Thursday, April 13, 2006

"A Social Diasater" : Voices from Durham--Wahneema Lubiano

Perfect Offenders, Perfect Victim:
The Limitations of Spectacularity in the Aftermath of the Lacrosse Team Incident

by Wahneema Lubiano

Legal scholar and critical race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw has asserted that the default doctrine of colorblindness in law forces black Americans “to articulate themselves as perfect victims as against a perfect discriminator” [citation: The House That Race Built, (ed.) W. Lubiano]. Crenshaw’s language about the working of the law helps me think about some things that I’m hearing in this moment. Throughout various discussions of the criminal and social issues of this incident, I hear desire on the part of various constituencies for the comfort either of being able to construct a perfect offender and a perfect victim, and, therefore, some kind of resolution, or the converse position–the comfort of saying that the impossibility of constructing a perfect offender and a perfect victim means that nothing happened and that nothing needs to be resolved.

There is a spectacularity to what has been discussed and represented, and that spectacularity, I think, is driven in no small part by some desire for our understanding to be complete, coherent, and visible. This moment’s intensity is driven equally by the relative privateness of our encounters. We’re part of a university and a city, but absent the space that was opened up by the protests, vigils, and scattered limited fora such as this one, we don’t have a public sphere where discussion easily flows. And in the midst of the difficulty of bridging the distances between us and the structures of power wherein decisions are made, we have to yell in order to be heard.

At the same time we read and watch the media through which positions are articulated, and we consume again and again the spectacle that is news and the news as spectacle. Whatever our desires and fears are in this moment, depending upon our ability to be heard, the threads of our fears and desires are woven through the positions we articulate. And the positions that are articulated are filtered and modified by hierarchies of power and influence and by conventional wisdom which is itself influenced by powerful actors. The heat, then, is necessarily turned up.

In other words, I’m suggesting that some of the discussion, the rhetoric, being circulated in the aftermath of the incident and coming either from those defending the alleged offenders or those defending the alleged victim, is rhetoric driven, haunted, by a fight over whether or not we have offenders who can be seen as “perfect” in their villainy and a victim whose victimage can be seen as necessarily complete and thus “perfect.”

Within the terms of the responses to the incident, I understand the impulse of those outraged and who see the alleged offenders as the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy, the politically dominant race and ethnicity, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus. Further, this group has been responsible for extended social violence against the neighborhood in which they reside. In short, by a combination of their behaviors and what they represent in terms of social facts, and by virtue of their relation to the alleged victim, for those who are defenders of the victim, the members of the team are almost perfect offenders in the sense that Crenshaw writes about. As more information circulates and the stakes are raised by virtue of considerations of Duke’s and the nation’s long-standing class, race, and gender disparities, they are increasingly “perfected” as offenders. As part of this dynamic, the young woman, black and non-wealthy, made even more vulnerable by virtue of being employed by the perfect offenders and outnumbered, approaches the state of perfect victim. However, even within the media circulation of narratives, neither the offenders’ nor the victim’s “perfection” is absolutely complete; our own imaginations and our own language has to complete it.

For those who are critical of the victim, her specific vulnerabilities as someone who works at a job socially disapproved of by much of the public, whose presence in the house constitutes for them a mitigation of her victimage–even a rationale for what might have happened to her, and whose complexities as parent and student are marginalized in discussions that support the offenders, her victimage is far from perfect. Being a woman already means that her behavior is subject to heightened social scrutiny and disciplining and makes her a target both of free-floating sexism that regulates the social behavior of women and of Puritanism about the body and its display. For those critical of the alleged victim, her “perfectness” as victim is severely decreased by her position as an outlier in terms of norms of acceptable female gender behavior. Against this assault by her critics, her race, her gender, her class standing, her status as a mother, and her position as a student have to be rhetorically heightened by her defenders in order for them to secure a tenuous hold on her perfectness as victim.

Within the specifics of this moment, for those who are critical of the team, in order for their “perfectness” as offenders to intensify, any ethnic differences among the offenders have to disappear into a general “whiteness”; any differences among the familial wealth has to disappear into a general understanding of their privilege; and any differences among the behaviors of individual players has to disappear into a general understanding of their record of bad behavior. Within the specifics of this moment, any complexity of the victim has to disappear into a general understanding of what she represents historically–a category of those socially, economically, and politically disadvantaged who are subject to the domination of the offender category. The perfectness of the offenders has to be solidified so that a critique of their social and institutional production can be underscored. Against this solidification of their perfectness as offenders, their defenders have to reinforce and heighten the circulation of rhetoric around a narrative, among other things, of their wonderful athletic ability, understandings of them as fine, upstanding young men or boys who are good students, the products of good homes, and the possessors of good characters attested to by their grades, their performances, and the fine characters and records of those who support them. Their perfectness as offenders has to be lessened, mitigated, or disrupted to the point that any bad behavior is forgiveable by virtue of the mitigations – mitigations such as “they aren’t any different from other young men” who drink and party in boisterous manner and, occasionally, slip over the line of acceptable behavior; therefore, what is happening to them is a horrible injustice. Their offense has to decrease in size and severity.

