Invoking Tawana Brawley

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Nubian at blac(k)ademic is complaining about people invoking the name of Tawana Brawley with the Duke University Lacrosse rape case [hat tip: Mixed Media Watch ]. If you're not up to speed on Brawley or the Duke case, see this post by La Shawn Barber for the requisite background and this one for more details on the current case. My understanding is that she's the sort of person Nubia means. (Maybe she's the only one Nubia is referring to. I'm actually unaware of anyone else bringing up Brawley's name, and Sam is unaware of anyone else bringing her into the discussion either.)

Nubia's argument is that comparing these two cases promotes the sense that black women are lying when they say they've been raped, that black women's rape claims are always about sticking it to the white man. She also notes that these discussions tend to ignore various other racial phenomena, such as the often innocent black men who were lynched for having been framed for raping white women. These are cases of white women lying about black men raping them. I agree that there are serious worries with both issues, but I can't agree that bringing up Tawana Brawley is wrong for either reason. There's a moral purpose behind bringing her up, and it's one that ought to be furthered when the opportunity strikes. Recasting people's motives for bringing her up as if they are about something else does not change that moral purpose. What follows is an expansion of a comment I left on the post.

The main reason Tawana Brawley is being invoked is because if this is a case of a woman crying racism and rape when neither is present then it's such a clear case of racial victimology that it really is parallel to Brawley's case. (To be clear: by victimology, I mean invoking victimhood when it's not present or barely present in order to achieve a certain emotional effect in oneself or in one's audience but with no motive of a positive change.) It's true that some have been asserting that it's clear that she's lying, and I think that's too strong. But I think the majority of people mentioning the Brawley case are not doing so because they are sure this woman is doing the same thing. They're doing it because they think this might be yet another case of someone doing the same thing, and they think that would be unfortunate. Now there is a difference Nubia (in the comments on her post) points to. Brawley was a girl. This woman is an adult. But doesn't that just mean this woman should be more accountable for her actions if she's lying? So if they're indeed doing the same thing then this woman (if she's lying) deserves much more of an outcry from black people who don't want racial harms trivialized.

I want to be clear, however, what "doing the same thing" is. From Nubia's post, you might get the sense that conservatives on racial issues are bringing up Tawana Brawley's name as part of some unconscious undercurrent in a larger racial narrative that society perpetuates, one that keeps black women's voices silenced when it comes to being raped by white men. I don't know if such a narrative really exists, but I've never encountered it in any of the circles I've run in that have been largely white (which aren't by any stretch of the imagination all of the circles I've run in, but plenty of the ones I have are largely white), and I've never seen feminists or critical race theorists discussing it in any of my academic philosophical training on these matters (and I count as a specialist in the latter category because that's what my current dissertation work is on). So I don't know about any stereotype of black women like this, but suppose it's real. Then there's this stereotypical view of black women as liars (about white men raping them) that would be furthered and reinforced by bringing up an example of someone who really did do that.

On one level, I think that argument just misses the point. Brawley's name in this context has nothing to do with black women and truth telling. It has to do with victimology. It has to do with a too-common tendency within certain segments of the black community to make mountains out of molehills. It's not that the molehills are unimportant. They're really annoying over time. But they're not the mountains that they're made out to be. Maybe conservatives on race who say this sort of thing are exaggerating. Even if that's so, the point has nothing to do with black women lying about rape. It's about a general tendency that conservatives on race find among race-baiters who make every issue an issue of racism when it may have nothing to do with that. One piece of evidence that this is the real phenomenon behind this is the willingness to invoke Tawana Brawley with Cynthia McKinney, whose case has nothing to do with rape.

So far all the signs I've seen is that these guys didn't do what she said they did. One seems not to have been at the party during the time she says she was raped, and the only evidence she has is really just evidence that they have been in their own bathroom and that she knows what people who were in the same room as her look like. So it's not just some assumption that she must be lying because black women lie about rape (e.g. Tawana Brawley). That's a complete misrepresentation of what's going on here. What La Shawn and anyone else who may have brought up Brawley in this context are doing is looking at the facts and concluding that there's no evidence to support this woman's case, suggesting that it might be Tawana Brawley all over again, and pointing out that victimology doesn't solve racial problems but simply perpetuates them. That's a reasonable point to make, and it's not one that relies on or furthers any stereotype about all black women being liars or all black women wanting to get back at the white man. In this case, it's a black woman making the point, and she obviously doesn't think she's like that.

So we can see a clear moral reason for mentioning Brawley in this context, with the caveat that it's not analogous if the woman turns out to be telling the truth (though the evidence we've seen so far doesn't seem to confirm that). But I think there's a more general point about the dialectic that we need to keep in mind. There are many points that someone could make in a discussion of a moral issue that might promote some stereotype. Christians are often stereotyped as hating gay people, which isn't the same thing as thinking it's morally wrong to have a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex. If I ever state the moral view that isn't the same thing as hating gay people, then people who aren't able to see the distinction between those two things will be further incensed into their wrongful stereotype that Christians hate gays. But that's their fault. It might be best if I make all the important distinctions every time I mention such a view, in order to avoid people getting the wrong idea. But at some point it gets unwieldy to qualify everything you say so just to minimize the effect of those who would wrongfully and irrationally take it in the wrong way. Those who would read La Shawn's posts on this and conclude that black women are always lying about white men raping them are ignorant, irrational, and uncareful in their thinking. It's not always a moral obligation to cater to those intellectual deficiencies just to avoid a consequence that wrongheadedness leads these people into. It's nice to prevent that if possible, but I don't think we can blame people for not saying everything they think. It's more important t make the moral claim that needs to be made and to allow the unfortunate effect of someone irrationally and wrongfully concluding something that doesn't follow than not to make it at all.

