Stereotypes, Violence and Fatal Assumptions

For some people, stereotypes become an issue of survival, not representation. Visibility can become a life and death issue when your body is seen as a symbol for what people fear, hate or dehumanize. Stereotypes and assumptions can support, encourage or excuse violence against specific people whose bodies have been marked as a threat, expendable, or both. The colour of your skin or the length of your skirt can become shorthand for an excuse to treat you as less than human, when there is. no. excuse.

[Content warning: This post will be discussing physical, emotional and sexual violence throughout, including victim blaming and murder This warning applies to many of the links throughout the post as well. These things are not fun to talk about, but they are part of a reality for too many people and this kind of conversation can help to understand why violence is distributed unequally, and what we can do to change that.]

I’ve spoken recently about (in)visibility, stereotypes and representation, but I still wanted to focus in on some of the worst outcomes of these issues. There is tangible, irreversible damage done by stereotypes, although we may call it racism or racial profiling or bigotry or any number of -phobias. In my piece on hypervisibility, I spoke about hate crimes that Muslims (or those read as as Muslim) can face as a result of stereotypes, which is an example of these extreme consequences of stereotypes, but I couldn’t stop there. In this post, I’m going to use two examples to address two consequences of stereotypes. First, stereotypes supporting violence, and second, stereotypes inciting violence.

Supporting Violence

Most of the time, when someone commits violence against you, there is a sense that you are a victim who did not deserve this. The crime is immediately labeled unfair and unjust. However, for some people and some violence and some crimes, there is less sympathy. There are unofficial ‘deserving’ victims. There are “What did you expect?” responses. The “should have known better”s. There is a sense of the inevitable about the crime against them. If you live in a certain neighbourhood, frequent certain places, you might find this attitude applies to you. If you are a woman who experiences sexual violence, victim blaming is practically par for the course.

Victim blaming is exactly what it sounds like. Victims are blamed for what happened to them, instead of blame being laid on the perpetrator. This phenomenon is disgustingly common and is part of rape culture. Rape culture is, in very short, the everyday acts, images and ideas that allow sexual violence to be normalized, excused, supported, and even sanctioned. How this ties in to stereotypes is that the implicit permission for violence against women applies doubly to ‘certain women.’

In Vancouver, Canada, women from the Downtown Eastside have been disappearing for years. It took decades of women going missing from this low income neighbourhood for the local police and RCMP to round up the serial killer haunting their streets. In 2002, Robert Pickton was finally charged with the first degree murder of 27 women, although he is suspected in about 50 cases of missing women from the Downtown Eastside. The details of the case are gruesome, heartbreaking and enraging at every turn – from the murders themselves to the handling of the case. My point in bringing it up in this post is that justice for these women (and for women in the Downtown Eastside who were not taken but could have been and continue to face violence) did not come because they are not the ‘right kind’ of victim. These were women from the poorest area in Canada, many were First Nations, most were involved in sex work, and many had substance abuse issues. Stereotypes marked them as expected victims, maybe even inevitable victims, whose deaths did not disrupt the system. The violence against them was supported and excused and allowed by the stereotypes that marked them as easy targets. Impoverished sex workers being killed fails to shock a city, a nation, a generation who has watched CSI and Law & Order and the daily news nightly. It is dangerous to be walking around with a body that people interpret as a ready-made victim, as undeserving of sympathy, as an unsurprising target. Groups have rallied – have had to rally – to demand accountability for killer, for the police, and the city who stood by as woman after woman went missing and the reports were brushed off with excuses.

How someone is seen undeniably influences the response to their disclosure of violence. For example, when a woman reports sexual harassment, assault or rape, there is often a (spoken or unspoken) question that springs to the lips of those who hear: what was she wearing? Stereotypes associated with ‘provocative’ clothing (short skirts, low cut tops, revealing outfits… although you’ll get arguments for almost anything) have too often been given as a good enough reason not to get consent, or to assume that it’s always present (and what exactly is the mini skirt supposed to be provoking, I wonder). The stereotype follows that women who dress “like that” are “asking for it” and are sexually available.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are also rape survivors who are doubted because they are seen as not “attractive enough” to be raped, which entirely misunderstands rape as sex, because it is about power and not attraction. Other people have historically been seen as “un-rape-able” based on their bodies, like sex workers, slaves, or men and boys. In so many horrible ways, the body becomes evidence to be held for or against a rape survivor. The body becomes an excuse that is manipulated for other people’s ends. These excuses, built on stereotypes, support and arguably encourage violence.

