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The short skirt and the hoodie

Alex Coccia | Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I actually remember when I learned what “rape” meant. I was in grade school and a city bus passed by when I was in the car with my mother. The big advertisement on the side of the bus showed a woman, obviously distressed, with a black background and big red words: “It’s not your fault. It’s rape.” After what must have been a conversation that my mom was not expecting at that moment, I understood. Of course it was not the woman’s fault! It was the fault of the rapist!

But agency is too often lost in the conversation. Most of the time, “she was raped.” Or, to make matters worse, “She was raped because her skirt was too low; she was asking for it.” Where’s the mention of the rapist? The “short” nature of the skirt actually veils the entire responsibility of the rapist. This is a common discussion on how we talk about something as horrible as rape. Unfortunately, the passive, place-responsibility-on-the-victim response is all too common in these conversations and a dangerous sentiment that moves into multiple sectors of our socio-cultural dialogue.

In my columns, I’ve written about rhetoric that is violent, divisive and that effectively evades addressing the actual issues. But nothing is more relevant now than the response rhetoric by some to Trayvon Martin’s death. President Obama’s, “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon,” comment says a lot about the nature of dialogue that we have entered into as a nation, and it’s a good thing. President Obama’s comment, specifically, is appropriate because it focuses on the victim and his humanity. The Million Hoodie Marches that have erupted because of the inadequate response by the Sanford police department also focus on Trayvon – “Our son is your son,” said his mother.

But Geraldo Rivera of FOX News shared a sentiment that, like in the rhetoric on rape and sexual assault, does not view Trayvon as a son, but as an accomplice to his own murder, someone who is as much accountable for his own death as George Zimmerman. Rivera’s “different take” on the issue goes like this:

“I believe that George Zimmerman, the overzealous neighborhood watch-captain, should be investigated to the fullest extent of the law and if he is criminally liable he should be prosecuted. But I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters, particularly, to not let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was. … He wore an outfit that allowed someone to respond in this irrational, overzealous way.”

This is the reaction and the rationale that we have to worry about. It is license; it is excuse; it is distraction. It says to the victim, speak quietly, you never know when you’ll be asking for it; it says to those who foster prejudices, continue living with them; it says to the community, blame an article of clothing for the death, or the rape, or the beating or the discrimination.

Our clothing can say a lot about how we define ourselves, what we view as style, the message on our t-shirt that we want to send or the sports teams that we support. But our clothing says nothing about our intentions. The man in the suit and tie is just as likely to rob you of your money as the man wearing the hoodie.

Getting past our internal prejudices is something that Cornel West describes as “a perennial struggle”: “To recognize that the evil is inside each and every one of us, in part because of that treacherous terrain called history that has shaped, socialized and acculturated us.” So, it is true that we cannot view the crime as beginning and ending with the criminal. Crime must always be viewed within a wider context than just the perpetrator. But that wider context means taking a look at our prejudices and confronting them – trying to eliminate our prejudices instead of safeguarding them. We cannot progress as a society when prejudices become the determinants for our deemed-to-be moral behavior, instead of moral behavior being the foundation to eliminate our prejudices. If we are passive in the dialogue, if we are passive in the response, if we lessen the accountability of the perpetrator by unloading that burden on the victim, then we are fostering a culture that says it is ok for people to shoot 17-year-old boys or for people to rape women.

It is not the hoodie’s fault or the skirt’s fault. We have to examine prejudices and this evasive rhetoric and move beyond both. Murder is the fault of a murderer; rape the fault of the rapist. Let’s not give them any excuses, because our society cannot afford excuses.

Alex Coccia is a sophomore. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.