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Trayvon Martin, Questlove, and Rape Culture

Posted on 26 July 2013

If you haven’t yet, you should read Ahmir Questlove Thompson’s piece on his reaction to the George Zimmerman trial. It’s called “Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit” and it’s about what it feels like to be him– a black man in America– right now:

“I’m in scenarios all the time in which primitive, exotic-looking me — six-foot-two, 300 pounds, uncivilized Afro, for starters — finds himself in places where people who look like me aren’t normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct? In the beginning — let’s say 2002, when the gates of “Hey, Ahmir, would you like to come to [swanky elitist place]?” opened — I’d say “no,” mostly because it’s been hammered in my DNA to not “rock the boat,” which means not making “certain people” feel uncomfortable.

“I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people’s safety and comfort first, before your own. You’re programmed and taught that from the gate. It’s like the opposite of entitlement.

“My friends know that I hate parking lots and elevators, not because they are places that danger could occur, but it’s a prime place in which someone of my physical size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it’s safe for me to make people feel safe. I know most of y’all are eye-rolling, but if you spent a good three months in these size fourteens, you’d understand why I take that position.”

You should read the whole thing and let yourself be put in his shoes. What it feels like to be in that elevator in his secure building with a woman, a neighbour, who doesn’t want to give him her floor number, and how he cries inside but tries to laugh it off, justifying people’s reaction to him with ” a bajillion thoughts, all of them self-depreciating voices slowly eating my soul away.”

Then you should read Kim Foster’s response titled “Why the Questlove Article Exposes Our Racism- and Our Sexism.” She writes about her experience as a white family in Harlem, and how sad it is for her to think that her children’s friends, many of them black boys, will grow up to have experiences similar to Questlove’s or even worse. But then she adds:

“I imagine a young woman reading the exchange that happened between Questlove and the woman in the elevator, taking it in and, not wanting to be racist, shifting how she reacts to men in public. Maybe she smiles more, acts less freaked out when alone in an elevator with a strange man, maybe she walks down that dark isolated street and doesn’t worry that someone is walking behind her, or lets down her guard and tries to let the man know she isn’t intimidated, that she doesn’t find him scary. Maybe she lets concern for others — offending that stranger, appearing racist, or sexist — over-ride her instincts to take care of herself….”

“We might not go around thinking of men as rapists, but we are profoundly aware that if caught in a dark part of the club, a back room, an isolated house, an elevator, our apartment after we get off the elevator, if the mood is right, if he had too much to drink, if we can’t talk our way out of it, if we dress too seductively, stay out too late, if we flirt and then change our mind, if we are on the subway at 2am, or if we are nice and that’s enough for him to misread our intentions, most men could take us, if they chose to, and there is little we could do to stop it…”

“We don’t need a man telling us we shouldn’t be taking care of ourselves, and that is exactly what the Questlove piece, perhaps unintentionally (because the bias is so ingrained in men), is guilting us into doing. It’s one more message to women to look out for others first…”

“Her sole concern should be protecting herself from the chance of a sexual assault which happens to 1 out of every 3 women and girls in their lifetimes.”

“1 in 3.”

Again, you really should read the whole thing.

I don’t think either one of these writers trivializes the reality, the hurt, or the fear of the other. And I don’t have any answers for either. I have no personal experience with being in either of these situations. By luck of the draw, it’s just not a position I’m in, and it’s a position no one should be in- but they are.

I’m grateful to both these writers for relating their experiences and their fears in a public way. When people talk about blogging, the internet, or even just writing as a way for us to help understand each other’s reality better- these pieces are the sorts of thing they have in mind. I hope you read them both.

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