Some Of Our Favorites Are Trash. This Is How We Deal.
When a famous Black man is accused of gender violence, we can have constructive conversations without resorting to moral relativism or pathologizing.
TW: Rape/Sexual Assault
If you like anything that athletes, artists and celebrities contribute to society, but you are against gender violence (including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and general unsavoriness towards women) the last few years have been difficult. I am now unable to watch The Cosby Show, listen to Cee-Lo’s Christmas album (which my mom loves), and now I wonder if I’ll be able to sit through Nate Parker’s Nat Turner film, A Birth of a Nation, which I was really looking forward to.
As far as why we should be talking about Parker’s rape case now, since it was almost 20 years ago, I’d like to point out that women are often defined by the mistakes we’ve made or the people we slept with. As recently as October of 2015, a GQ Magazine article referred to author, model and TV show host Amber Rose as a “former teenaged stripper,” right after introducing her as the ex-girlfriend of Kanye West and “baby mama” (not wife, which she still was legally) of Wiz Khalifa (1). The media loves to define women by aspects of our lives that occurred due to poor choices or lack of choices, and not in a sympathetic way. If GQ Magazine can bring up the fact that Rose stripped over a decade ago, why would Parker’s involvement in a criminal case be off-limits?
While this piece is inspired by the particulars of Parker’s rape case, it is not directed at any individual athlete, celebrity, or person of note. Rather, its aim is to address the dissonance that Black people have when a well-known and celebrated Black man is accused or otherwise found to be responsible for gender violence. Yes, the criminal justice system wrongful convicts Black men and women of crimes they didn’t commit. Yes, an influential, wealthy and successful Black man does represent a threat to the power structures aimed at disenfranchising us. Yes, there is a long history of Black men being killed because of false accusations of rape by white women.
Nothing I write is attempting to negate any of these truths, nor argue that Black men are more prone to gender violence. Rather, there are factors that have helped me reconcile my Blackness and love of Black people with the knowledge that some of us are 1) famous, 2) male, and 3) have the ability to cause harm. Furthermore, there are unique connections between these factors and celebrity.
Gender Violence Is About Power And Nothing Else
“He’s a handsome, rich man. Why would he need to rape someone?”
In the same week that the 1999 rape case involving Parker and Nation’s co-writer, Jean Celestin received increased attention due to an exclusive interview that Parker gave to Variety (2), retired football player Darren Sharper was sentenced to 18 years in prison for drugging and raping multiple women (3).
When a popular Instagram account posted the news, many opined that he should have received more time, and others made variations of the following comment: “He’s a handsome, rich man. Why would he need to rape someone?”
Even though Sharper’s case is an extreme, the people behind these comments seem to think that men commit sexual violence due to a lack of access to women. This thinking is harmful, not only because it’s incorrect, but it likens rape to a person stealing food because they are hungry. Oh, the poor lad didn’t have access to women, so he just helped himself. This looks ridiculous and it should. While a wealthy, well-known man would have more access to potential consensual partners, rapists have a need to control another person’s body and agency. Someone who has this need wouldn’t be satiated by all the consensual partners in the world.
Rape Culture Prevents Some Men From Learning About Consent
While Parker was found not guilty of rape in the 1999 case, there are many aspects of Parker and Jean Celestin’s trial that I find questionable and downright vile, such as 1) One of the grounds for the acquittal being the fact that Parker and his accuser had consensual sexual contact in the past, 2) The call transcripts, including the part in which the accuser had to lie to Parker and say she was pregnant to get him to admit that Celestin had sex with her as well, and 3) A civil suit against Penn State University filed by the accuser in which she claimed that her identity and information were allegedly by a private investigator, and harassing anonymous calls were made to her residence. (4)
UPDATE: On 8/25/2016 a group of PSU Alumni wrote a letter of support to The Root.com for Parker and Celestin and claimed that many of the details of the case have been omitted and misreported by the media, including the grounds for Parker’s acquittal and the harassment claims. You can find the letter here.
I don’t personally understand any of this, but that is because women have always been people to me. It isn’t something I had to learn.
Parker claims that he learned from this dark period in “his” life, but it begs the question: What did he have to learn that wasn’t common sense? Because we live in a culture where access to a woman’s body is negotiable, conditional, and rarely just about a woman’s own wishes, as hard as it is for me to believe, it is possible that 20-year old Parker didn’t see the harm in extending the accuser’s consent (whether implied, explicit or absent, depending on who you believe) to his friend Celestin. As far as trying to hide the fact that Celestin had sex with the accuser as well, I’d imagine that the kind of friendship that would involved sharing a sexual act would also cause one to be protective of said friend. Again, I don’t personally understand any of this, but that’s because women have always been people to me. It isn’t something I had to learn.
What I do know is that regular guys mess up consent all the time. I’ve had an unfortunate instance where I tried to revoke my consent to an intimate act and was ignored, and this was when I was fully sober. When I talked to the man about it, he emphasized that he wasn’t a rapist (interesting, since I hadn’t used that word) and apologized for being “aggressive.” At some point, Parker and Celestin were regular (read: not famous) guys too, although being a student athlete is a form of local fame. To many guys, what they learn when it comes to consent is more about how to moderate their “aggression,” rather than how to view a woman as an equal participant in the experience. The idea that her consent isn’t assumed based on history, extendable to others, and may be revoked at any time may have been quite a revelation to Parker.
