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June 2012

The Invisible War and Racial Politics


I’ve seen a lot of buzz about the film The Invisible War, which documents the lives of women in the military who experienced sexual assault (by men in the military, not by “foreign terrorist” men) and did not receive adequate justice. Most of the assailants were charged with “foul language” (if they referred to their victim as a slut) and adultery (as if they had consensual sex and just cheated on their wives, versus the actual rape that it was). or were not charged at all. I haven’t seen the film yet, but hearing/reading about the stories of this film and similar stories (though not included in the film) has been quite sobering.

These women seem to have no more recourse than incarcerated women who seek justice for the consistent sexual abuse that they suffer. (Read Inside This Place, Not Of It for more on this.) Neither incarcerated, civilian, nor military women should have to endure sexual assault and on top of that know the likelihood of justice is minimal. The dismal and abysmal possibility of justice for free civilian women still supersedes that of military women and incarcerated women, which actually isn’t saying much.

Stories about sexual assault of women in the military are often framed as terrible things that occurred to pretty White women in the military. (Again, I have not seen the film itself so perhaps Black women are included in the film, but stories from the film and similar stories within the media are often framed in the aforementioned way. Anytime an image is shown while an anchor or pundit is talking about rape in the military, a photograph of White woman solider is shown. Also, White women soldiers are often the ones discussing this issue in the public sphere.) I find this perplexing since Black women represent 1/3 of women in the military and Black women are enlisting at higher rates than White and Latina women.

I wonder:

Does the media (or even advocates) choose to frame this story as “abysmal things that happen to White women” because they know that most of the public already don’t want to accept the reality of White women suffering sexual assault in the military, so they know that no one will believe or care if this happens to Black women (which it does)?

Are Black women in the military not speaking up if they suffer from sexual harassment, rape or abuse because of the usual reasons (fear, shame) that most women whether civilian, military or incarcerated don’t speak up and/or because they are acutely aware of the media and social framing around Black women and sexuality?

Or, is the media again connecting to the conscious and unconscious choice that society makes to frame womanhood synonymously with Whiteness? Is it all of these circumstances?

I already know that women as a group, when compared to men, have our victimhood considered less serious, have a higher burden of proof when claiming self-defense when the action against us is sexual in nature or domestic violence, and we have our sexuality policed more. But what about within women? Is there a hierarchy based on race and class? Yes. To pretend that Black womanhood is viewed equally to White womanhood in terms of victimhood, sexuality, and even worthiness would be to ignore at least the last several centuries of American history—-and world history.

To be clear, I want justice for ALL women. I do not think White women deserve any of the evils of sexism, misogyny and violence that they are suffering because of gender. It is wrong. To hear their stories and to know about the lack of justice they face hurts. However, when victimhood is consistently framed as something that can only happen to “respectable White women” this is problematic for poor women and Black women of any social or economic class. All women deserve to have their stories told. All women deserve justice.

And now, the military is looking to figure out suicides by "studying" Black women? Instead of changing some of the situations that produce the factors that cause suicide, they expect White males to “mimic” the stereotype of the “strong Black woman” to reduce their suicide rates? Just because someone doesn’t commit suicide doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering. Opinions on suicide itself (such as religious influences, lack of acknowledgement of mental health issues as actual health issues) that influence some Black women’s resistance to suicide IS NOT THE SAME as actual coping, happiness and lower rates of depression. Cultural factors and the history of abuse that Black women have suffered provides a different psychological and cultural landscape to consider.

Black women’s experiences matter. We aren’t objects just to mimic or stereotype as “pillars of strength,” and then forget about once “women’s” issues are discussed. (The label of “strong” is often applied to us to excuse abuse afflicted upon us and ignore our humanity—a complex series of strengths and weaknesses.) The war on women is more than what the GOP is up to lately in terms of reproductive rights. The war on women has been a war that is centuries long for Black women. Black women, too, are fighting a war that is rarely visible.

Related Blog Posts: Social Justice and Cultural Hierarchy

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