As for ignoring all the times white women have lied about black men raping them, that's a fair point. I'm not sure it's safe to assume that most of the lynchings were wrong because of lies. Many of them were because of black men raping white women, and the woman in question just didn't know which black man did it, so she picked someone out and said it was him. That's not being entirely honest, but it's not lying that the rape occurred. Others might have been made up entirely, and that is what Nubia is talking about. I'm sure some were targeting a guilty man who really did it, though. I have no idea what percentage of these claims were in which of those three categories. But aside from that caveat, I do think it's important to point out that this isn't something true of just black women. I thank Nubia for that reminder. White women can lie and have lied about being raped by black men. I'm not sure how that's relevant to Tawana Brawley, however. The victimology point is not what motivated those white women to lie about black men raping them. Maybe some kind of racism was involved, but it's not the same kind of racism as victimology. The point people like La Shawn are making is a point about victimology, and those other cases aren't all that relevant to that point. So I'm not sure it's all that immoral for them not to mention those cases. If this woman is lying, then it is another example of that.

I do think it's worthwhile to examine the racial dynamics going on here, and the racial narratives at work are far more complex than either side wants to admit. I will suggest that we should examine the tendency to assign death penalties more often when the victim is white, which indicates that juries are more willing to identify with white victims. Perhaps that tendency is affecting the public perception here. (The evidence is mixed on whether the race of the convicted murderer being considered for the death penalty is a factor. From what I've looked at, it seems to be somewhat of a factor in certain parts of this country and largely negligible in other parts. I wonder sometimes if that's because a tendency to favor white victims doesn't show itself as much because white murderers usually kill white victims, and black murderers usually kill black victims.) I don't have the time to explore that more fully right now, but it might be worth picking up in a later post if I get a chance to think about it.

But I don't think it's fair to criticize those who have brought up Tawana Brawley, and I don't think it's necessarily problematic that they haven't talked about cases of white women lying about black men raping them. Ideally all the information would be on the table, but that information isn't relevant to the way Brawley might be relevant. It's relevant for another issue. Only if you assume that the purpose of bringing Brawley into the discussion is to deal with the issue of black women lying about being raped does it become problematic to make the comparison and not to mention those other cases, and I don't think that's the real purpose here. I think the purpose is a more general feature of the Brawley case that is also true of the Cynthia McKinney case and many others that aren't about rape. I think that point out to be made repeatedly, because victimology in any group is harmful to that group.

7 Comments

Leaving the racial aspect out, I noted that a very dear friend (Phil) stated a couple of weeks ago that every man in America is one false accusation away from spending the rest of his life in jail.

There are cases of white women lying about white men, black women lying about black men, white women lying about black men, black women lying about white men.

These young men were rude, crude, obnoxious and racist. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they are rapists.

i don't know that i see the differing motives for invoking brawley as that distinct. i think you've parsed it down nicely, but i would prob'ly bet that very few people have actually thought it out as far as you have. cuz la shawn is by no means the only person invoking tawana brawley in this case, nor was she the first. tawana brawley's name came up within a couple days of the initial claim. so in other words, if you did it, i'd believe that you meant just one and not the other. for most of the people i see doing it, i think it's at best a brackish mix of the two motives.


I didn't do it. I just noticed that La Shawn had done it, and I didn't think anything of it. I'm basically explaining why I didn't think anything of it. You may be right that there are people who have had both motivations, but I haven't seen any example of this that clearly had both. I doubt La Shawn had both.

naw, naw. i know you didn't do it, but i'm sayin that if you did, i would believe your explanation cuz i know you're careful like that. most of these jokers, i think, are firmly on one side - and it ain't yours. in the best case, they may be linking up the notion of "simple" victimology, but based on many of the comments i've seen, "tawana brawley" is not just a code word for a liar in general, or even a victimologist in general. i think that in the overwhelming majority of cases, tawana brawley is invoked as a way of nullification based on some mix of the motives you describe, but more the motives that the people at blac(k)ademic describe

I find it hard to believe that anyone white supremacists, kinists, and real bigots are seriously asserting that black women lie because it's simply in the character of all black women to lie. I don't think most people really think that way. I just don't see this unconscious narrative underneath mainstream ways of thinking about cases like this.

I don't think blac(k)ademic is asserting that the people who are bringing up Tawana Brawley are consciously asserting that all black women lie, either. All she said is (1) that a lot of people think that and (2) that bringing up Tawana Brawley serves the purposes of those who think that. She didn't say that those who brought up Tawana Brawley intended that effect, just that it will have it. I'm surprised to see you saying that people actually do intend that effect. That doesn't sound like you.

My response, anyway, was not that no one has this view (though I don't think it's anywhere near as common as you and blac(k)ademic seem to think). My response was that, even if it has the effect she says it will have, it's something worth saying for the other reason, a reason that has a moral justification even if some negative effects will result.

Someday, sometime, someone will look at the Tawana Brawley case and the conflict of interests in it and realize that the greatest fears of a true rape victim has been visited upon her.

Despite the risk of loss of all credibility Al Sharpton will never apologize for TB's case simply because he knows she told the truth.

If you ever spend the time investigating the evidence and not the rumors and alleged stories. The accused involved and their alibi's, not the advocates and supporters. Along with the course of events that took place, an unbiased observer would realize a terrible injustice has taken place on a 15yr old.

I am not easily duped, I am a highly skeptical, critical person. Unfortunately, no amount of text will convince people there needs to be a thorough investigation of this case and the course of events that resulted from it.

Didn't she admit that she had made it all up to get attention?

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