Your body is no accurate barometer for your ability to give or deny consent. What you do with your body does not eliminate your right to give or deny consent. Stereotypes about rape and about women give a dangerous, false impression of the who, what, why and how of sexual violence. Violence continues in part because stereotypes are applied to real people.

Inciting Violence

Stereotypes may not only support violence but actually create a reason for it to begin. This typically happens when a stereotype paints certain people as inherently dangerous or/and threatening. Violence is then seen as an ‘appropriate response’ to their very existence. It can become a knee-jerk reaction. Laws, policies and perspectives can then incorporate the logic of responding with violence to entire categories of people.

The stereotype of the Criminal Black Man assumes that Black men are synonymous with crime, turning these men into a threat merely by existing. Black men in America (and in the West more generally) don’t need to do a thing to make themselves intimidating to those that hold this stereotype.

Touré, from MSNBC, explains the Criminal Black Man stereotype in the clip and I encourage you to watch the entire thing, but I want to highlight a section of it. First, Touré describes the stereotype as “the assumption of black male criminality – the way that we are so often guilty until proven innocent” and cites studies that have found that “people of all races tend to think that they see guns in the hands of unarmed Black men far more often than the hands of unarmed whites.” He goes on to say,

“Black people have long known that young black men are viewed as criminals, whether or not they are, and Black men often instill fear in others without even trying to and that fear becomes our problem. It becomes confrontations that we don’t want and incidents that we don’t deserve. This is why my parents told me when I was young the same sorts of things that so many Black parents have told their sons: “Don’t run in public if at all possible, unless you’re playing sports. In stores, keep your hands visible at all times. Avoid putting them in your pockets, lest you appear to be stealing. And if you end up speaking to police, speak softly, answer questions directly and quickly, and also bury your anger and resentment at being treated like a criminal until later. Society is afraid of you and that’s your problem.”

As a young white woman, I have no idea what it’s like to be interpreted as threat or for my parents to sit me down and warn me that world thinks I am a bomb that could go off at any second. That there are teams of people waiting at the door for a wrong move. I get the benefit of the doubt – so much doubt that I am much nearer the predestined victim than the inevitable criminal – and, until recently, I had never thought about what it would be like not to have that privilege. I had not imagined being a mother who had to tell her son that the world may not welcome him. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what that feels like.

Touré says, “We are expected to be monsters until proven safe because the biases of so many lead to the criminal actions of a few, representing the inherent criminality of all. This while the criminal behaviour of white men does not overshadow all of them,” and isn’t that the difference? Here, a stereotype will be applied to an entire group and trap them in a box labelled “Danger” regardless of the truth, but white criminals and serial killers and terrorists do not become emblems of their entire racial category. Their bodies remain their own, their actions their own, and their fate their own. White men are not feared by dominant, white society and so they do not have to fear.

The media is not shy about the message that black men are to be feared – just turn on the news during prime time – and the popularity of this stereotype is not without consequences. Seen as inherent risks to public safety, it ‘makes sense’ for over 50% of NYC’s stop and frisks to happen to Black people (compared to under 15% for white people), for Black people in America to have a 6 times higher incarceration rate compared to white people, to receive 20% longer sentences than white folks who commit the same crime…If you can see beyond the stereotype and actually examine the figures, there’s no rational explanation for this kind of disparity. It doesn’t seem just or fair, especially when you look at reports stating that white people are more likely to abuse drugs but less likely to be searched, caught or charged. White bodies aren’t labelled as a threat the minute that they walk into courtrooms and that matters to the judge and jury.

Trayvon Martin was a young black man who was interpreted like young black men so often are. He was seen as a threat. He was seen as out of place and dangerous in a gated community. So dangerous that Zimmerman had to call to the cops about this seventeen year old in his neigbourhood, on his territory. So dangerous in his hoodie, walking while Black, that Zimmerman could not trust the police to come quickly enough. He could not wait. Trayvon Martin was seen as a threat, but in reality, he was the one being threatened. He was the one who should be afraid, it turns out. Being assumed dangerous at all times is dangerous.

