Regarding Aziz: Examining the Intersection between Race and Rape

Something about the allegations against Aziz Ansari struck a chord in me. It took over a week for me to fully process the story, and I couldn’t quite verbalize it.

I noticed clues toward the privileges that “Grace” had throughout the story. Such clues include being at the Emmy’s and being able to approach a celebrity as she did. She commented on her wine preference as if that was an important detail: “It was white, I didn’t get to choose and I prefer red, but it was white wine,” establishing for the reader that we should view Aziz as someone who robbed her of agency from the beginning. Having the freedom and resources to speak out about her experience is a privilege many women, especially women of color, do not have access to.

But the chord that the allegations against Ansari struck in me is an echo of the toll of a much larger bell. My initial unease at the evidence of privileges is borne of a much deeper issue that we rarely discuss: the long and violent history of white women accusing brown and black men of rape and the white men who defend them. What is lacking in many commentaries on this story is a conversation on how race and racism informs our implicit biases, and this is a prime example on how an intersectional approach is vital to being able to discuss and disable rape culture.

I do not excuse or apologize for Aziz. Regardless of the controversies over the details of the encounter, Aziz was wrong and has a responsibility as a self-proclaimed feminist to be sure of consent, to not force any part of a sexual situation, and to check in or stop the first time she expressed wanting to slow down. As a rape survivor of a man of color, I do not enter this conversation lightly. However, as a historian of race and oppression, the reality that thousands of brown and black men have been stereotyped, painted as violent, discriminated against and fired, tried and incarcerated, or, at the worst of times, lynched is ever present at the back of my mind. This does beg the question as to the racial identity of “Grace”, and there has been no response to the query made by other commentators, particularly white and mainstream feminists. Aziz has a documented reputation for dating white and white-passing women both on screen and off, and he as well as other South Asian comedians have been criticized for establishing their careers at the expense of South Asian women.

I am reminded of the story of another Aziz, the protagonist in A Passage to India. In E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel, Adele, a white Englishwoman, falsely accuses an Indian man of raping her and subsequently rips his life apart through the criminal trial. The two characters and a group of other Britons spent the beginning of the book becoming friends and participating in social activities. During a planned excursion visiting a cave, Adele gets lost in the dark and has some sort of troubling experience while alone. She emerges from the cave and immediately reports to authorities that Dr. Aziz had raped her. During her testimony in a protracted trial, Adele admits that she had gotten confused and recants her allegations against Aziz. The book exposes the social and legal control the British had over Indians and engages the reader in the larger commentary on whether an Indian can trust and befriend a white person.

A Passage to India and its tale of this other Aziz underscores a social dynamic of stereotyping prevalent throughout white and non-white interactions both historically and in the present. In his book Orientalism, Edward Said argues that Orientalism is a process by which white Europeans fashioned their identities in opposition to people from the “East”, often imagining, distorting, and exaggerating differences as to paint the “West” as moralistic, strong, and savioristic. This process was and has been pervasive in Western culture as “the basic distinction between East and West [became] the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.”

The result of this Orientalism is the simultaneous creation of Asian men as emasculated, lazy, brutish, and rapacious. Images from Orientalist artists and photographers depict young Asian men with soft skin and prepubescent bodies, old men sitting around not working, and adult men leering at and sexually using women and young boys. This stereotype of the lazy but brutish and rapacious man of color spans white dominant society. It reinforces imaginings of the white man as needing to save women from their brown abusers. Propagated by white women through false accusations and by white men through colonial and vigilante-esque violence, Orientalism is a tool which supports, upholds and reinforces white supremacy.

While the connections to Orientalism and discrimination against Asians are more prevalent in Europe due to Europe’s participation in colonizing Asia, the United States has participated in this form of racialization.

Asian groups from China, Japan, the Philippines, and Korea (and to a lesser extent, British India) started to come as migrant workers in the mid-1800s which was at the same time that white supremacist ideologies became part of legal structures after the Civil War. Asian immigrants specifically were barred from citizenship, kept from owning land, forbidden from marrying interracially as well as forbidden from bring over wives to marry from their country of origin. These restrictions gave rise to such stereotypes which insist Asian men are perpetually foreign, non-contributors to social good, and a danger to American women through sexual deviancy, ignoring the realities of how these immigrants actually interacted in American society.

White men have historically been at the forefront on policing the sexual relationships between white women and men of color. When Dylan Roof murdered black church-goers in 2015, he said You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” There have been over 4,000 known lynchings in the United States, and one of the reasons for vigilante violence was the concept of “protecting white women.” Anti-miscegenation laws also delegitimized the idea that a white woman would consensually be with a man of color, as their relationship would be neither socially nor legally recognized.

Vigilante violence by white men on behalf of white women was social: Jessie Daniels writes, “All an individual white woman like Marion Jones had to do to activate the network of white fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins who would come to her “defense” and murder a black man who was asking for help was scream.” regarding an incident where a black man was murdered after asking for food of a white woman.

