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Akin’s Comments, More Dangerous Than We Think?

Why the GOP should re-evaluate their stance on personhood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Aisha Staggers

The most complicated stance of my political existence occurred in
2008. As a progressive Democrat, I was asked by my own party to
decide if I was either a woman of African descent or if I was an
African American first and woman second. I was told that my decision,
either way, would result in a historical election cycle. This
phenomenon is identified by Patricia Hill-Collins, author of Black
Feminist Thought “taking sides against the self”. As a black woman,
my loyalty (and my vote) was split in half due to two things over
which were ascribed to me at conception: my gender and my race. My
vote for then-Senator Barack Obama was later reduced only to racial
solidarity, not the fact that I felt his proposed policies were more
in line with my values and beliefs.

And let’s be honest, despite what Republican strategists say in hindsight, at the time it was also the reason Sarah Palin was chosen as McCain’s running mate over so many
more competent Republicans: to woo the Democratic white female vote in
their direction. So imagine the turmoil I’ve felt in the last week
thinking about the statements made by Senator Todd Akin (R-Missouri)
about women, rape and pregnancy.

As a woman, I was offended. First, because he obviously has no basic
knowledge about how the female reproductive system functions. To
which I really want to tell him, “Congressman, people discriminate, my
eggs don’t,” which is true; a woman’s eggs cannot tell the difference
between a rapists’ sperm or that of a man with whom we have consensual
intercourse. But as a black woman I was afraid because Akin’s point
of view and that of those on the right who support him is dangerous,
not just for myself, but for my child and all the other little black,
brown, red, and yellow girls here and abroad, for black males, for
white women and while he may not think so, dangerous for white,
working-class males—his core constituency.

In countries like the Congo where the rape of females as young as six
months and women as old as 93 is highly politicized, we turn a blind
eye because those are lives that we view as disposable, in fact, the
rape of women in any war-torn nation has been of little concern to us
unless it can hinder our ability to profit from such crimes. But we
don’t even have to go outside of our borders to see how this manifests
itself. In our own country we forgive the celebrities who’ve
victimized young girls or physically abused a partner once they have
sufficiently “paid” for their action, which we then minimize as mere
“indiscretions.” Instead, we are more ready and willing to question
the accusations of a victimized child and even blame her for her own
victimization in saying she seduced him. And although it seems
incomprehensible, black women are as speculative as everyone else, and
perhaps even more critical.

Akin’s comments are not only reflective of the gender-bias that
plagues the American patriarchal structure, it also points to the
desire of many, particularly on the right, to decide the victimhood of
another. Although, by and large, this is a universal issue for women,
Akin’s comments also points to the social stratification of old
whereby women of color, black women specifically, could not be
considered victims of rape.

It has been well documented that during slavery, rape was a common
practice on the plantation. Viewed solely as property, black women
were used to fulfill the sexual desires of white men, to produce an
additional source of free labor via childbirth, and to help preserve
the chastity of white women and to control black men through fear and
intimidation. Because they were considered property, the law did not
allow them the right to decide what they could and could not refuse as
a manner of protecting their bodies. Republicans are quick to cite
Dred Scott and the injustice of that decision as a legal premise for
establishing a personhood amendment to the Constitution that would
outlaw abortion across the board. However, in doing this, they also
send a message to black women that we cannot be trusted to make
decisions about our own bodies any more than Dred Scott, a black man,
could be trusted to be in charge of his own person.

In the years following emancipation, the violent rape of black women
by white men often went unreported and/or uninvestigated. What has
been allowed to be perpetuated throughout the years is the notion that
all black men seek and desire white women first and foremost to the
point that all they can think about 24/7 is how to rape them, and that
the rape of white women in this context is more about the black male’s
desire to stick it to the white man for all those centuries of
oppression. This is claim that has no real historical or factual
basis, and with films like “Birth of a Nation,” has been allowed to
persist as it proved to be useful as well in helping wealthy white men
to control lower income white men by giving them the superficial
notion that they were the “protectors” of the race; what they couldn’t
provide in terms of financial stability, they believed they could
offer the same in terms of physical security. Thus creating a
differential in the burden of proof upon white women versus that of
black women, as was the case in the Anita Hill hearings, which
propelled Clarence Thomas to his seat on the Supreme Court, and the
accusations against Herman Cain, which ultimately ended his
Presidential bid early.

