How our unhealthy understandings of accountability promote a race to the bottom
When Casey Affleck won the Oscar for his work in Manchester by the Sea last Sunday, many once again pointed out the racial double standard on sexual violence. If you recall, Nate Parker’s Oscar aspirations for his film The Birth of a Nation, initially regarded as a strong awards contender, were swiftly derailed when rape allegations against him from years ago resurfaced. Despite very similar past allegations, Affleck had no dim to his shine through his successful Oscar campaign. Similarly, the downfall of Bill Cosby, when contrasted with the continued success of Woody Allen, illuminates the ways in which anti-Blackness engenders a far more lenient response to sexual violence at the hands of white men compared to their Black counterparts.
That anti-Blackness is behind this disparity is undeniable, but many of those bemoaning the higher bar for marginalized people in issues of violence encourage an unhealthy conception of accountability. Various Black men used Affleck and Allen not to encourage greater attention to white men who rape, but less scrutiny of Black rapists. These “higher bar” narratives often position the abused as responsible to either rectify the unfair treatment of their abusers or leave the abuse unaccounted for completely.
When abusers of all shades are rarely held accountable, this sends a very dangerous message about violence committed by marginalized people against other marginalized people that encourages a race to the bottom with only one logical conclusion: As long as someone can get away with it, everyone should be able to.
This unhealthy way of regarding accountability can be commonly witnessed across conversations about intersectional oppression. In “Hillary Clinton Is Held to a Higher Standard on Race Because She’s a Woman,” Brittney Cooper argues, “if [Hillary Clinton] were a man, we would respect her level of political acumen as a ‘necessary evil,’ and call her reserved, fairly conservative public style ‘sensible.’” She uses this argument to defend the candidate against those who refused to support her due to her perpetuation of anti-Blackness. Bernie Sanders, Cooper contends, was equally anti-Black and worthy of critique, and therefore stronger criticisms of Clinton were not simply unfair, but an example of “combating racism [as] an excuse to perpetuate sexism.”
While it is likely true that a higher standard for Clinton than Sanders existed due to gender, and possible it existed solely because of it (though quite unlikely), what Cooper’s argument ignores is the ways in which Black people were and are always expected to find solidarity with white women like Hillary Clinton. In order to jointly fight against their oppressions under a white patriarchal system, Black people are constantly called on to disregard their cynicism of the white women’s anti-Blackness for the “greater good.”
Cooper herself suggests that white women be regarded as comrades in the fight against white men because they endure patriarchal violence, yet she insinuates Black people have no right to heightened expectations once allowing such close proximity. Under this understanding, anti-Black violence committed by other marginalized people should be pulled close for the purpose of solidarity projects, but simultaneously treated with the same distance as the violence of those excluded from these spaces.
As Arielle Newton argues, “there can be no unity (for Black people) with an anti-Black Left,” and those who expect solidarity in general must be held accountable to those they claim unity with in ways just as intimate as the closeness they call for.
If white women are our allies, they are also granted access to our most secured spaces, leaving us vulnerable to a subversive and different type of violence. Asking white women to be accountable to Black people more often than white men for anti-Black violence is just as often a reflection of how often Black people are asked to coalesce with white women as it might be a reflection sexism. Reconsidering accountability as a healthy and welcomed practice, asking for more of it is a refusal to allow violence to run rampant in community the same way it runs amuck outside of it.
If I am supposed to regard a community as partners in the fight for my freedom, in a healthy relationship it would follow that they are also supposed to act as partners. If I should not hold them to the standard of partner, I have every responsibility to push back against the constant onslaught of being asked to consider them as such.
This is not to say that those who exist within the bounds of marginalized communities should never be given a break in their process of unlearning or always attacked for being wrong because they are always (or should always be) centered. It is a reminder that accountability is an act of love, not hate—one that grants breaks whenever necessary and corrects rather than attacks.
This is the same reason why we ask a spouse to show up better and in the ways necessary for the relationship to continue where we wouldn’t ask that of a stranger. When we refuse unhealthy ideas of accountability, heightened expectations for those invited into community do not mean castigating them for every mistake, but it does require a willingness to fully commit to rectifying those mistakes lest the relationship spiral into one of abuse.
Black men, white women, and other marginalized people who enact violence against those even more marginalized than themselves get no passes in sexual, racial, and other violence. White men, of course, should get none as well. But if we are building community with one another, we should recognize that an accountability that is loving means doing better by one another begins with us. We should recognize that we must trust our partners in this fight and they must trust us, or they are not partners at all. And perhaps when we do we might also be able to utilize challenges to do better, even the harshest of them, as encouragement rooted in the belief of what we are capable of.