Cologne, and the Intersection of Race and Sexual Assault

This is an obviously difficult subject to deal with, so I’ve decided to break it down in an easy-to-digest manner.

Starting off, these are the facts:

Cologne is a city in Germany.

On New Year’s Eve, multiple women celebrating were sexually assaulted by groups of men. Up to 200 complaints of sexual assault were filed that morning alone when the attacks took place. Many are blaming the police for doing little to stop it, as men shot firecrackers into the crowd as well, sowing chaos and confusion. Ultimately, the police chief resigned after critics voiced their displeasure at the poor job he and his fellow officers did in helping the women that night and in figuring out what happened.

Again, I repeat: This wasn’t 200 incidences that took place over the course of 2015, and peaked on New Year’s Eve. This was one morning in the New Year, and pretty much, a bunch of men attacking women in a coordinated manner.

As the confusion over what happened ebbs away, the debate has switched over to the fact that some of the men taken into questioning over the assaults happen to be immigrants and refugees, of Arab and North African descent.

Already, right-wingers are organizing and continuing their anti-Islam protests, and Chancellor Merkel wants to create laws that can make it easier to deport asylum seekers because of crimes they’ve committed.

So, here we are.

The intersection of race, gender, and sexual assault.

Now, here’s my perspective:

I’m an Indian-American, and a person of color.

When the world learned of the horrible gang-rape that took place on a bus in New Delhi, when a young woman was attacked by a gang of men, and her humanity taken from her, I too was horrified, and wanting something to get done.

I was glad the media was also raising awareness about the issue of sexual assault in India, and the fact, that indeed, it was a problem woven into the fabric of the country, (which even Indian newspapers were reporting on) much like the widening gap between rich and poor, and the ongoing religious strife.

But there were two views that I felt came out of that moment that worried me.

One was the perspective that India’s rape problem was more severe than in other places and that most Indian men are somehow, susceptible to committing such terrible crimes. Basically, Indian culture was to blame and was different from other countries.

The other extreme were men and women, who in trying to defend their country or their ethnicity against such generalizations, revert to blindness and implying that rape isn’t as big an issue in India that others are claiming it to be. They would be the ones who’d bring up random statistics about the West in order to show that sexual assault is an issue worldwide and in turn, nothing can be done about it, and we all should stop focusing on India at all.

What’s always been clear is that race has always been tied with sex.

We cannot ignore how in this country, black men have been perceived, throughout our history, as somehow more sexually deviant and lustful, disregarding the fact that countless black women, during and after slavery, were raped by white men.

We cannot shut our eyes to cases of stereotyping and bias like in the Central Park Five, where young black men were pinned with the crime of assaulting a white woman, without proof, and without consideration that perhaps, it’s the system indicting them based on skin color as opposed to actual fact and comprehension.

Like I said, as someone who has parents from India, I too can feel defensive whenever an individual brings up the idea that India is more dangerous to women than other places, and that women should avoid going there entirely. I too can get annoyed, especially from white men and women, who may condescend and make it seem that the Western world has progressed and solved their issues pertaining to sexual assault while the poor ol’ Global South is wandering through the desert in search for a guiding white hand.

That being said, there are ways to defend against prejudice and racism that can exist in anti-sexist rhetoric.

For instance, if someone talks about what happened in Cologne, or what takes place in India, as somehow indicative of culture that makes those groups of people so much worse than the pure European male, who is always considerate, always good at heart, and perfect, you should be able to point out that person’s glaring hypocrisy with actual facts. Here are a few:

Fact #1: 1 in 4 women on college campuses in the U.S. have experienced sexual assault. And that number could be higher if more women feel more comfortable in reporting incidences against them to the authorities, which in many cases, is not what happens, since most don’t end up in prosecution, and oftentimes, it’s the woman held under the microscope.

Fact #2: Sexual assault in the armed forces remains a problem, as the number of cases increased this past year. This has been an embarrassment and a tragedy for years, as attempts to fix the reporting structure within the military have failed, and often led into a swamp of falsehoods and fragile masculinity.

Fact #3: The Catholic Church have been criticized for the number of priests and those within the organization accused and convicted of sexually assaulting children.

The last fact is an interesting one since no one has condemned the Catholic culture for allowing such crimes to occur. People seem to understand that the problem of sexual assault isn’t caused by church teachings but by sick individuals.

I hope these show people that sexual assault is indeed a problem worldwide and not endemic to one place or institution. Women, and men (since there are also men who have been sexually assaulted in the military) suffer from a global patriarchal system that lessens the values of their lives and their sense of self and safety.

What happened in Cologne shouldn’t be seen as rabid brown men going after German women, who by the way, could also be brown since a large segment of the population is Turkish ancestry and other groups from North Africa. What happened in Cologne was men, raised in the global village, that prides male pleasure above women’s. What happened in Cologne were men behaving like many men do: feeling entitled to women’s bodies.

But the story shouldn’t end here.

As mentioned, it is correct to lay out the facts of how women globally aren’t respected, and how the law is often made to work against them. That is sane to do, because in this climate of Islamophobia and xenophobia, the last thing we need are more right-wing men claiming they’re protecting “womanhood” (KKK anyone?) and in the process, victimizing men of color and women of color too.

The line between a sane defense and lunacy, however, can be thin.

Case in point: Bill Cosby.

I’d like to first say, I am not black American, and I do not pretend to know or claim to understand the black experience.

Even though I am a person of color (South Asian), there are certain privileges I have when compared to friends and people I know who are either black American or even African immigrants.

