Racial Discrimination in the Media Faces of Rape Survivors

Posted by Alex Florian & filed under Current Affairs, Life.

What google produces for "rape survivors"
What google produces for "rape survivors"

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As I was in line to buy groceries last week, a woman warned my friend that her wallet was precariously accessible in her pocket, and that we should be more careful about getting robbed.  She went on to say that she was old now, but that young girls like us should also be careful of getting ourselves raped. While the second comment seemed quite out of the blue (and funny, if I’m being honest), it is a sentiment I have been hearing since I was old enough to know what rape was.

I hear all the time about the prevalence of rape. With all the posters I see around campus that promote seeking help, and outlining what “Got consent” means, I have always known that if I were victimized, I would take it to the police.  What I have not questioned is why I would feel so confident in reporting the crime, when only 10 percent of sexual assaults in BC do get reported.  While sexual assault has been garnering more media attention in the past few years, like the ad campaigns I just mentioned, the dominant faces in these movements are women like me. White and twenty-something years old.

Sexual assault does not affect all people in the same way and with March 21 as International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the racialization of sexual assault is a subject worth exploring. It has serious consequences on both women of colour and the perpetuation of rape culture in general.

Feminist blogger, Wagatwe Wanjuki wrote about her experience as a survivor of campus sexual assault.  She felt ignored – facing strong institutional indifference.  She was not given a judicial hearing, and when trying to share her story, producers and reporters turned her down in favour of other women, “all of them pretty, female, and white.”

Wanjuki is frustrated with the diversity of survivors in the media, and discusses the many consequences media representation has.

“Why does the representation of survivors in the media matter? Validation of black women of survivors would go against the jezebel stereotype that, in fact, black women are not all sexually insatiable creatures and can be raped. It would challenge attitudes that black women are more to blame for being survivors of sexual and domestic violence and that being raped is just as serious as if they were any other color.”

She questions whether the young white female as the face of sexual assault survivors is a reflection of our culture being more sympathetic to that group or if it could partly be a distrust of other groups that the public media will not properly share or respect their story. Wanjuki’s story illuminates the problem of racial discrimination in sexual assault. She writes that diversity and inclusion in media portrayals is important because it tells rape survivors that “you matter”.

Gabrielle Union was able to share her personal story about sexual assault and was received by Oprah’s welcoming audience.  She powerfully writes about how her recovery required eliminating the people in her life that treated her like victim. Not looking to support, but to gawk. She shares her thoughts on the importance of consciously surrounding yourself with people who treat you with support.  I really respect Union’s bravery in sharing her story, and the overwhelmingly positive response she received shows how ready we are for diverse models of strength.

In Canada, there is disproportionate sexual and violent victimization of First Nation’s women. The numbers of missing person cases alone is gut wrenching. In B.C. they are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than their white counterparts. However, they are underrepresented in campaigns for sexual assault awareness. By not recognizing their strength as survivors, the media adds to the racialization of certain women as inherently rapable or more at blame for their sexual assault. A 2010 government commission on the status of Aboriginal women in Canada found,

“in some cases, when [First Nation’s] women seek legal recourse against their perpetrator, they face major barriers including the attitude of both police and courts and a dearth of legal aid available.”

One step in raising the numbers of women who report sexual assault is to show First Nation’s women that their experience mattered.  This can be done through media images, which will also affect larger societal mentality and hopefully break down some of the “barriers” these women face.

In BC, one in three women will be sexually assaulted in her life time. For me, what’s even scarier than that statistic is that only 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported to the police.  According to Statistics Canada, over the past few years the numbers of sexual assaults has remained stable, while the incidents reported to the police have decreased.

When sexual assault is not reported it becomes normalized and seen as less severe of a crime.  In Los Angeles less than a year ago, a student had to write a five page book report as a punishment for raping a woman.  Occidental College faced law suits for not properly reporting or adjudicating the sexual assault, but stories like this show how real rape culture is.  It has become normalized and seen as inevitable, and in this case, not even worth punishing.  Look in movies, music, commercials; look at the common sense and accepted advice that women should not walk alone at night.

I have been told I should not walk alone at night probably once a month since I was eight.  I have been told to never go for runs at night, and to not run with ipod headphones.  I have been told not to run though trails alone even in daylight.  I cannot even buy groceries without being reminded of my likelihood to be raped.  For rape to be pulled out from under the rug where it has been swept, all women need to feel that their experience matters.

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