On The Birth of a Nation at Vancouver International Film Festival 2016

CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault, Suicide, Death/dying

The screening of The Birth of a Nation this weekend is an opportunity to counter the harms of misogyny and rape culture within and external to our communities and engage with the realities of intersectionality.

Intersectionality is the idea that human beings are shaped by the interaction of different social positions e.g. race/gender/class/sexuality/age/disability/ability/geography/religion etc..

It is curious that the people outraged when the law acquits white police officers of killing unarmed black men are often the same people insisting that “the law is the law” when a man is acquitted of sexual assault charges. If we can see that justice systems are not infallible when it comes to the lives of black men, why is it a struggle to apply the same lens to the system when men are acquitted of sexual assault charges against women?

There is a long history in the United States of black boys and men being mutilated, lynched, or murdered on accusations of sexually assaulting white women. While this is historically true and still plays out in similar ways today, (e.g., hypersexualizing and demonizing men of colour) there are elements of power that some black men now hold in a system that places value on certain traits associated with masculinity.

When he was charged with sexually assaulting a white woman, who later died by suicide, Nate Parker was an athlete on scholarship at university. In the North American cultural value system, some characteristics grant power to men at the same time that being a black man can make that person a vulnerable target in society.

Individuals are not entirely privileged or entirely oppressed. Everyone has the capacity to embody elements of privilege while simultaneously experiencing oppression. For example, a black man can be a wealthy businessperson but be racially profiled and stopped by the police for “driving while black”. 

Just because someone is black and excels as an artist in a field dominated by white people does not mean we can overlook the passive or active violence that these same men perpetrate against women. Supporting and protecting black men should not come at the cost of ignoring rape culture and misogyny. These are systemic issues that call for a huge cultural shift.

Misogyny is harmful to women and trans folks at the same time as racism is harmful to black people. Living at the intersection of identities should not require a person to choose between their Blackness and their gender. We are allowed to interrogate and challenge all the systems and institutions that affect our lives so profoundly every day.

These are not only problems faced by marginalized groups in the United States. See Judge Robin Camp of Canada asking a survivor why she couldn’t just “keep [her] knees together”. See anything related to Jian Ghomeshi’s trial. If this is the environment in which assailants are purportedly brought to justice, an acquitted charge means very little. See the recent op-ed by the sister of the woman in the Nate Parker case. Our scepticism is most definitely warranted in a system of documented, flagrant disregard for women’s experiences steeped in North America’s particular culture of misogyny and anti-blackness.

Sexual violence against black women has historically been used as a means of colonial control and subjugation. It continues to affect the lives of black women, Indigenous women, and women of colour, including trans women who continue to be murdered at an alarming rate. In Canada, sex workers are affected by criminalization laws that force women to work in isolated, more dangerous areas which puts them at increased risk for sexual or physical violence. Many of these women are Indigenous or people of colour.

We cannot uncritically defend a person simply because they’re black. Black artists should be uplifted, supported and celebrated, however, support for black men and black narratives does not and must not preclude vocal resistance of rape culture and its effect on black women. While all women often battle the profound impacts of misogyny, the intersections of gender and race construct a very different landscape for black women.

In a province where Indigenous women are missing and murdered at an unbelievable rate, on a continent built on the genocide and enslavement of entire groups of people, which has translated into continued discrimination and disregard for the value of black lives, Indigenous lives, and the lives of people of colour, we cannot stay silent about these issues as The Birth of a Nation screens in Vancouver. While this film may be an acclaimed subversive work we cannot completely remove the artist from the discussion and the cultural context of sexual violence.

Black Lives Matter-Vancouver

Written by D. Barreto