It’s impossible for me to think about my relationship to race and racism without connecting it to my rape by a black man at the age of fifteen. Of course, the fact that it took fifteen years for me to begin to consciously conceptualize my racial identity is itself glaringly indicative of my white privilege. That is not lost on me, and I will return to it later. But since even that awareness came about indirectly as a result of my rape, it’s hard for me not to begin with my rape.
It’s funny—in my training to become a certified rape crisis counselor in the State of California, two “myths” of rape were drilled into us: the first, the myth of stranger rape, and the second, the myth of the rape by the “dark man.” And while intellectually I understand that something like ninety-five percent of rapes are committed by family, friends, or acquaintances and that the major structural problem in rape culture is white male supremacy, those myths are, in fact, my reality, and I have struggled—continue to struggle—to come to terms with that. I feel uneasy about a black male stranger on the street or on the bus or at a social gathering and I have to ask myself “is this something real, a trigger, my brain responding to a perceived danger as a result of having learned experientially that something like this once caused me harm? Or is this a figment of my white imagination, is this my brain just responding to a perceived danger as a result of having learned through socially constructed norms that something like this could or even is supposed to cause me harm?”
I imagine that it’s a combination of both, and as a white person who cares very strongly about anti-racist work (and who also strongly believes that as a white woman, I do have a stake in racial justice), I sometimes find myself frozen, unsure where to go and what to do and how to proceed with undoing this massive tangle of myths and truths and lived experience and resistance and social indoctrination. In my early years of reading and learning about anti-racism, shortly after my rape, I erred on the side of risking my own safety. I was ashamed of my feelings of unease, sure that they were proof of my racism, and unwilling to be “that” white woman who runs away from the black man in fear or who clutches her purse tighter. The reason I say “erred” is that twice more in the years since then I have been physically and sexually assaulted by black men, strangers, in situations which felt distinctly “off” to me before the assault happened. (Fluke? Probably, yes. Or at the most, a weird coincidence of complicated circumstances.) Neither of these assaults were as invasive as the first, and neither of them resulted in substantial physical or psychological harm to me, but the fact remains that they were both situations in which I had prioritized the social indoctrination cause over the lived experience cause in trying to understand the source of my unease. I trusted my reason over my gut, at the expense of my personal safety.
And what then? Already I can feel my stomach curdle and my eyes roll in irritation with myself for even attempting to further disentangle this mess. The truth is there are times when I feel unsafe and sometimes they’re white men, sometimes they’re other men of color, but most often they’re black men. That is my reality. It unsettles me, deeply. But I don’t know of any other way of dealing with it other than in these insufficient ways: 1) by listening to my body telling me when it feels unsafe, which is different from trusting my body—I can listen to it and support it and prioritize my safety without believing that it’s telling a truth; 2) by committing to unlearn my racialized feelings of safety vs. harm in whatever ways I can; part of this has also been noticing how often I don’t feel threatened or uneasy, noticing particularly when there are black men I don’t feel uneasy around, and also noticing how often I feel uneasy around men that are not black to try to understand what other signals, other than race, put my body on alert; and 3) by always attempting to prioritize my safety in a way that does not perpetuate cycles of racism, that does not jeopardize the comfort of the man in question as much as is possible, and that is quiet and subtle, so as not to serve to unintentionally alert other white people or emphasize publicly the white fear of men of color. At various times, this has meant getting off a bus early as if it were my stop; getting out my cell phone to call someone, carry on a normal conversation, and move at a normal pace towards a pedestrian-heavy and/or well-lit area; and once even saying gently to a black male stranger who was following me and trying to get me to engage with him (about pornography, no less), “look, I don’t know you, and I can’t tell what your intentions are, so I apologize if this is misdirected and I want you to understand that it’s not about you personally, but I am a woman and as a woman in this society I don’t feel safe with strange men following me, so I’m just telling you now that if you continue to follow me I will call the police.” (It worked; the guy looked like I’d dumped him over the head with a bucket of ice and yelled, “well fuck off then, BITCH!”.) The point is to take care of myself first, always, but to do so not at the expense of perpetuating ugly cycles of racism—including the “dark stranger” rape myth.
The thing is I know that the reason why it’s called a “myth” isn’t because it doesn’t happen, but rather because every instance of it happening supports a mythical cultural norm. It’s a trope that benefits white supremacy and male supremacy by insisting that white women need white men to protect us from “dangerous” men of color (and through this, establishing that women of color are both not worthy of this same protection and perhaps even are to be sexually available for white men’s “perverted” fantasies that are “unfit” for the virginal white woman). And because it’s a trope that benefits white male supremacy, it is the trope that has become most visible and most powerful. I know this. But it was attempting to come to terms with the fact that this myth had been my reality was what prompted me to start trying to understand the myth in the first place, and that was my so-called wake-up call to the nasty dynamics of race in a white-dominated and white supremacist world.
According to my county’s website, the town I grew up in is 93% white. The non-white kids were the odd ones out, but it never occurred to me that they may have experienced their race much differently than I experienced it (theirs, and mine). I certainly didn’t have adults in my life that demonstrated otherwise. So the aftermath of the rape was the first time in my life I’d ever even considered that black people experience the world differently from white people, and it was a huge, huge realization for me. Of course, rape is a weapon of sexism more than anything else, and it does no one any good, least of all me if I’m to come to terms with its affect on me, to see it as just a crime against a white person at the hands of a person of color. But race was there. It was visible. And it threw me head-first into navigating the churning racist waters beneath the surface calm white folks have the privilege of floating peacefully on.
Later: I’m coming back to this a day later, having collapsed at the end of last night after writing this, an emotionally exhausted crying heap. I don’t want to re-write it, but it feels disingenuous to publish this with the emotion so markedly absent. I thought it had little place here, since this is about how the rape woke me up to thinking about racism, and not about the rape’s emotional effects on me. So I’ll say just this: this was hard for me to write.
 I imagine there are more rapes perpetrated by white men on women, both white and of color, than by men of color on white women (I looked for statistics, but couldn’t find any), and ninety percent of reported rapes are intraracial, according to a report of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence from 1969—and these are just reported rapes. One can imagine what the racial demographics might be of unreported rapes, given that ours is a legal system that systematically privileges white people and subjugates people of color (as well as questions like “who is the proper Rape Victim?” with the implicit assumption of most people being “an appropriately feminine upper-class white woman beyond moral reproach (read: chaste)”, etc.).
 I have also been assaulted by a white man, someone I knew.