I will do my best not to sound like a hypocritical white person. Because let’s be honest, it’s easy to do so.

So yes, I understand the annoyance some may feel when seeing a black man being taken away in handcuffs in the same week when a police officer isn’t indicted after shooting and murdering a 12 year old child in cold blood. I understand the frustration of seeing time and time again, of the system helping those with power against those who have very little, such as Sandra Bland being left to die in prison under what can be at best described “suspicious circumstances.”

That’s an obvious feeling to have. But no way in hell should we believe that there is some conspiracy around Cosby, and that the numerous women who have accused him of assaulting them are all united in an attempt to put another brown body in jail. Again, this is where it’s important to step away from the white speak and remind the reader that there are too many black men in prison already, convicted of minor crimes that are left unpunished when perpetrated by their white counterparts such as smoking or distributing marijuana. The justice system and this country were built to oppress and imprison black bodies. But like what happened in Cologne, what happens in India, and what happened in Cosby’s bedroom, sexual assaults took place. Real crimes happened. Women were hurt, scarred, and their beings crushed by a man’s sexual lust.

No. Black and brown men aren’t more prone to committing sexual assault as compared to their white counterparts.

Yes. What happened to Tamir Rice and John Crawford require us to keep fighting against racism.

But a big N-O to believing that the image of the black or brown man who commits a sexual assault is the most important thing to take care instead of the woman or man who has been victimized by that person, no matter how wealthy or influential they are.

When we start blurring the lines between good sense and insanity, especially as men of color, we hurt the society we live in, we damage our ability to reason, and most importantly, we neglect and degrade the experiences of women. This is a complicated issue that requires a complicated solution and comprehension. There are no easy narratives to cling to. There are women who suffer from our gaze, and those who ignore that fact.

Kimberle Crenshaw, the famed academic who coined the term “intersectionality,” discussed this complicated matter in her work, as far back as 1991, when she published “Mapping the Margins: Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” which I recommend everyone to read at least once.

Just as a way to make the reading more accessible, I also suggest looking up Kimberle Crenshaw, critical race theory, and intersectionality. As a quick lesson, since I know time is valuable, especially while we live in a capitalist system, intersectionality is the recognition that we’re not one thing, when we present ourselves to the world. For example, I am a South Asian American male. Specifically, I am ethnically Bengali. I was born and raised in Queens. Spent my junior and high school days in New Jersey, hating on Desis who listened to Nelly. Fell in love with Nas’ Made You Look. Been writing since I was able to understand Disney movies. Very much a fan of Spider-Man comics, even though there has yet to be a good movie based on his story. Consider myself cis male, although I believe sexuality is fluid. Planning to buy a Lebron poster someday, played tackle football with friends, and hate guys who think emotions are a negative. But I can’t stand Drake. As you can see, we are multiple layers and those layers should matter when determining policy solutions.

In the piece by Crenshaw, she talks of how black women are made invisible by anti-racist causes and anti-sexist ones too. Anti-racists might want to make certain that their communities are stigmatized or stereotyped, and in doing so, persuade black women not to come forward with their cases of being sexually assaulted. This reminded me of the problem of domestic violence within South Asian American communities. For example, when there is a case of a South Asian male beating or assaulting his South Asian wife, which can oftentimes lead to murder, the narrative around that crime is depicted as an “honor killing” which connects back to the overall unjust theme of South Asian males being more angry and women-hating. But then, the worry about staining the community in the eyes of outsiders, can lead to South Asian women not wanting to come forward with their stories of abuse and sexual violence, which will just perpetuate the cycle of pain and heartbreak. Again, it is the image of the man of color, according to some, that needs to be preserved, not the psyche and body of the woman.

Among anti-sexist activists, the particular experiences of black women were often missing from the discussion over how women are perceived in cases of sexual assault. It was true that women in general have to always prove themselves to the jury about what happened to them as if they brought an attack upon themselves (the old ignorant adage of how a woman is dressed determines whether they’re asking for “it” or not). But, what white women failed to understand was that for black women on the stand, who were trying to tell the court about what they experienced, they faced a bigger proverbial mountain to climb. Since black women for the majority of American history have been portrayed as sexually promiscuous, jurors viewed black women victims as liars, and untrustworthy with their accounts of sexual assault. Essentially, black women are perceived as sexual deviants and not deserving of empathy.

Of course, times have changed, and now, we have black women leading the charge in the BLM movement and organizing around the bodies of women of color and trans women as well. But that doesn’t mean the problem is solved and that men of color suddenly are woke. Far from it, many of us are still using terms as Queen and Bitch, at the same time, talking about how us Asian men can’t get white women because we’re gendered as “women” in the mainstream media, and at the same time, get angry when we see an Asian woman dating a white man or even just outside her “race.” We are continuously going for a simple narrative when nuance and care is required.

This means acknowledging that what occurred in Cologne is indicative of a bigger problem. When women, white, brown or black, come forward with their stories of being assaulted that night, we must combat the racism and xenophobia that can take place, and also, the sexism inherent in male culture. This means speaking out against sexual assault in our communities, and not giving an inch to the sexists who can utilize talking-points as a way to silence the conversation.

Holding two thoughts at once shouldn’t be difficult for any of us with functioning brains. That one can be upset about our racist society, as well, as championing the rights for those who have been sexually assaulted. We must remember that there are women (in the case of Cologne, college campuses, and in society), and men too, who can feel isolated and damaged by a sexual assault.

All people deserve to live safe and happy lives.

If you are not interested in seeing that, then you are the problem too.


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