Prior to the feminist movement, white women did not bear the same
burden of proof, established for black women. That burden for black
female victims of rape was and has remained significantly high.
Consider the first African American woman to be put to death was
charged with the murder of her rapist, a white man. Her claims were
not seen as viable because it was believed that she had been a
prostitute at one point and we still live in a nation where
prostitution and rape cannot coexist in the sexual history of one
woman.

Even if black women were able to show just cause for the charges, the
accused rarely paid the price for the crime. However, white women
could make unsubstantiated and/or false accusations of rape and the
punishment was death as was the case with Emmett Till in Mississippi,
who was erroneously accused of “eyeball rape” and murdered. He was
14, his accuser was over 20, she did not report this “crime” to local
officials, but rather waited until her husband and brother-in-law
returned from out of town and told them what she suspected Till’s
intent was, all the while knowing what the end result would be.

In fact, of the 2000 or so documented lynchings of African Americans in
the United States, the majority of those murdered were back men and
the majority of accusations were the rape of white women. It was true
with Scottsboro and on some level continues today as black women are
the most unlikely group to report a rape of any kind because society
has categorized the violation of black bodies “illegitimate” upon
which to prepare a claim. Representative Akin, no group of people in
the U.S. can better attest to the fact that rape can lead to pregnancy
than African Americans. It is why we are so varied in skin tone. Our
families are a multitude of shades, a rainbow variation of brown, red,
yellow, and tan. We are proof that what you claim is utterly false.

Things that seem so logical and commonplace to mainstream white
America are not so for non-whites. We live a very different reality
that is shrouded in a history of systemic oppression. Black women
struggle with an often uneasy dichotomy of being both black and
female. White women sometimes view us as disloyal to the sisterhood,
choosing to be black over being a woman, or making the assumption that
we do because white males have told them that is what we would do.

This is due largely to the need of a divisive women’s movement, and in
part to the historical masculinization of black women whereas we were
used to more adequately define white womanhood as delicate, fragile
and pure. Black women, most of whom toiled in the fields alongside
black men, doing “men’s work” were considered androgynous, described
using terms often attributed to men (e.g. strong). Further they were
de-sexualized and hyper-sexualized at the same time. The
de-sexualization of black women came largely at the hands of white
women, many of whom preserved some sense of sexual chastity, to make
it easier to cope with the very real circumstances of their husband’s
infidelity. Not just the infidelity, but the fact that they slept at
night laying next to a rapist who did not express a sexual desire
toward them and the offspring produced by these liaisons. In fact the
patriarchal structure of the day was designed to desexualize white
women as well.

On the flipside, white men hypersexualized the idea of black women as
a means of coping with their own indiscretions and justifying the
predatory behavior. Essentially, blaming black women for being so
overly sexual and lustful that the master (and often the overseer)
could not resist themselves and had to force themselves upon her. As
twisted as that sounds, often the female children produced from these
interactions were also victims of incest and at times bore the
children of their white siblings and other relatives.

And it is not just history that shows the legacy of “rape resulting in
pregnancy,” popular culture has addressed this issue as well. From
Law & Order: SVU, where the character Olivia Benson identifies herself
as a child of rape, to the movies Precious and The Color Purple where
the main characters of both were impregnated by their fathers.
Pregnancy by rape is not only probable, it happens; an ugly truth, but
a truth nonetheless.

