Shuffling Feet: A Black Man’s View of Schroedinger’s Rapist

A response to the argument of Schroedinger’s Rapist and an examination of anti-black racism. 

This morning I made a reference to the fact that men are often assumed to be potential rapists as an example of how sexism negatively affects men as well as women. The argument, commonly referred to as “Schroedinger’s Rapist”, goes something like this: because you can’t know for sure if the stranger approaching you in a dark alley or other unsafe place is a rapist or not, it is generally a good idea to be on your guard. Men can enhance their interactions with women by being aware of this mindset, and adjusting their own behaviour accordingly.

I have often heard from people making an anti-feminist argument that Schroedinger’s Rapist is profoundly sexist and unfair. After all, most men do not rape – why should every man be treated like a rapist? Isn’t that discrimination? How can you claim to be opposed to sexism, yet promote a fundamentally sexually prejudicial idea? The next step is often to draw parallels to racism – is it fair to treat all black people as potential criminals simply because, statistically speaking, there are more black criminals than white ones? Isn’t that racist?

As much as I hate it when white people use anti-black racism as a cudgel with which to beat other people, I can understand the conundrum as it is expressed. The problem with it (and the reason why it’s so bothersome to hear white people talk about anti-black racism) is that it fails to address the question in a meaningful way. To demonstrate what I mean, I’d like to share a couple of personal anecdotes from my own life. I’ve never shared these stories with anyone before, and I’m not sure why because there’s nothing particularly embarrassing about them, and they’re extremely useful in this context.

♦◊♦

When I was in high school, I was the de facto manager of my string quartet. We were gaining a bit of a reputation – we were pretty good, and young people are a novelty – and had picked up a lot of gigs playing weddings. One particular evening, I was supposed to meet the bride-to-be at her church. I had been hanging out at my friend’s house, and was walking from his place to the church. Unhappily, I realized that I was running a bit late – very unprofessional – so I decided to pick up my pace. It was cool outside, so I had my hoodie up.

I was trucking along at a fairly decent pace when I noticed an older woman ahead of me on the street. At first I didn’t pay any attention to her, as my intent was on making my appointment. However, as I drew closer, she became more visibly agitated, constantly looking over her shoulder and speeding up. There was no way she was going to walk faster than me, though – I was way taller than she. When I was about 50m away, she suddenly broke to the right and crossed the road – over 6 lanes of high-speed traffic. I thought it was an unusual move, considering we were nowhere near a crosswalk.

Then it finally occurred to me (when I noticed she had crossed back over once I was safely past her) – she didn’t see someone in a hurry to get to church – she saw a young black kid motoring toward her with no safe haven in sight. She took the risk of running out into the road rather than assume that I wasn’t trying to assault her. I remember that quite clearly, because it was the first time that I realized that I was a frightening sight to strangers.

♦◊♦

Years later I was working for a friend of mine who was doing his PhD thesis on perceived access to park facilities. I, along with my friend Suzie (not her real name), had to canvas the neighbourhood, going door to door and asking people to fill out surveys about their level/type of outdoor activity. After a few streets, I noticed that Suzie’s refusal rate was much lower than mine. Waterloo (where we were) is not exactly a cosmopolitan hub of multiculturalism, and the area we were in was populated by mostly older white people.

Thinking back to my traffic-dodging friend, I asked Suzie to go back to some houses that I’d had trouble with – people closing the door in my face or saying ‘no’ before I finished my sales pitch. Much as I suspected, blonde and 5’5″ Suzie was able to obtain consent from a number of people who had said no to me. This wasn’t about how I was dressed – we were both wearing identical t-shirts and jeans – this was about a huge black dude showing up at your door unexpectedly and asking questions. I learned to knock and then take several steps back from the door so as not to startle people.

One more story. Because I prefer to be able to knock off early from work, I start my day at around 7:45. This means I have to leave the house pretty early in the morning. There are often young women walking around my neighbourhood with their dogs and in their pyjamas. It’s often pretty dark at 7 am, especially in the winter. Despite my size, I am a particularly light stepper, and because my winter coat is black, I am not terribly visible. After scaring the bejezus out of my neighbours by coming up behind them completely unexpected, I have learned to start shuffling my feet when walking behind someone – giving them an auditory clue that I am there and approaching.

