Blog Highlight: Tabatha on Rape, Racism, and Recent Protests

Imagine 2050 • May 22, 2009

Originally posted May 17, 2009 on Opposing Bigotry

On May 15th, a racist, anti-immigrant group going under the name Oregonian’s For Immigration Reform (OFIR) hosted a demonstration outside a Wendy’s restaurant in Milwaukee, Oregon. In response to media reports of the rape of one worker at the hands of another at the restaurant, OFIR seized on the immigration status of the accused rapist as the defining factor, protesting the alleged failure of the restaurant to investigate the immigration status of their employees. Do OFIR’s calls actually have anything to do with an interest in women’s rights, worker safety, or justice?

The woman’s mother reported that she was previously abused by her attacker, but didn’t report it.

This brings the spotlight to an often ignored issue (violence against women), framing it in well within a long history veiling racist attacks in the guise of defending white women. This is bad for women and immigrants, pulling focus off the real issues at hand, and pitting oppressed people against each other.

Why would a woman feel that she couldn’t report her previous sexual assault, even to her mother? Our society is harsh towards rape survivors. After experiencing these terrible crimes, a woman’s life becomes scrutinized under a magnifying glass. The “justice system” is very unresponsive to most rape and sexual assault, often only prosecuting cases on behalf of women who meet very strict standards of what it means to be a “good” woman (white, thin, virginal or married-mother, modestly dressed, and straight, and assaulted by a stranger). Any deviation and a woman is perceived to hold some blame. Rape survivors are shamed, often in the media, as people from right-wing pundits to self-proclaimed feminists question their accountability if they have been drinking, flirting, wearing a short-skirt, or any other “dangerous” activity. If the rapist is an acquaintance, every interaction is questioned. Did she lead him on?

In fact, women are more likely to be assaulted by someone we know (coworker, partner, friend, family member). By portraying rapists as unknown and undocumented menaces, OFIR is “othering” rapists. This allows us to be free from questioning the culture that supports rape, and our role in perpetuating this. We don’t have to question consent, patriarchy, misogyny or sexism. “Othering” rapists supports these systems. Women need to be protected from these “Illegal Aliens”; we need to be protected by the state and by men. Women are framed weaker, which falls right into the hand of the patriarchy. Protecting women’s “virtue” from other men then becomes vital to our society. Whipping up a media-fueled panic encourages us to concede rights for protection. In doing so, we lose autonomy.

Historically, rape (and the casting of people of color as “primal”, ‘”animalistic” or “hypersexual”) has actually perpetuated the culture and systems of violence either through lynch mob “justice” in the South or, more recently, at the hands of the judicial system. The recent media, state, and even progressive demonization of Lovell Mixon in Oakland is a useful metric of this. Further, men of color are less likely to receive fair treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. They are jailed at higher rates and more likely to receive longer sentences than their white counterparts. Women of color sometimes find themselves unwilling to turn their abusers into a system that they know to be racist, as they don’t want to cause more injustice from their experiences. Pitting men of color against white women in such a context invokes racist stereotypes from the early history of American racism, without acknowledging the realities of rape.

This obsession with rape and sexualized violence by white supremacists deserves investigation. Thomas Wenning, whose anti-immigrant protests at Portland’s Day Labor Center, has been a speaker at OFIR meetings, and his protests have been supported and promoted via OFIR’s mobilization infrastructure. By his own public admission, Wenning was convicted of rape in the early 70’s. In December of 2007, another member of OFIR was arrested and charged on five counts of using a child in a display of sexually explicit conduct, two counts of sex abuse and two counts of hindering prosecution for acts alleged to have occurred in his small town barbershop. There is obviously no fair argument that OFIR members (or white men for that matter), are more inclined to rape than any other demographic. It does, however, point to the hypocrisy of OFIR’s stance on the Wendy’s assault by reflecting the realities of rape. Rape is prevalent, it is common, it is under reported, and it is typically perpetuated between people who know each other and in relationships of relative social power.

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