The protests that have followed the Martin case have recognized the influence of stereotypes in his death. In the marches, many are wearing hoodies and clearly connecting the dots between violence and stereotypes. A young black man in a hoodie links up neatly to the visual attached to the criminal black man stereotype.

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Martin is not the first black man – boy – to die because he was too dangerous to be allowed, his body somehow enough damning evidence against him. Black parents are forced to again face the fact that their children are not safe and may not find justice because they are immediately the enemy. Their baby boy is seen as the criminal black man by people with enough resources and power to act on their assumptions. He is not given the benefit of innocent until proven guilty, a white privilege that could keep him safe.

Stereotypes don’t just appear in politically incorrect cartoons or bad jokes or vintage television. Stereotypes are acted out on our streets, in our courtrooms, in hospitals, in classrooms, and in our lives. Being seen through the lens of a stereotype leaves a person visible only as something they are not – maybe a target, maybe a threat, maybe a mixture of the two – and it a hazardous way to be seen. Stereotypes can and do support and incite violence. They must be challenged in any form they take. It is not harmless when we refuse to recognize one another and look past stereotypes. The cost of not being seen as you are can be very, very high.

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Hypervisibility: How Scrutiny and Surveillance Make You Watched, but Not Seen

There is a world of difference between being seen and being watched. Many people live in the space of this difference, especially those whose very bodies are seen as a threat. A simple example is of a teenager walking into a 7-11 and being under the scrutiny of the cashier, who is waiting for them to shoplift, which is totally different from being acknowledged (seen) as a valued customer. We’ve spoken a lot about invisibility in the two weeks or so, but the flip side of hypervisibility can have incredibly negative impacts as well.

Hypervisibility is a type of scrutiny based on perceived difference, which is usually (mis)interpreted as deviance. Often, this deviance becomes a focal point for outside attention and comes to symbolize or represent a hypervisible person, group or place. When you become overly visible, you’re often constantly under the gaze of others. You are being looked at, sure, but you are being watched and judged, so it’s not kind of visibility that people tend to seek if given a choice.

There are probably times in your life when you’ve felt hypervisible. When have you felt like you were under scrutiny because you were the “odd one out”? When I’m the only woman in a room full of men, I sometimes feel like my woman-ness stands out and puts more critical eyes on me, making me hesitant to speak. It’s at these moments that my emotions, appearance, gender, intelligence or feminism are mostly likely to garner dismissive or harsh comments. If I come across as ‘too much’ of woman, I can lose credibility and respect to some degree. These are daily moments that can highlight the discomfort of being made more visible based on difference or deviance.

Hypervisibility is experienced by many groups, but I think two clear examples in a North American context are Black women and Muslim people. These two groups are both frequently the object of media attention without being offered many opportunities to genuinely shape how they are represented or allowed space to become active subjects of media coverage by driving the story based on their own perspective. This often boils down to, on a basic level, seeing a lot of footage of these groups without hearing from them. They are highly visible within mainstream culture, but the coverage is based on reaffirming their difference and leans heavily on stereotypes to establish their deviance.

Hypervisible as Hypersexualized

In the United States, Black women have historically been stereotyped and depicted as hypersexualized and constantly available, particularly to white men. Unfortunately, that image of the sexualized Black woman is hypervisible. This means that the stereotype of the hypersexual, hyper-available Black woman is incredibly pervasive because this idea is repeated (re-presented) over and over.

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[Image depicts a Black woman with a large afro with her back to the viewer. She is only wearing very short booty shorts and has turned half way back towards the viewer so that some of her breast is revealed. She uses one hand to shield herself. She is winking and the the text behind her says, “Free Ride.”]

This is no new phenomenon, although with media available to access 24/7 hypervisibility has been taken to a whole new level. For generations, Black women were seen in the West as constantly sexually available and deviant compared to the supposed ‘modesty’ of respectable white women. Treva Lindsey, a Women’s and Gender Studies professor, has a really interesting talk available on YouTube speaking to the history of hypervisible and hypersexualized Black women in the United States. She also discusses the challenges of trying to negotiate  a powerful erotic space in the face of hypervisible hypersexualized imagery that haunts women of colour and Black women in particular. Making room for the kind of sexual performance that can be empowering rather than exploitative can be challenging when so many people insist on seeing (and depicting) your body as negatively sexualized and objectified.