♦◊♦

Now there are two ways I could react to these encounters. I could rail against people for being racist and sexist and size-ist (if that’s a thing) – I’m so gentle and warm and loving! How dare they act as though I’m not? That’s one way – and it’s the stupid way. The other way is to recognize that while I strongly dislike the fact that people see me as dangerous because of how I look, it is up to me to decide what to do with that information. If I don’t care about spooking my neighbours, I don’t have to shuffle my feet – let them deal with their fright. But if I do care, then I have to find some way of mitigating that fear so we can coexist harmoniously.

Bringing this example home, men in the freethought movement have a decision to make. They (we) can rail against the hypocrisy of claiming to be anti-sexist whilst engaging in sex-based prejudicial behaviour, or we can recognize that if we want to be accommodating to women we have to make some adjustments to how we behave. It comes back to the central question: do we want women to be more comfortable? If not, then we should say so explicitly – “we don’t care about your comfort, toots! Nut up or shut up!” On the other hand, if we do care, then we can’t simply maintain the status quo of behaviour and berate women for being afraid of rape. That doesn’t solve any problems.

The other point I want to make here, which goes back to my objection to anti-black racism being used as a rhetorical device by those who will never face it, is that black people engage in tons of behaviours to make white people feel safer. We do this all the damn time. We make accommodations in speech, behaviour, dress, mannerism, conversation topic – a wide diversity of adjustments that we make in the presence of our white friends. We want them to feel comfortable around us, and we accept the inherent racism of the need for such changes. The fact that you rail against its manifest unfairness is indicative of the fact that you have no idea we’re doing it – which means, in turn, that we’re doing it well. Until I am convinced that you actually understand anti-black racism (which would take quite a bit of doing), I don’t appreciate being deputized into your anti-feminist screed in this way.

♦◊♦

Anyway, this is obviously simply my opinion and personal experience. I personally don’t have a problem with the argument, and I have done my best to illustrate why I think that Schroedinger’s Rapist, while unfortunate, is not unfair. If you disagree, I hope you will explain why in the comments.

TL/DR: I’ve frequently heard people object to the Schroedinger’s Rapist argument as sexist, with anti-black racism used as a counter-example. I reject this comparison because it neglects two important factors: 1) that the issue under discussion is about whether or not we want women to feel more comfortable; and 2) that black people often make similar behavioural adjustments to accommodate the racism of their white friends. I share some personal stories to illustrate this.

Update: Comrade Physioprof  has made this excellent observation: “It is not “sexist” for women to view all men as potential rapists, because (other than in prison) men possess the privilege of being subject to a vanishingly small likelihood of being raped by either men or women, while women are subject to a substantial likelihood of being raped by men. In contrast, it is “racist” for white people to view all black people as potential criminals, because (as far as I can discern from available crime statistics) white people are the ones who possess the privilege of being less likely to be crime victims than black people, and they are more likely to be victims of crimes committed by white people than by black people.”

Update 2: Greg Laden offers another perspective on this issue.

Originally appeared at FreeThoughtBlogs.com.

—Photo kaizat /Flickr

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About Crommunist

Crommunist is a scientist, musician, skeptic, and long-time observer of race and race issues. His interests, at least blog-wise, focus on bringing anti-racism into the fold of skeptic thought, and promoting critical thinking about even those topics that make us uncomfortable. More about Crommunist here.

Comments

  1. I realize I’m late to this discussion, but, let me just say this. I have no expectation that men make any accommodation for my feelings. If you want to get in the elevator with me, go ahead. However, I’m responsible for my own safety and no one will take that away from me. If I suspect that a man might be following me then, yes, I might step into a store or cross the street. If you approach me and want to talk to me, if I feel uncomfortable, I may refuse to talk to you. That’s my right. I’m not responsible for protecting the feelings of random strangers. I’m not going to scream “rapist!” at anyone, and in fact, I think fear of stranger rape is greatly exaggerated. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be cautious. Most people who cross my path are not purse snatchers, but when I’m walking down the street, I still keep a good grip on my purse. It’s just common sense.

    • “I’m not responsible for protecting the feelings of random strangers.”

      Nobody is saying that you are. But likewise strangers aren’t responsible for protecting your feelings which is what this articles is saying.

  2. Agreed, people can do whatever they like. Go ahead and get in the elevator. But don’t be offended if a woman waits for the next elevator rather than getting in with you. (Not that I do that, normally, with elevators. But I have crossed the street to avoid someone who was making me nervous.)

