A Double Violation
Rape and Race – A Double Violation. Rebecca Helman writes about how racism affects those who have been raped and how it affects how we think about and respond to those who have been raped
The nurse approaches me in the waiting room. “Who are you bringing for an appointment?” I look at her confused. “Who is the patient?” she asks. “I am the patient”. “Oh”, she says. She looks surprised.
I am at a government clinic at 9am on a Monday morning. There is a young womxn sitting on the couch opposite me. She looks about eighteen. We are there for the same reason – we have both been raped. This is probably her first appointment. She is holding the care package and the information book that I received when I came in a month ago, a few hours after I was raped. She, like me, is visibly anxious. She is staring at the floor in front of her. We are both uncomfortable to be in the waiting room of the Thuthuzela Care Centre. But the nurse does not ask her who she is bringing for an appointment or who the patient is. The nurse knows she is the patient.
The only explanation I have for why the nurse questions me and not the young womxn sitting across from me is that our skin is different. Her dark skin is taken as a sign that she belongs here. Her dark skin is seen as part of the reason why she is here, why she was raped. She is seen as “just another black girl who was raped” – just one of perhaps a hundred that the nurse sees every month. My light skin, however, stands out in this place. My whiteness is incompatible with the image of the “rape victim”. It must be a mistake, the nurse assumes. It cannot be me who was raped.
I cannot recall the first time that I realised I was white. This is because I grew up in an area where most people looked like me, where I was not teased for the colour of my skin or the texture of my hair. And so I came to understand that being white was “normal” and that the world operated in line with white values and white ways of doing things. Yet my uncritical acceptance of the normality of whiteness occurred despite the glaring evidence that the vast majority of South Africans are excluded from the kinds of privileges my whiteness afforded me. Because of my white skin and the protection it gave me, I did not need to question the status quo. This is how white privilege operates. It made (and at times still makes) it so easy for me to believe that my experience is the experience of so many others.
Following that day in the waiting room of the Thuthuzela Care Centre, I know that my experience is not the experience of others. This is not to deny that there are aspects of rape that are similar no matter the colour of your skin. My experience of being raped and my experience of being a counsellor for four years at an organisiation that supports rape survivors have shown me that rape is always terrible, it is always terrifying, violating and inexcusable.
But the way we as a society respond to different instances of rape suggests that some rapes are less terrible, less terrifying, less violating and therefore more excusable. Racism is central to classifying instances of sexual violence as more or less deserving of our attention and outrage. We can see this in the way in which the rape of poor black womxn is met with far less public outrage than the rape of other (particularly white) womxn. The case of Sinoxolo Mafevuka, who was raped and murdered near her home in Khayelitsha is just one example of this. Sinoxolo’s rape and murder became visible in the news only after the rape and murder of another teenager, Franziska Blöchliger in the affluent suburb of Tokai. Dan Mtana, Sinoxolo’s cousin sums up the way in which race shaped responses to the two cases. He says: “We saw the Tokai murder on television. But it made us realise that no one cares about us, because we are black. I mean, when the Tokai murder occurred police focused all their energy on it. What about my sister?”
Because Sinoxolo is black, her rape and murder received less sympathy, anger and justice. The double violation of rape and racism caused even more pain, anger and frustration for those close to Sinoxolo.
And what about the young womxn sitting across from me in the waiting room at the Thuthuzela Care Centre and all the other black girls and womxn that see what happens to womxn like Sinoxolo? Black girls and womxn are constantly reminded, both subtly and explicitly, that their rapes are less serious than the rapes of other girls and womxn. They are told that their violation is less unacceptable and that the pain, fear, shame and anger that they feel as a result of having been raped is not as valid.
The fact that the nurse was not surprised or curious about the young womxn sitting across from me confirms that it is not shocking that she had been raped – instead it is normal, perhaps even inevitable. Besides the girls and womxn who come into the clinic every day, I am sure that like most of us, the nurse sees the daily news reports about the brutalisation of black female bodies. I’m sure she is familiar with the case of Anene Booysen and the explicit details of her attack. In the case of Sinoxolo, it was widely publicised that her body was found naked, stuffed inside a portable toilet. These gory details, which capture public interest and sometimes spur public outrage, continuously remind us that terrible violence happens to black girls and womxn all the time and so this violence becomes normal and we stop being surprised when it happens.
As a society, we teach black girls and womxn that it is “normal” for them to be raped. We teach boys and men that it is “normal” to rape black girls and womxn. We teach black girls and womxn that they are not allowed to complain if they are raped. We teach men that the consequences of raping black girls and womxn are less serious. We violate the bodies of black girls and womxn after they have already been so deeply violated by denying their trauma and anguish. We deny their humanity and their right to live free from physical and psychological violence.
I wish I had said something to the nurse that day that I sat in the waiting room of the Thuthuzela Care Centre. I wish I had said that she should be shocked and surprised every time someone comes through the door of the clinic, regardless of the colour of their skin. I wish I had reached out to the young womxn sitting across from me in the Thuthuzela Care Centre. I wish I had let her know that I too am hurt, angry, ashamed and fearful because of what happened to me. I wish I had explained that her rape, like mine, is not normal, it is always unacceptable. I wish I had told her that I am furious and anguished not only because I was raped, but because she was raped and because hundreds of other girls and womxn are raped every day in our country.
I did not have the words or the courage as I sat in the waiting room to say any of those things. But I write them now. I write them to show how racism affects those who have been raped, and how racism affects the way we as a society think about and respond to those who have been raped. I write to show how we all continue to be complicit in the double violation of black womxn and girls who have been raped. I write to show how immensely far we still have to go before we achieve equality, and that it is only possible if we recognise the multiple and interlinked forms that inequality takes.