Stories of African-American Males about the Rape of Desiree Washington

Kevin Brown

BECOMING AN INDIVIDUAL in American society, or any other so­ciety, is not done in a vacuum. What passes as our individual con­sciousness is developed under the guidance of cultural patterns and historically created systems of meanings. We are not free agents bound only by our own understanding of what we perceive as reality. Rather, our consciousness is influenced and conditioned within the context of the systems of ideas and thought that we draw upon in order to process the complex information that we receive.1 These cul­tural patterns and systems of meanings precede our interpretation of reality, and we often draw upon them to make sense out of the com­plex information we receive. While these systems allow us to under­stand our reality, they also limit our understanding.

One of the subthemes of this Conference is how the social con­struction of African-Americans, within the dominant American sys­tem of ideas (culture), influences and guides the interpretation of so­cial phenomena involving Blacks. As an African-American male, however, I am not limited to the dominant system of ideas and thought in order to comprehend social phenomena interpreting is­sues involving African-Americans. I often draw upon many sets of historically created systems of meaning, including those that are dominant in the African-American community.2 A tremendous gap in the understanding of social phenomena exists between African-

Americans and Caucasians that is rooted in ideas that spring from our different cultures. Interracial political and philosophical disputes often are centered on clashes in our cultures, because these cultures lead to diverse and often irreconcilable interpretations of the same so­cial phenomena.

Culture is much more than the artifacts or physical objects (such as clothing, food, music, and art) of a given community. Culture in­cludes the patterned system of knowledge and conceptions that a given group has devolved from the past and progressively modifies to give meaning to and to cope with the problems of its existence. Culture provides the general design that various groups use to inter­pret reality. It includes the attitudes, beliefs, and values of a given group, providing a worldview that incorporates both its own place and its relationship to other groups in the universal scheme of things. Culture is not merely a common set of previously catalogued answers to recurring phenomena; it provides a master pattern from which fu­ture individual occurrences can be interpreted and understood. Indi­viduals in a given community inherit the culture of the community by learning this shared knowledge as they mature.

Cultural clashes between dominant American culture and African-American culture generally are centered in the fundamental vision of society that the two systems endorse. Although dominant American culture is rooted in a conception of society as a collection of individuals, African-American culture tends to see society as racial and ethnic groups in competition for scarce societal resources. When dominant American culture draws one towards seeking race-neutral explanations for social phenomena, African-American culture will be drawn toward, and not away from, race-conscious explanations. In African-American culture, the race of actors in any given drama will often be crucial information in interpreting social phenomena. Re­solving the racial aspects of these dramas tends to take precedence over all other concerns.

This commentary is an effort to illustrate two points. First, many disputes that involve social phenomena are often rooted in cultural differences that produce diverse interpretation of that phenomena. Second, just as dominant American culture, with its tendency to­wards race neutral explanations, often will overlook the racial aspects of a given situation, African-American culture, with its focus on race consciousness and fighting racial subordination, will often overlook other aspects of the same situation. To illustrate these two points, I will recount some stories that led me to an understanding of how vic – timhood was constructed in the rape of Desiree Washington by Mike Tyson. I have limited my stories to those that involve discussions or events that centered on African-American males in Indianapolis, In­diana.3 To some extent, all of the participants in my construction of the victim had access to a similar set of ideas learned through a process of acculturation. These ideas allowed the participants to in­terpret collectively and reinforce our interpretation of the events that occurred in the early hours of July 19, 1991, during the Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration4 at the Canterbury Hotel in Indianapolis.