op-ed: in black and white: the cosby allegations and why race matters

January 11, 2016

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “Everything isn’t about race,” I could finally afford the house I’ve been eyeing. As a person perpetually concerned with the how race affects every aspect of our lives, I’m faced daily with opposition certain that I’m unnecessarily injecting race. The notion is absurd to me for obvious reasons, but never has the claim revealed itself as more utterly inaccurate than it has in the wake of the allegations of sexual assault made against Bill Cosby, and the subsequent filing of charges against him.

By La Sha*, AFROPUNK contributor

The dynamics of the Cosby case are a virtual study in race relations. Any instance of alleged rape in which the parties involved are of different races, specifically one black and one white, stirs emotions, exposing the myth that we live in a post racial society. When the accused is a black man dubbed “America’s favorite dad,” now in the twilight of his life, and the more than 50 accusers are mostly white women who allege these crimes happened many years — in some cases decades — ago, the emotion is nearly catastrophic, with race at the crux of an explosion fused with elements of class, gender, power and privilege.

Whatever your feelings about Cosby, the cultural impact The Cosby Show is undeniable. Sans The Jeffersons, pre-Cosby television portrayals of black life, culture and family were stereotypical depiction of debilitating poverty, highlighting unemployment, lack of education and history as the primary contributing factors. Cosby’s upper middle-class Huxtables were a deliberate counter of these images, presenting a happily-married black couple comprised of two well-educated, successful professionals with five mostly well-behaved children. For black people, the show was a welcomed change, earning the status of the quintessential example of black success.

As the face of the show, Bill Cosby was unsurprisingly pedestaled in the black community for changing America’s perception of what a black family could be. That pedestal was secured with aspiration, as many black people modeled their lives after the Huxtables in hopes of making their TV lives reality. Add to that aspiration Cosby’s highly-publicized philanthropy, including donations to and endorsements of historically black colleges and universities, and it’s clear why he’s called a legend.

What’s rarely acknowledged, though, perhaps strategically, is how The Cosby Show pandered to white ideals of what black success looks like, blatantly endorsing the respectability politics constantly pushed on us. The show was essentially about black people “classing” out of our condition. The Cosby kids spoke proper English and dressed well. They had curfews and knew early they were expected to go to college, unlike the kids standing on the corner in sagging pants using African-American Vernacular English whom Cosby lambasted in his now infamous speech.

Cosby’s no-nonsense condemnation of poor black people, explicitly removing blame from a racist system driven by white people and assigning it to lazy black people who are unwilling to educate themselves and work hard, was lauded by black respectability politicians and white conservatives. For them, his legacy grew from merely a lovable, hilarious TV dad to a leader willing to tell the ugly truth. With this transformation, Cosby became as much a symbol of class warfare as he was of black excellence, turning on the poor black people who were partially responsible for his success, many of whom viewed him as a surrogate father.

So when multiple allegations of Cosby sexually assaulting dozens of women were publicized, he was in a unique position, loved for his contribution to altering the perceptions of black family, praised for having the guts to give black people tough love, resented for mischaracterizing the true roots of black oppression, or some combination of the three. Unfair as it may be, one’s feelings about Cosby at the time accusers began coming forward factored heavily into whether one believed his alleged victims. Most people who still revered him viewed this as a vicious attempt to destroy the legacy of a powerful black man. Most black people who felt betrayed by his pandering to white supremacy and endorsements of classism were more likely to accept his guilt, this being an opportunity to shame him the way he shamed them. White people who applauded Cosby’s stance on poor black people stood by him, seemingly repaying his loyalty to their bigotry.

Those were the simplest positions, though. Mine is not so simple. I’m at the intersection of blackness and womanhood, each inseparable from the other. My allegiance to black people and defending our right to live freely permeates every aspect of my life, but just as definitive of me is my womanhood. The two are often at odds, like twin fetuses fighting for the superior position in the womb, yet feeding off and needing each other for existence. Reconciling my fight for my people with my fight for my sisters has never been more difficult.

I believe Cosby raped and/or sexually assaulted those women. I’ve declared this publicly and in doing so, exposed myself to challenges to my true commitment to black people. I’ve scoffed at the absurdity of such challenges, but if I’m being honest, I understand them. How can I consider myself conscious, aware of the history of this country’s relationship with black men, and believe these women?