There is no reason and/or excuse for anyone to justify rape. Like the
President (not Ryan) said, “rape is rape”. Yes, it is a traumatic
experience and sometimes the body does react to trauma, but often it
is in the aftermath of the trauma. Fertilization is immediate. If
that woman is ovulating at the time of her assault, there is no way to
stop the biological process of conception. We must come to realize
that there are things beyond the control of man (or woman), things
that we cannot legislate.

The fact is that a lot of our national and local policies are built
upon the degradation of black women and the black female body. Here
is where you see the contradictions within our society where it comes
to racism, sexism and sexuality. On one hand white women tan, strive
to get bodies like Kim Kardashian (the acceptable white alternative to
the black body), but then we are subject to ridicule for having those
traits, naturally. When politicians want to blame someone, anyone for
an economic crisis, they conjure images of us, despite having used
“us” to “sell” the idea of housing projects as a “good” community
development within which to raise a family, even though their true
goal was to create enough living space within a controlled area to
stop the possibility of urban flight and control the numbers of
African Americans moving to the suburbs when overt housing
discrimination was no longer legal.

As long as the GOP continues to use the inflammatory language of
yesteryear that is divisive and destructive, they are not only harming
me and women like me all over the world, but at home they are
unmasking an army of indiscriminate white males who in fearing their
own numerically inferior reality are taking up arms (due to the laws
many on the right lobbied for) and unleashing their own form of
vigilante justice, and unlike in the 1960s where African Americans
were the primary victims, these men are angry at everyone and the
white man on wall street with the seven figure salary and summer home
in the Hamptons has just as much of a chance of being gunned down as
do the Trayvon Martin’s.

You can’t get around it, Congressman Akin. But you can deal with it
responsibly and expediently this week during your convention. This
election can be won by anyone, but the soul of America can be lost
completely when none of us takes responsibility for our words and our
actions. Constantly flooding the airwaves and blogs with comments
like “this President is weakening this country,” or “only we know how
to get America on track again,” is harmful and borders on the line
between inciting instances of violence from a distance, to outwardly
calling for total anarchy and chaos in the form of a second Civil War.

To imply that President Obama is weak or “in over his head” is to
say that black people and other persons of color bring nothing to the
table and lack the ability to lead or govern a country or even our own
bodies. It also goes a bit further to the representations of Michelle
Obama and the discussion over her body and figure. Let’s be honest
that a lot of what is said about her also has to do with another fear
that President Obama represents in the minds of many white people. It
was the very fear that was the rallying cry of segregationists: no
miscegenation. President Obama is the ethereal symbol of the
“browning” of America or the dilution of the white race in the U.S.
Coming from a mixed race background, Barack Obama embodies that fear
solely by virtue of whom he chose to marry and what their children
look like. They are as much a black family as is Mariah Carey, Nick
Cannon and their twins. And despite what Jay-Z says, yes, “my
President is black, in fact he’s half white,” but I promise you in the
mind of a racist, this will never be at or near “half right.”

It took the feminist movement to give white women the freedom to be
more vocal and seek a public platform upon which to discuss those
issues that were uniquely their own. Similarly, black women came into
their own as were the backbone of the civil rights movement even
before it was a recognized social movement. Women like Ida B. Wells,
who lead the call for an anti-lynching law in 1919 that would have
saved the lives of many, mostly black men, Rosa Parks, Septima Clark
and Diane Nash were leaders and held the momentum of the movement
going even as their male counterparts were being lock away in jail.

Even the Brown case had as its named plantiff, Linda, a black female
child. Black men were the faces to which we attached names and the
ceremonious title of “leader” because the reality of our existence is
one deeply immersed in a system of patriarchy that is intertwined with
the historical chaos of racism and oppression. When you throw rape
into the mix, Congressman, yes, it is a form of double jeopardy that
only we, women of color, can comprehend, but that does not shield you
nor the rest of America from harm.

Aisha Staggers is an Editor of Soul Newspaper online; the latest version of the ’60’s and ’70’s journal of music and politics.

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