Heads, I win. Tails, you lose

Managing visibility is arguably a critical, challenging and frustratingly necessary skill for those who are vulnerable to both invisibility and hypervisibility. If hypervisibility threatens overexposure and harsh scrutiny while invisibility enforces silence and erasure, marginalized groups are left in a precarious position. Visibility therefore becomes a double edged sword that seems dangerous to wield at times. Is it worth trying to be seen if it really just opens me up to be judged?

Managing visibility is very difficult in this position, as you’re likely to get burned in either direction without the benefit of truly being seen and acknowledged. On a day to day basis, it can require the choice of a) speaking up for yourself/others and being ridiculed/threatened, or b) staying silent and your interests being ignored/invisible. I don’t know if the decision of what to do in this situation gets any less stressful over time, but I think practice makes it easier if you do choose to speak up. Do you have a strategy for dealing with the moment when you are asked to risk hypervisibility or invisibility? Have you been successful in making yourself visible and heard in that situation?

Making Everyone’s “Watch List”

Muslims and Arabs in the West, but particularly in the United States, are experiencing an awful type of hypervisibility. After 9/11, there has been a significant number of people who perceive Muslim people negatively, even stereotyping them as terrorists merely for practicing their faith.  Sadly, there were 157 reported) hate crimes against Muslims in the United States in 2011;the numbers don’t appear to have settled even over a decade after 9/11. The wrongful and harmful representation of Muslim and Arab people in the media has left many people extremely uninformed about the realities of those groups. This has hardly increased cross-cultural understanding. In the wake of a national tragedy, there has been a rush to ‘secure,’ surveil and detain, but Muslim and Arab people have experienced an arguably unique brand of body terrorism based on being a hypervisible “threat.” Muslims and Arabs across North America are being profiled,* judged, jailed, denied entry, stereotyped, threatened and even killed for how their bodies are seen.

In fact, even those who can be mistaken for Muslim, like people who are Sikh or look Arab, are feeling the negative spillover effects of this hypervisibility as well.  And when I say “negative spillover effects,” I mean that people have been killed because they were mistaken for being Muslim, as we saw in 2001 when a gas station owner was murdered for the mistake and, in August of last year, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin was the target of an assault that ending in 6 people dead and more injured.

It can be dangerous to be hypervisible. It may mean that when people see you, they see red. There are real, horrifying consequences to your body – your race, your religious expression, your nationality, your sexuality – being deemed a threat. (Perceived) deviance seems dangerous to some and often falls under the watchful eye of those who do not see individuals but a monolithic risk or inferior group. Unseen and  unacknowledged but always under scrutiny, hypervisible groups may find that invisibility is actually preferable. If being hypervisibility puts you at risk of violence, judgment, exclusion, or even a hate crime, there’s little surprise that people surround themselves in their community, whatever that may be.

In fact, hypervisibility really is just another way to deny people recognition and the right to be truly seen. It is the trial by fire version of invisibility; instead of freezing you out, we’ll put you on the hot seat. It’s still not a place at the table. The ability to be recognized is so often constructed as privilege reserved for lucky few whose bodies and identities are accepted by default. As a white, generally abled, cis woman and Canadian citizen, I often have the privilege to blend in when I need to and be heard when I’d like. My taste of hypervisibility comes mostly by way of gender, but my other privileges often soften the scrutiny I might otherwise feel if I ‘overstep.’ In some cases, I am more likely to find people like me in the room who can act as allies when I feel the eyes of others on me.

This privilege requires me to try to act as an ally for those who don’t benefit from this kind of easy visibility. It is my responsibility to try to soften the gaze on those who are constantly under the microscope in the media, constantly being asked to explain and justify and erase their difference. Maybe at first this just looks like recognizing my own contribution and refusing to judge. Maybe it is working to challenge policies that target hypervisible groups or petitioning media to offer better representation. Speaking to peers, friends and family about stereotypes and challenging their assumptions about people can be difficult, but as you question the judgment of others, it also opens you up to question judgment of yourself. Scrutiny of difference, labelling that as deviance and punishing it, benefits no one. Visibility can be about recognizing and welcoming, rather than exploiting and rejecting – if we are looking at it the right way.

*More general profiling information here, for example, as it is a clear consequence of being seen as a hypervisible threat and it applies to many groups.