In this moment, my concern is with the attractiveness either of the dynamic of the construction or the utter dissolution of perfect victimage and perfect offenders and, by extension, the demand that any offense itself be perfect or perfectible. Whatever is routine about this incident is marginalized while a desire for the incident to live up to its most horrific possibilities fights it out in public discussion with its rhetorical other – the desire to mitigate the routine ugliness by insisting that the most horrific possibilities are impossible under the particular circumstances of the case. This fight of desires then extends to the question of evidence – a demand for perfect evidence on the part of the defenders of the team (a demand most spectacularly articulated by, but not limited, of course, to their lawyers). The idea that evidence, like all other aspects of the incident, is part of a circulation of narratives seems to be lost as the newspapers and the television move from one flash point to another.

Now, why am I talking about what is happening in discussions about this incident in this way? Why am I raising these questions? I want to move from the specific harms associated with the incident alleged at the house on N. Buchanan Blvd. in order to look at the more difficult to “see,” the less spectacularly visible harms of more generally structured and distributed sexism and racism. I want to do this for what I consider two imporant reasons.

1. I want to help clarify thinking and discussion around what has happened in the aftermath of March 13th. If a crime occurred, I want to insist that the victim need not be spectacularly represented or constructed as a perfect victim; the offenders need not be spectacularly represented or constructed as perfect offenders; the crime need not have the contours of the worst possible set of actions that can be imagined for great harm to have been done to this young woman. Gendered violence is much more often banal and routine as much as it is horrific. I want us all to remember that.

2. As a precondition of thinking through the complexities of necessary institutional change in this moment, I offer my critique of perfect offender, perfect victim, perfect crime, and perfect evidence construction and dissolution as an analogy for thinking about such change. I offer this to all of us but especially to individuals, newspaper editors, and columnists weighing in on this matter in print on this campus. I do think that the Duke administration is getting the point.

In other words, (1) Duke need not be proved to be the worst or the only institutional sinner ever to have inhabited the earth, (2) not every single person of color and/or woman on this campus needs to have been harmed moment-by-moment by either the most horrific presence of racism and/or sexism or their most routine manifestations, and (3) Durham does not need to have to prove that it never benefitted from Duke’s presence, in order for change in the institution to be undertakened. And the proving of all acts of individual racism, sexism, and gendered violence is not necessary before structural racism and sexism are addressed.

Different versions of this desire for perfection that I’m talking about become visible in a kind of dominant or mainstream discourse and call for a perfect proof of harm: within that discourse, all people of color must be called some version of nigger, raghead, or wetback for racism to register its presence; all women must show themselves to be of sterling character and careful of their dress, behavior, and location when sexism is demonstrated in order for its workings to be acknowledged; all those who are less well-off must certify their lack of income and its relation to their diminished social and economic opportunities in order for classism to be raised as a concern.

What attention to spectacularity brings with it is a hideous cost: the absolute worst that can be imagined must be shown to be present for any harm to be perceived as possible. Such thinking, if extended to a history of the institution’s past or a history of its present, means that harms can’t be addressed unless the worst possible individual subjects are caught in the act of behaving in the worst possible fashion to the most severely injured and worthy victims. A movement away from the demand for spectacularity of sexism, racism, and gender violence toward understanding and consideration of the everydayness of those things could work toward erasing or at least easing the almost knee-jerk dismissal of charges of racism, sexism, and a critique of class entitlements, a dismissal continually on display in newspaper editorials and columns, and by individual speakers and groups that insist on spectacularly visible expressions of such. We don’t have to wait for fully attested to conspiracies among highly placed officials, or cross burnings on the quad or in dorm halls, or assaults attested to by perfectly placed witnesses and evidence in order to undertake change.

Regardless of the “truth” established in whatever period of time about the incident at the house on N. Buchanan Blvd., the engine of outcry in this moment has been fueled by the difficult and mundane reality that pre-existed this incident and that continues to occur in everday and non-spectacular life in this place. Whatever happens with the court case, what people are asking is that something changes.


Wahneema Lubiano is Associate Professor of Literature and African and African American Studies(Ph.D., Stanford, 1987). Before coming to Duke she taught at Princeton, the University of Texas at Austin, and Williams College. Her essays and articles have been published in Social Text, Cultural Critique, boundary 2, American Literary History, Callaloo, New Engladn Quarterly, among other publications. She is author of the forthcoming books Messing With the Machine: Politics, Form and African-American Fiction and Like Being Mugged by a Metaphor: "Deep Cover" and Other "Black" Fictions, and editor of The House That Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain (1996). Her current research interests include African-American literature, African-American popular culture and film, womens' studies, black intellectual history, and nationalism.