusing if one is looking for a rulebook for how to act.

I suppose a guiding principle for me is this: "Do what occurs to you to do, but be mindful that it may be oppressive. And if it is, be present and non-defensively responsive to those you oppress, if and when they call you out on it being so."

I don't believe "too much" action is necessarily wrong. If I forcefully kick or shove a rapist off a person being raped, that may be regarded as macho-heroic behavior. But if it stops a rape, so be it. And if the person being assaulted has harsh objections to my action, I'd hear them out.

What's "too much", in other words, is to be determined by those I structurally oppress, in situations where my actions lead them to feel supported and empowered, or patronized and disempowered. It's case-by-case, not necessarily determinable beforehand, although some self-aggrandising actions are likely to be oppressive and not useful.

The same with "too little" and "the middle ground".

Julian Real said...


I think politically responsible creativity is usually called for. But in situations where something violent is going on, many of us are triggered or frightened and "creativity" is often not what is readily available to us.

What follows is the best story I know of that exemplifies this. Although it ought not be simplistically applied to the situation linked to, for all kinds of reasons.

The hypothetical story:
A woman and her three-year old are in a grocery store aisle. The child has reached out and knocked over dozens of canned goods. The mother is visibly upset, angry, and appears to be about to strike her child.

What's the range of actions a man who is witnessing this could employ? An uncreative range of actions might be, "Intervene by rapidly pulling the child away from the parent." Or, "Grab the woman's arm, to prevent her from striking the child." Other people by advise: "Do nothing. To do anything that is an intervention is to take on the role of the Male/Adult Hero."

There's decisive, overt action that isn't "less action" than grabbing the woman's arm or whisking the child away from the parent about to physically strike the child. It's different action, which doesn't position the witness as having to do something over and against the parent.

Here's the deeper truth about the situation above. If a strange male adult (and, possibly, a female adult) approaches a woman parent and her child and either grabs her arm of takes the child away, both child and parent are likely to be startled, frightened, and even more upset. Such an act doesn't "protect" a child as much as it traumatizes them. The child, after all, will likely go home with the same parent. So if another adult seems to indicate the child is in grave danger, and is left in their care, what is the child to believe about their own safety?

The idea that whites and men can either "protect" oppressed people or "do nothing" is, in and of itself, the problem. Because neither option sees beyond our structural location and a narrow continuum of behaviors.

Here's another possibility, and try on how this one feels as you read it:

You, an adult man, approaches as the parent's hand is lifted. You say, calmly and not-too-loudly, "Parenting is so infuriating and exhausting sometimes, isn't it?"

This immediate intervention may effectively bring the parent into her own feelings, and away from the immediate and violent action towards the child.

It doesn't position the intevener as "rescuer" or "hero" but rather as a compassionate observer. He (you) isn't invested in portraying the parent as dangerous and bad to the child. He can't know whether or not she's a bad parent, after all.

The action he took was decidedly interventionist. He didn't stand by, and his action was immediate and interrupted what was going on. It just was compassionate towards all involved, not oppressive, self-aggrandising, and controlling.

Let me know if you still have questions, or if this raises new ones.