Cosby Revelations Challenge Notions of Gender, Race and Sexual Violence

Activist and blogger Janessa Robinson discusses the latest reports about Bill Cosby, rape and the impact of patriarchy and White supremacy on interpretations of violence against women

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Story Transcript

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: What’s up world, and welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

Well, the Associated Press reported late last night and again early this morning that court documents they convinced a judge to release show that in 2005 former funnyman, icon, and later social critic Bill Cosby did indeed admit under oath to drugging women he, the report says, intended to have sex with.

Now celebrities and others who defended Cosby must walk back their support of a man who more than 25 women have accused of drugging, assaulting, and raping them. Similarly, many who defended Cosby as a race man and right-wing target must also now reevaluate their analyses regarding the intersection of white supremacy, class, and gender oppression. And many more should reconsider their ideological evaluation of those offered up as our leaders, considering that Cosby had been exposed long ago by the likes of George Jackson to be a kind of state-sponsored negation of radical movements of that day.

But what else does this all say about the role of celebrity, patriarchy, and male violence against women? To endeavor an answer to that and other questions is culture critic and blogger Janessa Robinson. Robinson is a black radical feminist and activist now living in Washington, DC, though she joins us today from New York City.

Welcome, Janessa Robinson, to the show.

JANESSA ROBINSON, CULTURE CRITIC/BLOGGER: Hi, thanks for having me.

BALL: So let me ask, if you would, to respond to my initial critique of Bill Cosby, one that I said in the intro comes from George Jackson himself. This idea that, as George Jackson wrote back in Soledad Brother in 1970, black capitalism. Black against itself. The silliest contradiction in a long train of spineless, mindless contradictions. Another painless ultimate remedy, be a better fascist than the fascists. Bill Cosby acting out the establishment agent. What message was this soul brother conveying to our children?

And of course here George Jackson is talking about Bill Cosby’s role in the show, the popular television show I Spy, portraying in a positive light an FBI agent at a time when the FBI was aggressively stamping out the black radical movement and many others associated in that time.

So I want to ask if you could respond to that initially, this idea that long before this controversy emerged, Bill Cosby represented, again, this negation of radicalism here in the United States.

ROBINSON: I think George Jackson makes a very poignant point, and I think part of the, the interesting response to people’s defense–the response to people condemning Bill Cosby is that they defend his contributions to black culture, such that paving a way, so to speak, for black actors and producers in show biz. But if you look at the character that he’s played that has really hoisted him up as a champion in black entertainment, those characters are typically not characters that we would want to embrace in times of turmoil against state-sanctioned violence, or the attempt to suppress radicalism.

And I think that goes for the character in I Spy as well as down the line to the Cosby Show which is, you know, very much so a critical piece of black culture and certainly has its place in a lot of people’s hearts. But the kind of politics that come out of that show are very much so respectability. And it definitely marginalizes people who don’t fall into those, those upper-middle class families, those quote-unquote well-to-do black families. It definitely marginalizes those people.

And I mean, you can see that in the way that he’s condemned black people in his comments who were sagging their pants and listening to rap music, and giving their children unique names. And he’s very much, I think, has a long history of building a character that gained a lot of respect from black people, but not for the reasons that black people really think that they respect him. He’s put a lot into developing this narrative that there’s a certain kind of acceptable black folk. And people who don’t fall into that are not acceptable.

And his character in I Spy, choosing to play someone that represents a government that at the time was under fire from black communities who quite simply were just tired of being oppressed, and who were being shot down in the streets for having enough nerve to say something that they weren’t going to take it anymore. It’s a very telling role that he decided to take on at that point. And it’d be something that, if it were to happen now, I think a lot of people would be more critical of. Whereas we kind of have this revisionist history and we tend to excuse those kinds of very overt steps to aligning black people or black entertainers or black powerful people with oppressive systems.

BALL: You know, in the AP story they talk about–or in one of the reports associated with the AP story, they talk about how the judge decided to release the documents showing this testimony from 2005 in part because of Bill Cosby’s public role as a social critic later in life. And that his public critiques of black behavior that he then turned into a reason for the repressiveness of the state was used against him in this most recent court–in court with the AP, that is, in getting this 2005 testimony released. Saying that well, if you’re going to be a social critic and comment on people’s behavior, then certainly they have a right to see what you have in open court testified to having done. That is, drugging women for the purposes of having sex.

