public space, violence and white male privilege

An internet friend was responding to a discussion about black and white victims of violence, and noted the privilege of whiteness (in response to this piece). She wrote:

i tend to thumb my nose at a lot of the “safe practices” for being a woman.

And then continued, engaging with the issue of privilege and public space.
I wanted to respond to her post there, but I don’t want to get her in trouble on fb, so I’m writing it here instead.

This is an interesting one. I’ve been thinking more and more about the importance of private v public space for women and women’s bodies. The common (mis)perception of sexual assault, is that it happens in public places (eg dark parks) and is done by strangers to us. While we’re certainly at some risk of assault in these circumstances, we are far more likely to be assaulted in our own homes by people we know.

So to protect ourselves, we should be more critical of the men in our immediate, private spaces, and we should ask men to question their own behaviour and own perceptions of ‘who does violence to women’. It is not strangers; it is the men we know. Who is it who assaults white women? It is white men. White men who are our friends, family, colleagues, and employers.

I’m at the point in my work with dance spaces and violence, where it has become clear that the only way we can move forward, beyond ‘awareness’ is to a) dismantle the broader systems of power that privilege men and their desires, therefore objectifying women, and b) to say ‘yes all men’. That last statement is proving to be the most provocative. I have a sparkly sticker on my laptop that says ‘yes all men’. A friend made it, and it is meant to be a provocation. Each time I take my laptop out in public, I imagine how I’ll respond to people’s commenting on the sticker.
I think I’ll say “Yes, all men. All men are responsible for the violence of men against women. All men have a responsibility to police their own and other men’s behaviour. Because men have more power than women in these situations.”

Because the point we are at now – and this is the difficult part – is one where men must begin to give up privilege and power. They need to give up the idea that rapists are ‘strange violent (black) men in public spaces’ (ie people completely unlike themselves), and accept that rapists are their friends, families (ie people completely like themselves). They need to take responsibility for their own actions, and for those of other men.

Frankly, I can’t see too many men being ok with that.

So each time I scroll past this post of yours, and I read your line “i tend to thumb my nose at a lot of the “safe practices” for being a woman” it makes perfect sense. Because ‘safe practices’ aren’t about women’s safety. They’re about safeguarding myths about men’s responsibilities for their own actions. By staying away from dark parks, you’re not being safe. You’re accepting the bullshit about who rapes who. By choosing to walk through dark parks you are saying “Hello, rapists are responsible for raping; where and when I choose to walk does not make me responsible for the violence of others.”

Now, when we’re being asked to talk about safety and race and ethnicity, it’s made clear that the people who most need to ‘be safe’ are white men. They need to take responsibility for making the world safer for the rest of us, by policing their own behaviour. White men – men with the most power in our communities – have the greater responsibility.

It is not my job to tell you not to rape and attack women. It is your job. It is every man’s job to choose not to attack women. And the people who have the greatest power have the most opportunities to assault people. And they must choose not to. I can make a code of conduct, I can ban offenders and police those bans. I can skill up my volunteers. But at the end of the day, all men have to choose not to rape and assault and attack.
Yes, all men.

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