Our own Ian Cromwell (the one and only Crommunist) posted today on the Schroedinger’s Rapist metaphor and the pushback against it that uses racism as an example (if you don’t know the back story, Daniel Finke provides). Ian’s thesis is this:
I’ve frequently heard people object to the Schroedinger’s Rapist argument as sexist, with anti-black racism used as a counter-example. I reject this comparison because it neglects two important factors: 1) that the issue under discussion is about whether or not we want women to feel more comfortable; and 2) that black people often make similar behavioural adjustments to accommodate the racism of their white friends. I share some personal stories to illustrate this.
He invited my comment and I realized I was just writing a blog post of my own. So here goes!
(To all of my readers, the following assumes you’ve read his post.)
Ian, awesome. I agree with most everything you say. I’d only offer some qualifications that come from comparing my experience and attitude to yours. You can tell me if I’m on track with this or not. (Though much of this in fact confirms your point.)
I think we should still account for the fact that there’s a difference between reasonable and unreasonable reactions.
I believe it would be wrong of you to adjust your behavior because of that crazy street-crossing lady, because not all people are like that. If I have to jog to get somewhere on time, I jog. You shouldn’t be deprived of that option because of your skin color. Were a hooded black man jogging up behind me, I would not be any more concerned than I would be were it a white man, nor would I dash away. And that’s saying something, as I’ve not only been attacked by black men, I was attacked for being white. So if anything you might think I’d have a legitimate reason to flee from jogging black men. But I’m not an idiot. I don’t assume all black men are racists or violent. And one dude jogging does not fall into any threatening reference class I know.
Likewise (regarding your door-to-door example), I chat with black men who show up at my door unusually frequently (I say unusually only because I live in a very diverse neighborhood and most people don’t). Again, people not talking to you is simply irrational behavior. You might have to end-round it (by wearing a suit, or developing a more disarming opening line and smile) for the practical reason that you need their cooperation and there really isn’t anything you can do about their being a racist idiot. But, IMO, you don’t have to like it. And when you don’t need their cooperation, you don’t owe them anything. Their fear and discomfort is their own damn fault. (But again, that’s just IMO.)
On the other hand, as I have myself been menaced by groups of black men for being white (complete with anti-white racial slurs and attacks with hurled bottles; I live on the edge of a rough town), I will cross the street to avoid a group of black men dressed like gangbangers, but not a group of black men dressed in suits or jogging clothes or even dressed in “hip hop” kit but with backpacks (as the sort of guys who would menace me would not be so dorky as to carry backbacks; those are clearly school kids). My reasoning is not “those guys must be dangerous” but “if I avoid those guys, my risk of being menaced declines considerably.” And that conclusion is based on actual, personal experience. (Which is also neighborhood specific; I have no such worries walking about in Harlem where I effectively lived for many years.)
It’s also not based solely on their being black (obviously it is partly: in this town [Richmond, California] there are some black people who will attack you for being white, whereas no white people tend to attack you for being white), but on their wearing gear that identifies them with the culture that dangerous men boast being a part of. And yet, only some people in that culture are dangerous. Thus, my avoiding them does not entail I assume they are dangerous, but only that I am reducing my risk in the event that they are. I don’t see that as racism. It looks more like common sense to me. (Which, as you note, is exactly a woman’s point: any random man could be Schroedinger’s Rapist–that doesn’t mean 50/50, but still a non-negligible risk that has to be managed.)
Accordingly, a bunch of black guys who see me do that in this town should know there are guys who actually do look like them who would give me shit, and thus acknowledge that it’s not unreasonable of me to avoid finding out. They might even telegraph a heightened friendliness to reassure me that they aren’t those guys. And that would be entirely reasonable, too.
This kind of adjustment doesn’t necessarily have to do with race, either. Even though I am white, I would have enough presence of mind to know I shouldn’t walk into a business wearing a ski mask, even if I was wearing it just to keep warm; and I wouldn’t joke about carrying a bomb within earshot of airport security; and I engage all manner of adjustments to my behavior to ensure my presence in some context is not misinterpreted. As you point out, that’s just good sense.
Like you, I’ve been attentive to what clothes I was wearing, for example, and adjusted to compensate, e.g. when I’m thrashed from construction work and covered in mud and grunge and dirt and wearing “second hand” clothes (because those are the ones I don’t care about getting ruined), and I walk into a shop to get a coke, I make an effort (by whatever means, from body language to conversation to facial expressions) to telegraph that I’m an orderly, intelligent man with money, and not a crazy homeless guy keen on pinching something.
And like you, I have often scared the hell out of people by walking up on them too quickly, so I also shuffle my feet now so someone ahead of me is aware. And even then (and this has happened a couple times just in the last year) I sometimes get fearful, worried looks as I pass. And I’m a white dude. (Which perhaps means you shouldn’t assume it’s always about your being black; evidently some behaviors worry people regardless.)
The point is, some kinds of reactions are simply unreasonable and do not need to be accommodated (unless for practical reasons they have to). But some kinds of reactions are reasonable and should be accommodated (and we should actually feel good about accommodating them). This applies in the male-female dynamic just as much as any other. I do make an effort to make women around me feel comfortable, and I don’t see this as some sort of reverse gender bias or affirmative action, but as simply what a good guest and/or host does: make those around him feel comfortable. We do the same thing when we avoid political arguments at family gatherings.
On the other hand, there are people whose company I don’t want, if they don’t like the way I naturally am. For example, I will avoid swearing in certain contexts (e.g. a formal lecture; when I’m a guest in a conservative’s house; etc.), but I’m not going to hang out at a party where I can’t swear. I’d rather be elsewhere. Conversely, if it’s my party, and you don’t like swearing, you belong elsewhere. And that’s your responsibility. By extension, any women who might have unreasonable expectations shouldn’t mingle with men who don’t meet them. But not all expectations are unreasonable.
How do you tell the difference? Empathy and the Golden Rule: (a) first understand what difference it makes to be a woman [e.g. by a huge margin, women are far more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than men, and they live with that fact, we don't] and (b) then ask if you were them, how would you want to be treated? (Or, “how would that behavior then look to you?” or “what would that remark then sound like to you?” or “what would reassure me that I’m going to be comfortable here?” etc.).
Another example of (a), BTW, is the fact that men tend not to have much actual experience receiving unwanted advances; whereas women tend to get that shit a lot, to the point of getting fed up by it as much as any man would who had the same experience. When guys say “but all advances from women are welcome!” that only confirms to me they are naively inexperienced. Would you want persistent advances from your best friend’s wife? Or women you find unattractive? What about daily menacing come-ons from gay men? I have been hit on or flirted with by gay men a good amount (and not just because my wife used to work in the theatre) and I don’t mind it, it’s even flattering, but this is because they were always polite about it, genuine gentlemen; but imagine if they weren’t? Or they just wouldn’t lay off? Or literally everywhere you went yet another dude came on to you? It would get tiring after a while. Why, gosh, you might even give up going to group events where that keeps happening.
Hence, Ian, I think your overall point is spot on.