Unlikeable victims, race and the limits of empathy

Problems arise when there is something excessive about the victim. Something about her behaviour or identity that makes her difficult to like. There’s just something about her that I don’t trust; there’s something about her that unnerves me. None of this is surprising when you remember the way she behaves. 

Such reactions are common among women and men. They reflect a desire for a security-blanket of cause and effect when understanding frightening things: the woman was abused because she did something wrong; she suffered because she is wrong. It also suggests a child’s mindset and vulnerability. Why is my father angry at me; if I stop doing this, or being this way, will he love me, will he give me his attention; will he see me? If I am different, will I be safe?

Our desire to survive and be safe from harm also requires that our empathy become conditional and enact social norms. Becoming a woman is built on the awareness that we might not be able to defend ourselves against a stronger man, so we need to be smart. We need to make deals. We need to be careful and alert. And yet sexual and other violence does not discriminate. You might be the prettiest, most popular, most submissive woman in the room and still get raped. 

Perhaps some women will say this does not reflect my reality. I am not afraid of men. I have not been threatened by them. Such women might also be so enmeshed in the social system that they laugh along with “jokes” about male sexual violence and then call it “locker room talk”.  They might accept religious dogma claiming that male dominance and female inferiority is natural. They might argue that their mothers in “traditional” marriages had good lives, wanted for nothing in a material sense, even if their lives were spent serving their husbands. 

My belief is that the frustration many women feel in their lives energises this belief that for them to be kept safe, some women need to be wrong, outside the norms of what is allowed or acceptable. And here we find the intersection with race. Certain women, those who are seen to be too aggressive, too sexual, too poor and marginalised, too desperate and needy, too vulnerable, or not white enough easily become “natural victims.” The violence they suffer is to be expected, often not reported or even discussed.  

How otherwise can we explain the fact that a famous white Australian film star called a Black American woman, a well-known MC, a ni**er; spat at her, pulled her aggressively to make her leave a Hollywood party and has suffered no consequences? Even now, as the “scandal” morphs into a debate about why another famous Black man lied and refused to help the woman, the white man at the centre of this is absent. Some might argue that the lack of condemnation directed at him reflects “white privilege” but the fact that the Black female victim is seen to be unlikeable/difficult/aggressive is also at the heart of his erasure. 

It’s hard to imagine a famous white woman being called a “bitch” or a “whore”; having a man spit at her in front of a crowd of onlookers (who later defended him to the police). Even these words don’t come close to the offence of “ni**er” based as it is on white male hang-ups about Black men; the fact that the actor used this word only further denies the woman any femininity, or status as a woman. That he did this in public makes it worse, as such words and behaviour are usually hidden away in the home. 

Writing this now I see a Black American teenage girl in a swimsuit being aggressively pushed to the ground in Texas while being handcuffed by a police officer; another young Black girl being hurled against desks in a class-room and a scene that haunts me, a mother being handcuffed in the back of a police van, moments after her partner was murdered; her tiny daughter consoling her, telling her not to cry, urging her mother to be calm and quiet so they don’t get shot as well.       

This is written for Azealia