America, Your Violence is Showing


"This is the safest I've ever felt in my life." Rebekah Bradley and Katie Davino hear similar comments repeatedly from the women they interview for their research at the University of South Carolina in clinical psychology and women's studies. The women who made these comments aren't on vacation; they're in prison.

Prison is the safest place they've ever lived. Best estimates are that between 80 and 95 percent of women who end up in prison -- largely poor women and women of color -- have been victims of violence in their homes and neighborhoods. And although we may deplore the violence these women experience in their lives, we pay little attention to the ways this violence and other forms of violence are overtly connected with maintaining the dominance of powerful groups in society -- and the ways language is employed to obscure the connections.

Violence and the threat of violence are mechanisms of control employed to achieve and sustain the dominance of one group or individual over the lives and resources of another. In the dominant culture, the word "violence" is typically used to describe acts perpetrated by oppressed groups (especially men of color, poor people) against each other (such as the routine "domestic" violence and neighborhood violence experienced by these women in prison) or against the dominant group -- a much more rare and yet much more visible kind of violence.

The dominant culture employs other words to describe the mass murder and destruction that is conducted by nation states in the name of preserving national dominance, of the current hierarchy of privilege, of "our way of life."

For this, we use terms such as "war," "conflict," "ethnic cleansing." And the weapons of destruction are described as "peacekeepers" or seemingly neutral combinations of letters and numbers such as F_16.

Other forms of violence, if performed in the name of preserving the current social, economic, and political system -- based in race, class, gender and sexuality oppression -- are also not called "violence."

Best estimates are that between 80 and 95 percent of women who end up in prison -- largely poor women and women of color -- have been victims of violence in their homes and neighborhoods.

The death penalty, for example, is not called "murder" or "genocide" despite the fact that its targets are overwhelmingly poor men, especially men of color. Rather than identified as victims of violence, many rape and sexual harassment victims are put on trial themselves as a consequence of seeking justice when the system of male privilege -- including control over women's bodies -- is at stake.

Even though the dominant culture language and control of ideological institutions (media, schools) is very effective in obscuring the violence perpetrated in defense of the current social system, a critical perspective on violence and social inequality cannot help but reveal the connection.

It is also the case that while physical violence -- direct threat to one's body -- represents the most extreme mechanism of control, powerful systems of oppression rarely have to rely on such mechanisms because they control in other ways -- for example, through control over the economic, political and ideological resources of society. And people conform every day to societal norms that are fundamentally unfair -- that reproduce race, class, gender, and sexuality hierarchies -- in part because they fear the consequences if they challenge them.

Every person of color who enters an all-white club or neighborhood does not have to be verbally or physically harassed for all people of color to know that they are in danger in all-white environments.

Every striking worker does not have to lose his or her job for other workers to fear striking.

Every woman does not have to be raped and treated as the criminal rather than the victim by the legal system for all women to fear speaking up when they are raped.

Every homosexual does not have to be beaten, strung to a post and left for dead, as was Matthew Shepherd, for all homosexuals to fear that if they live their lives as heterosexuals do -- openly and honestly -- they may be subject to similar treatment.

If we fail to address the ways that state-sanctioned violence, including the violence that takes place within families and in the neighborhoods of poor women and women of color, is a fundamental element in the reproduction of race, class, gender, and sexuality hierarchies, we will have missed the opportunity to clearly understand these systems and to work to dismantle them while seeking an inclusive and humane social order.

Lynn Weber is director of Women's Studies at the University of South Carolina.

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