Celebrities Are Different From Us. Like, Mentally Different.
In order to get the adoration they seek, many narcissists understand that great acts of compassion and altruism will feed into their narcissistic supply, or the external admiration, affection and support that is essential to their self-esteem.
One of my favorite moments from the AMC series Breaking Bad was when DEA agent Hank Schrader was trying to convince his colleagues that Gus Fring, the owner of Los Pollos Hermanos and local philanthropist was the leader of the largest meth ring in the southwest. When his colleague brought up his donations to community organizations and the very department where they worked (why wasn’t this a tip-off in itself?), Schrader says this:
Anyone that clean has got to be dirty. -Hank Schrader Breaking Bad
What drives a person to seek celebrity is separate from what drives a person to develop a skill to the degree of mastery, or make a livelihood from one’s craft. A need for the level of attention that comes with being famous is in line with many markers of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder include (5):
- Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
- Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
- Requiring constant admiration
- Having a sense of entitlement
- Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
- Taking advantage of others to get what you want
- Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
- Being envious of others and believing others envy you
- Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner
It’s important to note that personality disorders are difficult to diagnose because unless the symptoms produce some kind of negative impact on one’s life, people with personality disorders rarely seek treatment for them.
In order to get the adoration they seek, many narcissists understand that great acts of compassion and altruism will feed into their narcissistic supply, or the external admiration, affection or support that is essential to their self-esteem. Schrader understood that, while Fring may not have been a narcissist, people who are committed to public perception often present a pristine, charitable image to create the kind of cognitive dissonance that would make people say: “No, not ___. They’re such a good person.”
If the estimates that 6.9% of the U.S. population has Narcissistic Personality Disorder are true (6), than it stands that some of those people are at the top of their fields, including entertainment, especially since there are studies that link narcissistic traits to career achievement (7). Out of this pool, it is possible that some of these people are male and Black. Not MORE likely to be male and Black, but as likely as any group.
So what does this have to do with gender violence? Narcissism correlates positively with rape-supportive beliefs and negatively with empathy for rape victims(8). There may be a study that provides data on whether famous people are more likely to be narcissistic, but that’s not the point. Assuming famous people are just as likely as the general population to be narcissistic, then due to the heighten attention around their lives, instances of gender violence rooted in narcissism will receive considerable attention.
Our Goal Shouldn’t Be To Mimic The Oppressor
Some of us don’t actually dislike oppression, we just don’t want to be oppressed.
2016 has brought new attention to the O.J. Simpson murder trial via an excellent narrative miniseries, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, as well as one of the best documentary series ever, 30 for 30: O.J. Simpson Made in America. While the narrative series focuses more on the players in the case than O.J. himself, America re-constructs the nation we lived in during the early 90s. O.J. was an American hero who seemingly escaped racism, while the Black people of Los Angeles felt the grip of white supremacy in every area of their lives. After the officers who were videotaped beating Black motorist Rodney King were acquitted, and the Korean shop owner who was videotaped fatally shooting an unarmed 15-year old Latasha Harlins got off with a hand slap, many Black people across the country saw the Trial of the Century as an example of the U.S. criminal justice system targeting a powerful Black man.
In one of the episodes of the series, a member of the jury, an elderly Black woman said flat-out that their not-guilty verdict was, “For Rodney King.” In other words, you (meaning the LAPD) skirted justice, so we made sure that one of “us” did too. In challenging inequities based on race, it is important that we demand just treatment, and not just equal treatment. To paraphrase my friend comedian Felonious Monk, some of us don’t actually dislike oppression, we just don’t want to be oppressed (9).
People who have committed violent, heinous crimes should pay a debt for those crimes. When we ask for equitable treatment, we also need to ask for fair treatment. We should be talking about the white cop who only got three years of probation for raping a Black woman last week (10), but not because we want the kind of lenience that comes with white privilege. We can point out the fact that white men like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Bryan Singer continue to have celebrated careers despite accusations and evidence of sexual misconduct, and how Black men are not afforded the same license. However, the goal is to get this license revoked, not to attain one for ourselves. Justice still needs to be our objective.
In summary, when a famous Black man is accused of gender violence, we should remember that:
- No one “needs” to force someone to have sex. This include non-famous people as well. Rape is about power.
- Rape culture normalizes the idea that a woman’s consent can and should be negotiated. Celebrities experience this culture in extremes.
- Not all celebrities are narcissists, but some of them are. Some of them are Black and male. Thus, some prone to unhealthy sexual dynamics that blur and downright bull doze the lines of consent.
- Justice is what we want, not the ability to enact the same injustice that has been inflicted on many of us.
If we had a better dialogue about gender violence and the legal system period, Black people could hold ourselves accountable without fear of being traitors. Rape culture has messed us all up. The desire for power at the expense of women’s rights has messed us all up. As far as whether you should support art created by someone who has been accused of gender violence, it’s ultimately up to you. For me, I’ve accepted that for many artists and athletes, their talent/physical prowess is all they can or choose to contribute to society. As some who hates oppression, the answer is clear. As someone who loves art, it’s also devastating.
Chakka Reeves likes to write about media, art and culture. She’s the host of The Highwater Podcast, an audio guide for creatives. Join the conversation by following her on Twitter and subscribing to The Highwater Weekly, a mini-mag of creative resources and musings that she sends out every week.
- Amber Rose: How to Be a Bad Bitch | GQ