    • But don’t be offended if a woman waits for the next elevator rather than getting in with you.
      Me personally, this wouldn’t offend me. What does offend me is the idea that I need to go out of my way to make said woman feel safe (like for example expecting me to take the next elevator to show that I’m not threat to her) while at the same time if this were just about any other situation other than male/female people would be tripping over themselves to call it an -ism.

      • nemesis says:

        agreed, in fact I HOPE you run like a scared kitten from me when I walk down the street. You wanna walk around feeling like your a hunted class of human being you go a head and live like one. If you wanna pretend like you have something to fear from me just because your naive sense of the world around you tells you your not just in as much danger when your not standing next to somebody that looks like me then you hide in the shadow the streetlight casts on me.

      • What does offend me is the idea that I need to go out of my way to make said woman feel safe – See more at: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/shuffling-feet-a-black-mans-view-of-schroedingers-rapist/#sthash.jNZZ0Tus.dpuf

        Sorry Danny, but this is called, living in civilised society. We all (should) go out of our way to help those in need, make others feel safe, and strive to be a positive, productive person in the community. With all due respect, if you resent this so much, go live alone on an island somewhere …?!

        (no-one is saying you have to wait for the next elevator – take off your sunglasses or hoodie, adjust your body language, make eye contact, smile or say hi in a polite, non-threatening way, and give her plenty of space. Easy.)

  3. John Anderson says:

    I believe in freedom of association so I don’t think a woman has to talk to a man or get in the same elevator or walk on the same side of the street, etc. I do wonder how this is different from a guy not wanting to talk to a woman because she’s not conventionally attractive. People would criticize him for being shallow, but he already knows that he doesn’t want an intimate relationship with her, which is more than the woman who is afraid of a stranger knows.

    SR basically affects men in the same way that men’s expectation of beauty affects women. Why is one wrong and not the other? I’m in a male dominated field and in general, we don’t hang out with the female tech. They lose out on some non-work related information, non-work related resources, and of course some social interaction. I’m sure it’s lonely being the only female. Some people would think that it’s wrong to “freeze out” a woman even unintentionally, but why is that different from SR? We act differently around her so limit our social interactions at work with her.

    • There’s a difference between what you’re talking about. A woman (or man) who is avoiding walking down the same side of the street as a man is doing it out of a sense of fear…misguided fear, but still it’s out of fear for personal safety. Also, these interactions are extremely brief, and avoiding it is not depriving anyone of social networking or harming interpersonal or professional relationships.

      When you talk about ‘freezing out’ a woman who is a co-worker, the consequences of that are much greater. Firstly, there is no fear of personal safety that is driving it. Secondly, by doing so it hampers her ability to create professional relationships with her co-workers. A better parallel would be if the women in a most-women field were to ‘freeze out’ the men in that field…like in nursing or something. Context is key.

      • John Anderson says:

        I’m sore men in nursing have it worse than she does since often times they’re prevented from performing intimate procedures on female patients. Granted, we don’t make her do the heavy lifting, but I doubt she would complain that we didn’t let her move a 500 lb. VAX and she hasn’t.

        “Firstly, there is no fear of personal safety that is driving it.”

        I’m not 100% sure that there is no fear aspect though. She seems cool. She complained about one of the guys once to a female manager, but didn’t want to press forward with the complaint when the female manager wanted to involve our manager. The guy she accused is kind of a prick so I believe her. Still, we moderate our own interactions when she’s around. We don’t let her borrow our personal external hard drives because of certain explicit digital media. There was one female tech who wanted some of the files I had so bad she promised that she wouldn’t be offended by anything she might see. I didn’t take the chance.

        I’m sure there are several ethically dubious tricks she would be interested to learn if only to protect herself. Once I got hit with a virus that spoofed my DNS. I got redirected to a fake bank site that looked like mine with what looked like the same URL. I got suspicious when it asked for more than my user name and password. Now I surf on a virtual system so my changes aren’t permanent unless I want them to be.

  4. a wortman says:

    I think there is an important flaw in the parallel between men scaring women on the street and black people scaring white people: This example flips the oppression. Men deciding to behave differently towards women is an acknowledgement of male privilege and oppressive behavior. Black people behaving differently in order to make white people feel safe is what people of color do regularly in order to make it in a predominantly white society.

