Fixing the problem, not the blame: on racial and sexual assault

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On Tuesday morning, Morning Joe's Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough ran a segment on “The Hunting Ground,” a new documentary about rape culture on college campuses. The documentary focuses on 2012 sexual assault allegations made against Heisman Trophy-winning-quarterback and 2015 NFL Draft first pick Jameis Winston while he was enrolled at Florida State University.


But after watching Brzezinski and Scarborough’s take, I was troubled about more than the subject matter.

The segment began with Brzezinski, 48, saying she screened the film with her daughter, who's heading off to college later this year. “I thought it could be something we could talk about,” she explained, echoing a sentiment shared by most parents sending their kids into a world that still needs films like “The Hunting Ground.”

As the segment progressed, the film's producer, Amy Ziering, and director, Kirby Dick, summarized their investigation, sharing thoughts on Winston's guilt, and, more broadly, on the ways in which institutions systematically fail sexual assault victims.

But the discussion wasn't without speed bumps. Scarborough, for his part, said he was troubled by the way in which female FSU fans called Winston's alleged assault victim awful names [like slut and whore.] “And it reminds us of after Ray Rice was found beating up his wife; you had women in Baltimore wearing a Ray Rice jersey immediately after,” he explained. Later, he turned to the camera and and implored audiences to take action. “If you have a daughter going to any college in America, you need to see The Hunting Ground,” he said. Call your daughter, whatever college she's at. Tell her to watch this.”

No doubt Scarborough meant well, but it was hard not to notice a  problematic, but common trend that emerged over the course of an almost-11-minute segment: a focus on the role of women in ending sexual assault. As formulated by Brzezinski and Scarborough, it is daughters who need to watch the film, women who need to quit name-calling other women, women who should to stop enabling rapists.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that Brzezinski or Scarborough actually think that women are ultimately responsible for their safety when it comes to sexual assault. But how we talk about sexual assault, collectively, matters. The fact that one in five women will experience a sexual assault in college is the most widely touted statistic on campus violence. Although that number is regularly disputed, other independent university surveys have released comparable numbers. Many of these surveys have helped amplify what women on campuses have been saying for years: that colleges and universities have been doing a terrible job creating a safe environment for women. It's a shame that on top of having to endure that environment,  women are being given more homework.


Whatever the intent, discussing potential victims' responsibility for their own safety while neglecting to address the people who are abusing or have the power to create real change is de facto blaming. Even if we can create a world where women diligently watch every film there is to watch about sexual assault, refrain from condemning women who allege sexual assault, abstain from wearing jerseys of known abusers, and answer every phone call from concerned parents, sexual assault will still take place if boys and men aren't included in the conversation.

In fact, continuing to collectively speak in a way that carelessly places responsibilities on the shoulders of the victimized actually makes it harder to reform the very spaces that films like “The Hunting Ground” reveal are failing our daughters. That's because we tend to only address problems that we can articulate. Thus, when we consistently make potential victims responsible for their safety, we are funneling essential capital — time, focus, conversation, and ultimately money — away from addressing men who inflict damage.


The burden reflexively placed on women when discussing sexual assault isn't unique: It's how most Americans treat all victimized and marginalized populations. A particular conversation that's been taking place in black America for decades is good example. Almost every black male in America is familiar with “The Talk,” essentially a stern briefing that black parents give pre-teen black sons about what they have to do — and not do — in order to survive. The underlying idea is that, as a black male in America, one will always be under suspicion, and that type of attention, from a society that perpetually views black males as threatening and dangerous, makes one more likely to get arrested or killed. Black males don't get the benefit of the doubt, and the burden is on them to manage their survival.

In a way, “The Talk” is another example of burdens falling squarely on the shoulders of a victimized population in the face of institutional impotence, or even callous negligence.

Institutions failing oft-victimized communities in America is all too common. But the reflexive response to further burden the victimized because, as a nation, we've been too lazy, or too indifferent, or too vested in investments deemed more valuable (e.g., football, institutional reputation) to share the responsibility for historically ignoring the brutality inflicted on large swaths of the population, is ludicrous. But the instinct to burden victims is just as problematic when it comes from well-intentioned members of society with desire to protect and preserve life. The macro concern about the ease with which so many casually cast the responsibility of avoiding harm on victimized demographics is that it broadens the pool of those complicit in misallocating responsibility for deplorable behavior, which makes solving problems even more difficult.


Focusing on Brzezinski, Scarborough, and people who give “The Talk” — people who are, for the most part, on the side of institutional reform on these issues — may seem like a case of focusing on the wrong target, especially when hoards of victim-blamers and conservative advocates seem to be crouched behind every bush saying things like “let's really ensure that the first thing a young boy sees in a girl is not her cleavage” or “the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman.”

Is talking to daughters or black children about the realities of the world wrong? Of course not. But make no mistake, historically victimized populations are the most informed about the dangerous realities they face. But they need help, not more homework. As "The Hunting Ground" concludes, stopping assault is as much about understanding power as it is telling women to protect themselves.


How we talk and who we talk to is an integral part of understanding and reforming power structures. Imagine a world where sexual assault documentaries are "must-sees" for sons, not just daughters, or a world where “The Reverse Talk” is given to white children as a way to begin understanding privilege in America.That kind of change is as much a key to institutional reform as legislative or policy reform. It's actually probably more powerful. Language matters. Not only does it instruct us on where we really are; it also tells us where we need to go.

Miriti Murungi is a Senior Digital Producer/Social Media Editor for Fusion. He is possibly responsible for the nonsensical ramblings at @NutmegRadio. Also dabbles in yacht rock and used to wear a tie. *tips hat*