At times of war the white woman is used as part of propaganda, that the fear of the enemy is synonymous with the fear of a raped white woman.  This anti-Japanese propaganda provides stark evidence of this.

And now we arrive at the underlying and uncomfortable problem which is this: white women have supported and perpetuated these racialized stereotypes by actively buying into trope of the dangerous brown/black man. False allegations have real-world consequences.  They are not only plot devices in books like A Passage to India or To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1949, four black men were accused of raping a white teenager, and the “Groveland Four” all died at the hands of the state, though the state recanted its conclusion in 2017. In 1954, a white woman claimed Emmett Till had whistled at her, and he was tortured and shot by vigilantes days later. He was only 14 years old. She has since admitted that she made up the story.

A white teenager accused three black men of kidnapping and raping her in 2017 and the police found that her story was fabricated. A study on rape at Colgate University found that “In the 2013–14 academic year, 4.2 percent of Colgate’s students were black, and according to the university’s records, in that year black male students were accused of 50 percent of the sexual violations reported to the university, and they made up 40 percent of the students formally adjudicated…. During the academic years from 2012–13 to 2014–15, black students were accused of 25 percent of the sexual misconduct reported to the university, and made up 21 percent of the students referred for formal hearings. Fifteen percent of the students found responsible for assault in those years were black.“

This history of white men using white women to justify violence against black men does not ignore other brown men. It does the opposite. It extends to, creates, and reinforces the anxieties and fears over Latino, Arab, Persian, and South, Southeast, and East Asian men, as well as Muslim men more broadly. One of the justifications for fighting against Indian rebels during the First War for Indian Independence (aka Sepoy Mutiny) in 1857 was the accusation that South Asian men were raping British women. Early Filipino and Chinese immigrant men were kept separate in “bachelor societies” in California, where they also received violent attention from the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists under the assumption they were raping white women. Anti-miscegenation laws were installed in most places where white populations merged with people of color, and the arguments for such legislation were with the specter of sexual assault. Extreme right-wing groups in both America and Europe regularly publish content that asserts Muslim men are rapists. And over the last year, the Donald Trump and his administration insist on labeling Latino immigrants as rapists. In the aforementioned study about Colgate University, “Asian students, who constituted a little more than 3 percent of Colgate’s student body in 2013, were more than 13 percent of the accused, 21 percent of those referred for hearings, and 23 percent of those found responsible.”

It is not only the accusations by white women, violence by white men, or laws enacted that are part of this pattern against brown men.  We also greatly sensationalize and racialize news stories that feature men of color convicted of rape around the world. Last August, the shadow equalities minister, Sarah Champion, resigned her post after penning an article in The Sun claiming “Britain has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls.” While it is true that several of the men found guilty in this incident were indeed Pakistani, the racial labeling of them explicitly teaches the reader that rapaciousness is innate in the Pakistani population. From extensive news coverage to the controversial film India’s Daughter by non-Indian Leslee Udwin on the 2012 gang rape case in Delhi, the perception on India’s rape problem is cemented firmly in the international imagination. This broad characterization of Indian men allegedly caused a student to be denied an internship at a German university because of his country’s rape culture.

The idea that brown men are dangerous and rapacious causes us to generally accept that it is dangerous for white women to travel alone based on stereotypes of certain countries. Despite the lure of Eat, Pray, Love, the internet is replete with advice blogs warning white women how to travel safely, none of which warn about Europe or North America even though rape and trafficking is present everywhere. A survey of listicles on the “most dangerous” places for women to travel does not include entries on Europe or North America. While it’s difficult to produce reliable statistical comparison of rape crimes between countries for a number of reasons, the reality is that rankings based on studies show that Western countries rank across a broad spectrum, just as countries with a reputation for sexual violence ranked in surprising ways. The UN produces statistics on rape by country, and in 2015 Sweden, the United States, and Belgium were reported as having equal or worse numbers per 100,000 than places like Colombia, El Salvador, and Jamaica.  

What does the past and present teach us about this situation with Aziz Ansari?

We must stop obfuscating the equal prevalence of rape by white perpetrators by blaming black and brown men as if they are inherently worse. We must resist long-standing culturally and socially constructed biases that make us immediately believe the worst-case scenario about men of color. We must also recognize, discuss, and rectify the problem of rape culture around the world. However, in order to do so we must also dismantle the idea that brown men are inherently dangerous and deviant.

We accomplish this goal by taking an intersectional approach to our activism, including our feminism. Intersectionality examines how power intersects across different axes, including but not limited to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, immigration status, and ability. It forces us to think critically about situations and consider all of the ways in which different power dynamics play a role. Aziz Ansari was still wrong, but there are reasons why his story has gained vastly more attention than, for example, James Franco who this week had multiple accusations lodged at him from former students and actresses in his films. The power dynamics between Ansari and Franco and their victims are different, and we need to bear in mind the social, cultural, and systemic dynamics that also keep them separate.