  5. John Anderson says:

    “I’ve frequently heard people object to the Schroedinger’s Rapist argument as sexist,”

    I remember reading a comment from a man, who described himself as 6 foot 3 and all musclely, but reported that he was deathly afraid of women as one woman used the threat of false accusation to abuse him. Why would his perception be treated differently from the typical woman and why shouldn’t all women be held accountable for his feelings? I don’t know if you even have to compare it to black people to see that it’s sexist. You just have to answer the question why women as a collective shouldn’t be held accountable for the discomfort of an individual man and/or why a man’s discomfort wouldn’t be valid.

    • John Anderson, the example you’re giving there is of an abused man. It would be more accurate to compare his behaviour/reactions to that of other abused women, rather than to the majority.

  6. The term “Schroedingers Rapist” and the argument it describes is NOT about the “dark stranger”. It was first introduced in an article that talks about women going on a date, not being accosted in an alley. This entire piece is predicated on a fallacy, and is an attempt to belittle women’s real world experience into the elevator-purse-hugging meme of racism.

    It is well known that the majority of rapes are committed by someone the woman knows or has met at least once. The meme of “stranger rape” has been demonstrated over and over again to be false. Anyone with sense is not going to be fooled by these arguments. I expect better of GMP.

    • Mark Neil says:

      But unknown men are being treated as potential rapists. THAT is what this article is about. The idea that an unknown man is going to rape you, and therefore feeling justified in treating him like a rapists.That is the argument Schroedinger’s rapist describes, and it very much IS about stranger rape. That ever man who is unknown is both a rapist and not a rapist at the same time, and can not be known until you/he open the box.

      The fact stranger rape is so rare actually serves to make this attitude even worst. I’m not entirely sure what you are actually trying to debate with your disparaging GMP, your disappointment, your know-it-all attitude and self righteousness. In telling us how we are belittling women’s experiences by belittling our own as a fallacy. You haven’t actually acknowledged the argument, but ironically, you’ve subsequently provided reasoning that the “all men are potential rapists and it’s ok to treat them as such” attitude is unjustified, all the while, wincing you don’t like the topic of discussion as if you’re someone of importance that gets to dictate this stuff.

  7. It’s hard to come by educated people on this subject, however, you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  8. Anonymous says:

    here is a comment i read here
    ” I’m in a male dominated field and in general, we don’t hang out with the female tech. They lose out on some non-work related information, non-work related resources, and of course some social interaction. I’m sure it’s lonely being the only female. Some people would think that it’s wrong to “freeze out” a woman even unintentionally, but why is that different from SR? We act differently around her so limit our social interactions at work with her. ”
    i am an Israeli and been working for many years in a “male dominamt field” it is not always easy but i never felt “freezed out”… leads me to think that america society is a very sexist one… happy i did not have to e periance this….

  9. I agree with the gist of this article, and I’d like to add that, while women (rightly) argue we shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of a rapist or thug, we change our behaviour to avoid the threat all the time – regardless.

    We dress differently to avoid attention or judgement, we don’t go places alone, we take the long way home because it’s safer and better lit, etc etc. Not every woman, and not all the time, but most women, most of the time. So it’s not a one way street by any means.

    I’d also add that I think it’s a simple risk management slash cost/benefit process. I’m sorry if I offend you by crossing the street to avoid you. But – and one way or another, many of us have learnt this the hard way – the cost of treating an innocent man like a potential rapist (possible offence caused) versus the unwanted attention I have to deal with, or the risk to my safety if you *do* turn out to be a threat – it’s a no brainer. I’m sure plenty of innocent guys would cross the street to avoid possible trouble from a large, loud group of drunk men – they might be perfectly harmless as well! – but it’s no different.

  10. I heard the term ‘Schroedinger’s Rapist’ for the first time today. To me it seems to be just another symptom of rape culture. As long as potential victims are constantly told to prevent being raped (sic in itself), they will check every situation and everyone for dangers and act cautious. Because if an assault happens to them, they will for sure be asked “Why did you do this / wear this / be there / talk to / drink ……….” and so on.
    It hurts everyone involved.