I make no secrets about my disdain and distrust for the practitioners white feminism, but now, I’m witnessing broad solidarity from self-proclaimed feminists, white women who conveniently note that several of Cosby’s accusers are black women, effortlessly taking advantage of the credence that fact lends their position. Suddenly, I’m aligned with women in a movement which has sought to exclude, erase and diminish women like me. I find my stomach turning watching white women go after black Cosby defenders, arguing with a condescension that sends my blood boiling. I’m always watching for cues that indicate whether their fervor is the sole result of a fight for victims of rape and the mission to keep all women safe, or fueled by a masquerading racism.

I cringe seeing my own words convicting Cosby circulated widely by these women under captions like “She gets it,” or “Finally someone said it,” because a few weeks ago when I was ranting daily about Daniel Holtzclaw raping 13 black women, these same staunch advocates for women’s rights were nowhere to be found. This newfound accord is disingenuous and fragile. It’s dishonest, attempting to force a sisterhood by circumstance which will surely be abandoned as soon as I amplify the unique oppression faced by black women.

I find definitive solidarity only among the black women, who like me, believe Cosby is a predator. My sisters, by blood or bond, stand with and for me, determined to speak for all the victims. This solidarity is natural and enduring. Unfortunately, it is not a universal solidarity as I am at odds with many black women who’ve ingested misogyny like poisoned food, vomiting up its tenets even as they suffer at its’ hands.

I had foolishly hoped for protection and covering from black men, but my unwavering confidence that Cosby is a sexual predator has earned me their wrath and distrust. My commitment to our struggle is called into question with the deciding factor being not my history of standing with my people against anti-black racism and oppression, nor my unshakeable stance on state-sanctioned anti-black violence, but my refusal to stand by Cosby, dismissing the accounts of scores of women and admissions made by Cosby himself in a court deposition. Black men demand I prove my loyalty by labeling liars not only his white accusers but all the black women who’ve recounted their violations as well.

Cosby’s guilt becomes less important than the fact that some famous white men who have been accused of rape have largely escaped prosecution and conviction. Others take me to task for not letting Cosby have his day in court before I decide he’s a rapist, forgetting how the black collective didn’t need indictments or convictions to decide George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson were murderers. Mostly, though, black misogynoirists expect me to engage in the same victim-blaming, side-stepping and denial that’s plagued black women for centuries, accepting rape and sexual violation as an inevitable part of the black female existence.

Most surprising of all, however, is how so many white men, standing at the helm power and privilege, have all but exonerated Cosby. This screams to the general embrace of rape culture by men. Many of these white men identify with Cosby as a man, not a black man. Race seems almost a non-factor in their assessment of the validity of the claims as they protect manhood against all else. Lending any plausibility to these women’s claims would force them to also examine their own histories and attitudes towards women.

These conflicting views, opinions and experiences have created the perfect storm with the thunder of racial tension, the lightning of rape culture and the winds of class warfare. This entire tragedy should be forcing the conversations we never want to have. We need to be having conversations about how a racist system, through centuries of lynching, railroading and unfair prosecutions of black people, produced black people who cannot — and most often should not – trust the integrity of the judicial process. We should discuss why white feminists, who proclaim themselves defenders of all women, virtually ignore the black women who are victims of sexual assault or rape unless our victimhood fits into their narrative or serves their agenda. Let’s be honest about a system that is more forgiving of white men who commit sex crimes and while we’re at it, we can dissect how too many in the black community continue to support men who’ve preyed on our girls and women.

No one wants to have these conversations, though. Everyone wants to pretend this case is simply about rape, ignoring the elephant in the room. Acknowledging that Cosby’s violations against these women doesn’t mean that you don’t know that black people are disproportionately affected by the justice system. Acknowledging that there is a history of black men being falsely accused of rape by white women doesn’t mean that a white woman should automatically be called a liar when she accuses a black man of rape.

This case is an onion that must be peeled. Once we get pass the thin outer layers, we’ll have to deal with the inside. Sure we’ll cry, but if we don’t start chopping it, we’ll never finish dinner. Rarely is anything black and white, but in America, it’s always _black_ and _white.

*LaSha is a writer and blogger passionate about black people. She’s committed to using her writing to deconstruct oppressive ideologies and systems, particularly misogynoir, and racism. Her work has been featured on Blavity, Clutch Magazine, Atlanta Blck Star and For Harriet. She is the founder of The Kinfolk Kollective.

Find her at: www.kinfolkkollective.com FB: The Kinfolk Kollective Twitter: @knflkkollective