First off, let me say that I am a couple of days away from being a father. Second: I love my father. Third, it's time for us to acknowledge that the "fatherly advice" that is often championed can be harmful, particularly if we are speaking about sexual violence, but know little about it.
Why am I pushing against this old-school fatherly advice? Well, that recent video of Lincoln University President Robert R. Jennings’s address to female students set my blood to boil. For many, Jennings remarks were “fatherly” and “seldom spoken truths” and they have been defended by the suggestion they were taken out of context. I don’t agree with the former, but I do agree his words were taken out of context. To understand Jennings’s words more fully they must be put back into the missing context of patriarchy. Patriarchy is the problem.
The term patriarchy is no longer en vogue—despite the palpable rise of discussions of intersectionality and debates about feminism’s forms—patriarchy seems to not have made the lexiconic cut. While it is not the term du jour (I’m looking at you anti-Blackness, respectability, slut shaming and others), it remains entrenched in the cultural stew of Black America. Jennings, like Bill Cosby, like Ray Rice, like CeeLo Green and many others have found a chorus of supporters who work overtime to justify their speech towards and treatment of women as acceptable. No matter the weight, patriarchy finds a way to allow men and their misdeeds to float, while women’s experiences and voices are submerged beneath the water. One of the problems with patriarchy is that it assumes that men are fathers (meaning authority figures) to all and often that fathers are infallible—neither of which are true.
A portion of Jennings’s recent convocation speech was uploaded to YouTube in which he admonishes women for their choices in sexual partners, characterizes men as lacking self-regulation, and suggested that 3 female Lincoln students were disappointed in how their interactions with men ended and claimed they were raped—all of this and more in just under 4 minutes. Despite the investigation of Jennings’s claims of 3 women making false rape allegations turning up no corroborating evidence, despite the fact that he suggests women put themselves in positions to be raped, and despite the fact that he speaks about men as if they are animals, he will be defended. This is a problem for a number of reasons, the least of which is that he is a university president!
This is not a conversation in your grandmother’s living room, this is event directed at young people who he is charged with stewarding into careers of service and leadership. Such leadership failure besmirches the rich history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities that have been incubators for training up a great guard of caring change agents. Instead, Lincoln students are being offered a narrative of blame and condescension rather than tools to change a culture that sees sexual assault as a “woman’s issue” and makes men the victims, rather than holding them accountable.
It is estimated that 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault while a college student. Let that sink in. That’s 20 percent! Jennings references the changes that are occurring on college campuses nationally around sexual assault. These policy changes, such as the creation of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, have come about because the federal government and many schools recognize sexual assault has been grossly mishandled on campus. Jennings represents these changes as a predetermination of guilt for the accused and the derailing of a, presumably male, life. He begrudgingly described why his school investigates claims of sexual assault carefully—because, “Possibly somebody’s life is about to change, for the rest of their life. Because there’s no more serious accusation.”
For statrters, this runs contrary to the overwhelming evidence we have about rape that occurs on and off campus, where in most cases the accused never experience incarceration (not that I think incarceration is the answer). Second, while Jennings talks about the lives of the accused changing, what about the survivors of assault? Without judge or jury, the course of their lives were instantly shifted and often survivors are blamed for their experiences or not believed when they do come forward. Those are problems, but not in the sight of Jennings. Third, sexual assault is highly stigmatized and survivors who come forward are often challenged rather than embraced. How could his talk squelch the stepping forward of female and male survivors? Jennings’s comments are bigger than him, they are the embodiment of the dangerous patriarchal ideas that silences many and stunt the creation of nurturing campuses and communities.
Many in the Black community have rejected the idea of patriarchy, despite our willingness to attach it to White communities. I’ve come to believe that our inability to name patriarchy and its agents has allowed its appearances to be considered anachronistic. Jennings is not alone, nor is the knee jerk defense of male admonition of women’s bodies and behaviors. Instead, they reflect the failure of previous generations of men and women to challenge patriarchal inequity. As bell hooks said, “Patriarchy has no gender.” Good advice and sound policy come not from men in general, but from caring and conscientious people in particular. Creating safe spaces is a communal project and it is one we can’t afford to forfeit to the whims of patriarchy, because father doesn’t always know best!
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies in the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York. He is the author of Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. You can follow him on Twitter @dumilewis or visit his website.