When the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn was dismissed on Tuesday, it occurred to me that what we had in front of us was a good metaphor for one of the tawdry underbellies of American life.
Call it the power of privilege — the unacknowledged advantages that permeate so many layers of our public, and not so public, lives.
I’m not here to argue the merits of the case, or to rant about the legal system. We are, in fact, a family that is lousy with attorneys. On any given day, you can’t walk down the hall without bumping elbows with one. On Thanksgiving, we joke about replacing the kids’ table with a lawyers’ table.
But this is essentially a case of he-said, she-said, right? Of parties whose closets apparently hold more than a couple of skeletons. So our thought question for today is this: Why is Strauss-Kahn, a powerful white male, who asserts that the sex was consensual, more believable than Nafissatou Diallo, a hotel maid who fled her native Guinea for asylum in the U.S., who says she was raped?
And why has Diallo’s background cast doubt on her story when our erstwhile defendant’s past is equally checkered? As Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman wrote on Tuesday:
A woman who gets intoxicated can be raped. Prostitutes can be raped. And a poor woman who has told lies can be raped. In fact, it is often the women who “don’t make good victims” who are most at risk because they are the most vulnerable, and it is these women who are least likely to be listened to.
I confess I know no more about the case itself than do any of you, and I am willing to admit that it’s possible that there was no criminal case to be made. But – evidence notwithstanding apologies to the attorneys in the family– I still wonder about the larger issue, which is this: All things being equal, why is it that the scales always tend to tip in favor of privilege?
One of the worst aspects of privilege, whether in the courtroom or the workplace, is that those who have it tend not to notice. What’s second-worst is that, because of the above, privilege tends to perpetuate itself.
Back in 1989, Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, wrote a pivotal paper entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In the paper, she listed the contents of that knapsack, a collection of invisible “privileges” she enjoyed by virtue of her race – from being able to buy or rent a home wherever she wanted to being assured that when she’s pulled over for a traffic stop, it’s not because of the color of her skin.
Her point, derived from her work in women’s studies, was this. While those with privilege may be willing to admit that those without it are indeed disadvantaged, what they don’t seem to notice is the other side of the coin: doors automatically open for some folks simply because of their skin color – or their gender.
As McIntosh noted, it’s a source of power and advantage that is largely unearned. And it automatically puts many of us on the other side of the power divide. That includes women, even when we enjoy the privileges of race. Need a refresher? We make less money than our male counterparts. We’re often stymied on our way up the corporate ladder simply because of something related specifically to our gender: motherhood – or in some cases, lack of same. And then there’s the workplace itself, which is still structured around the outdated concept of the ideal employee, who can put in the 52 hour workweek, secure in the knowledge that there is someone at home to take care of business.
We’ll stop there.
My point, at least today, is not to vent about the inherent inequities – but to suggest that we start paying attention to the power that some folks hold through no fault of their own. Which brings us back to the case at hand.
Diallo has filed a civil suit against Strauss-Kahn, whose attorney has announced that Strauss-Kahn is considering a lawsuit of his own because he has suffered “enormous damages.”
Should both lawsuits see their day in court, let’s lay some odds, shall we? Who do you think is likely to prevail?