  11. A very interesting read. I thought you might be interested in this analogy. I’ve shamelessly stolen it and used it repeatedly when friends comment about caution being unfair, catcalling being complimentary, etc.

    http://gyzym.tumblr.com/post/52983582368/consider-the-bank

  12. I liked the article, and it was a good point of view, but I do have to point out an often misquoted statistic. Black people don’t commit more crimes than white people. That’s just a flat out lie. The crime data consistently shows that an individual is anywhere between 2-7 times more likely to be the victim of a crime done by a white person than a black person. That gap in likelihood is based on the type of crime. White Collar Crimes are overwhelmingly white. Murder is roughly 1.3-1 white/black. Sexual assault, child kidnapping, and child pornography are also overwhelmingly white. etc.

    http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2011/crime-in-the-u.s.-2011/tables/table-43

    Forcible rape – Roughly 2-1
    Aggravated assault – roughly 2-1
    Burglary – roughly 2-1
    Larceny-theft – roughly 2 to 1
    Arson – roughly 3-1

    Blacks commit more crimes per capita, but that’s a useless statistic when you’re talking about YOUR safety. It’s only useful if you’re a racist peddling that they’re an inferior race or more prone to commit crimes. In the real world, if 65% of forcible rapes are done by whites than you have almost a 7 in 10 chance that your rapist will be a white person.

    This isn’t to suggest that we should have anti-white racism, it is to suggest that ANYONE’S fear of black people is completely irrational, not based on information, and totally and entirely based on your own preconceived notions. Add in the fact that most violent black crime is committed in focused geographical pockets, if you live outside of those pockets your chances of being raped/burglarized/assaulted/killed by a black person are pretty much slim to none.

    As almost a matter of universal experience Human beings get more cynical as they grow up because negative emotions carry more weight than positive ones. If you get raped by a man you may understandably forever be affected in a way that the countless positive experiences with men won’t measure up to. If you get robbed in a city once, you’ll easily forget the years and years you’ve lived there with nothing bad at all. We understand these psychological traumas, while still creating a statistically irrational fear, they’re understandable. The problem is that we begin to internalize media and news portrayals of certain groups of people in ways that don’t actually mirror our own real world experience.

    So all of the people being scared by the author here are wrong. Unquestionably. Because after all they are judging him on the “color of his skin and not the content of his character”.

    I’m not black, and if I get scared by a black guy (because I’m programmed to by years and years of media portrayals), that’s on me. That’s my bullshit I have to work through. It’s not up to anyone else to make me feel comfortable.

  13. http://www.timwise.org/2013/08/race-crime-and-statistical-malpractice-how-the-right-manipulates-white-fear-with-bogus-data/

    I didn’t write this but it’s an amazing piece deconstructing the data.

    “Whites are 6 times as likely to be murdered by another white person as by a black person; and overall, the percentage of white Americans who will be murdered by a black offender in a given year is only 2/10,000ths of 1 percent (0.0002)”

    So again. White fear of black people is entirely irrational and based not on personal experience but on subconscious racist viewpoints hammered home by nurture, not nature.

  14. To me the essential idea here is the one of privilege. As a man you have the priviledge to assume that you won’t get raped.
    As an independent young woman living in a pretty safe town, I find it hard to explain to my male friends how often I am reminded of my status as a “potential prey” in everyday life. From the slightly too-friendly neighbour to the guy walking behind you in an empty street…. It’s just always there.
    I’ve never been raped, but I’ve had guys follow me for 10 minutes while joking about how scared I looked. I’ve heard men flirt with me and then shout abuse at me when I wouldn’t respond. Many men have made it clear to me that they could hurt me, if they wanted. Do I think all men are like that? No.
    But I do feel this little fear, this little uncomfortable flutter in my stomach, very often. If you, as a man, have the possibility NOT to make me feel like that, why on earth wouldn’t you try to make things a bit easier for me?

  15. Josh Dittmer says:

    I applaud and agree with your larger point about being aware of the perceptions of those around us and not automatically assuming that there is some nefarious prejudice behind peoples fears.
    I do wish that you had not dropped the race card, because frankly all the examples you gave apply to every man. You should apply the logic you used to dispel the charges of sexism to your examples of racism.

  16. John Anderson says:

    When boys are taught not to hit girls, is that a sign of sexism by denying girls equality or is it a survival technique because in a sexist society, it doesn’t matter who the aggressor actually was? When a man hits, he’s automatically the aggressor regardless of the number of times she struck him first.

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