Monday, February 27, 2012

Individualism v. Collectivism: The Victim-Blaming Edition

A St. Louis nightclub held a beauty contest last week titled "Battle of the Complexions." Here's the promo:

The Crunk Feminist Collective has a great post on the contest looking at just how destructive it is. In particular, the post examines what impact a contest like this has on a greater sense of community:

In these moments black girls turned women forget about the beauty and diversity of skin tones in the family, they dismiss their light or dark skinned sister or best friend, and find themselves needing to prove their worth—their beauty—on a stage where only one can win, and in fact everyone loses.   Why does one person’s beauty have to be at the expense of someone else’s?
Several of the commenters on the Daily Mail place the culpability for this performance on the women who participate. This anonymous comment is representative:

If the women want to compete that's their problem, they should have more respect and not agree to take part in things like this.
It reminded me of some of the conversations following Pete Hoekstra's Debbie-Spend-it-Now fallout.

The ad, which aired during the Super Bowl, features actress Lisa Chan speaking in stereotypical broken English and thanking Hoekstra's opponent for spending so much money that the US government must borrow more from China and give Chinese citizens American jobs. The critical response to the ad was overwhelmingly negative and pointed out its blatant racism. Some of that criticism was heaped on the actress who participated, allowing her physical image and voice to stand in for a racial stereotype. 

Lisa Chan, a San Francisco resident and former Miss California competitor, has since apologized, calling her decision to participate in the ad a "mistake" and "not in any way representative of who [she is]."

However, at the center of this controversy rests a whole lot of victim blaming. As Justine Gonzalez points out in this post, it's not our place to force survivors of domestic violence to behave in the way we'd prefer:

We live in a victim-blaming society. If Rihanna isn’t getting blasted on Twitter for ‘causing’ Chris Brown to hit her, bloggers are getting mad that she’s not speaking out about the violence. If people aren’t infuriated at her singing about bondage, they are mad that she’s even in the same room as Chris Brown, nonetheless making a song with him. 
Rihanna has actively rejected the image of victim and I respect that about her. She is a young woman who is exploring her sexuality through her music like many artists have done before her. As a woman and especially as a survivor of domestic violence, she isn’t obligated to sing about self-empowerment. It would be nice to have an advocate with such influence on the younger generations of women but it is as much of an injustice to require her to do so.
I'm inclined to agree with that point of view, though it is complicated by an earlier quote from Rihanna (following images of her vacationing with Brown a few weeks after the assault) featured in the Colorlines article:
“When I realized that my selfish decision for love could result into some young girl getting killed, I could not be easy with that . . . I couldn’t be held responsible for telling them to go back. Even if Chris never hit me again, who’s to say their boyfriend won’t kill these girls. These are young girls and … I just didn’t realize how much of an impact I had on these girls live until that happened. It was a wake-up call for me - big time."
Does that change anything? Does Rihanna recognizing and publicly declaring herself to be a role model for young girls give her an extra dose of responsibility?

I'm not sure of the answer to those questions, but I am sure that things like complexion-based beauty contests, racist political attacks, and the prevalence of domestic violence are bad for our society as a collective. These individuals who participate in these systems are products of that collective society, but they--just like each of us--are also producers of it. While there may be a grain of truth that their individual decisions are part of the problem (as they do, ultimately, contribute to the collective culture), it is almost certainly not the largest part of the problem.

Sure, there would be no Battle of the Complexions without the women willing to participate, but they weren't the ones who printed promo fliers, made a promotional video, purchased space in the night club, and created the concept for the event (promoted as a Black History Month celebration, of all things).

Without a willing actress who identified as Chinese, Hoekstra's ad would have been a lot harder to pull off, but Chan was not the one who wrote it, filmed it, edited it, or financed its placement during the Super Bowl.

Yes, Rihanna's collaboration with Chris Brown may send the wrong message to young girls about the acceptability of domestic violence, but not nearly as clear of a message as the perpetration of that violence sends in the first place. She did not give herself that black eye.

I'm all about turning a critical eye onto the way we promote negative societal norms, but turning a critical eye cannot mean blaming the victim to give ourselves a pass. 


  1. There's something here that I'm struggling to put my finger on that doesn't seem quite right with your conclusion. I think part of it is that it doesn't seem like blaming Lisa Chan for appearing in a racist political attack ad is "blaming the victim", because she doesn't seem very victim-y. As someone who has first heard of this ruckus (Brit, male) from your post, can you elucidate what Chan was a victim of?

    1. I see her as a victim because, as an Asian American, she is subjected to the stereotypes against Asian Americans (even as she helps promote them). As a woman of color, Chan likely has fewer roles available to her and many of the ones that are available are likely to be stereotypical or typecast.

      That's not to say that she's not ALSO part of the problem. I think that an individual can be victim to larger societal systems of oppression (like racism, sexism, etc.) while still participating in and promoting those systems.

      Personally, I don't think it's a problem to call Chan out for her participation, and I'm glad she's apologized. I just think it's a problem to use someone complicit in the system as a scapegoat and let the other people responsible for these acts off the hook. We shouldn't call Chan out without also calling out the rest of the people who participated in creating this ad.