But as at least some have noted in social media, this has been used to even deny the worst forms of–or the worst interpretations or the most serious interpretations of what he’s accused of doing. That is, that in even saying in the court documents that he was doing this to have sex with women, it is being denied that his actual efforts here were designed to rape women.

So I’m wondering even if in response to my initial critique based on politics and in his own reactionary responses to black behavior and justifying what the state is doing to black people, is that, along with this claim that he was looking just to have sex with women, denying the true intent here? That he was here, that he was engaged in looking for–he was attempting to rape these women, or was raping these women. And that this is somehow being walked back in even how we’re reconsidering what it is he’s being accused of.

In other words, I hope you get the point of this rambling question here, but I’m wondering what you–if you could respond to this notion that, or the way that this is being interpreted and responded to, that is looking in some ways to deny the–what he’s actually been doing here, the worst forms of what he’s actually been doing here.

ROBINSON: I think you’re right on point. I was very much so disturbed by the framing of this particular story. The idea that someone was creating headlines that constructed rape into the intent to have sex with someone is a very problematic issue. And I think there–I saw a lot of people responding negatively to it on social media as well.

But that, that’s part of the problem. People have this idea that rape is about sex. And rape is not about sex. Rape is using sex as a tool for power. It manifests itself in rape in relationships, or with peers, and people you know. But also, I mean, we can see that historically with rape in war, literally being used as a weapon, or prison rape. These are all manifestations of power dynamics. And the idea that rape is sex is–I mean, it’s refuted so heavily through theory, but specifically if you’re looking at someone who intended to drug women and to make them unconscious, and then [intent] on having sex with these women, then his interest is obviously not in consensual sex. His interest is in putting himself in a dominant position, and ignoring and circumventing women’s agencies or their right to refuse any sort of intercourse or sexual advances that he comes with.

And I think that–like, I understand that the judge intended to kind of expose Cosby here because of his tendency to comment on social issues. And I think that that’s a very interesting aspect of what kind of drove this story forward. And just as I think we have to be conscious of the framing of the story around Cosby’s allegations and this kind of saga that’s unfortunately seemed to develop, I think we also should be critical of the representation of how this story comes about.

And I think it’s important that as a, as a rebuttal, a lot of people raise the idea around him as a black man and the conspiracy theory. And there is a historic context for black men in this country being framed or beaten or bludgeoned, or attacked in jail on the premise of false allegations. But we must also be clear that statistically speaking, the number of false rape allegations is far outnumbered by the ones that are accurate.

And so although he’s a, is a black man who seems to have been outed by his own judge with the intention of perhaps sort of pressing or discouraging him from his social commentary, we still have to keep in mind that the likelihood that–I don’t, I don’t even know what the number is up to now, but I know it’s at least over, over two dozen women. That the likelihood that two dozen women have all been lying about this for decades, it’s just, it’s preposterous.

And it’s I think indicative of the notion that women’s words aren’t valued, in that it’s definitely telling of the rape culture that we seem to have manifested in our society that the onus is put on women to somehow prove that they were raped as opposed to kind of condemning and acting on the idea and the information that we have, which is that rape is common. We know rape is common. We know that they’re not necessarily–a large majority of men are not rapists. But that rapists tend to have multiple victims.

And so these are the kind of things that I like to see in response to that particular framing of the AP story, which is to try to, to step back and deconstruct how problematic, exactly, that type of framing is. Because it completely negates the idea that there are men who do intentionally rape women, that that’s their particular goal.

BALL: Janessa Robinson, thank you very much. And unfortunately we’ll have many more uncelebratory moments to have you back on to continue this conversation. But thank you very much for joining us here at the Real News Network.

ROBINSON: Thanks for having me.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News Network as well. For all involved, I’m Jared Ball. And as Fred Hampton is usually heard here quoted saying, to you we say peace, if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody. Catch you in the whirlwind.

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