The Intersection: Nate Parker, Denial and the Damage Done

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The Intersection is a regular, in-depth segment in which we examine the many layers of oppression, violence, and trauma that we encounter in our survivor-focused and community-based work at STAR.

The Background

Nate Parker is an actor, writer and director who has recently received a great deal of attention for his new film The Birth of a Nation, which is based on the Nat Turner slave rebellion.

Given the persistence of racism and white supremacy in America today, Parker’s rising star has been a source of hope for many, especially many black Americans. Then, a few weeks ago, media outlets began reporting on a 1999 trial where Parker and his friend and collaborator Jean Celestin were tried for rape of a fellow college student, a white woman. Parker was found not guilty, reportedly in part because he had a prior consensual sexual interaction with the victim (which does not mean the incident in question was consensual). Celestin was found guilty and served six months in prison.

In 2002, the victim sued Penn State for “deliberate indifference” and failure to protect her from sexual harassment she endured from Parker and Celestin after the rape.

In 2012, the victim committed suicide after reportedly suffering from depression and PTSD in the years since the rape.

Parker was reportedly unaware of her suicide until it was widely publicized two weeks ago. Around this time, he gave interviews that sparked backlash from rape survivors and anti-rape activists. After two weeks of subsequent silence, Ebony published a more extensive interview with Parker last weekend, in which he describes having sought to educate himself more on sexual assault in the past two weeks, consulting with confidantes who are educated in feminism and informed about sexual violence. This essay is a response to that interview.

Sexual violence is often a controversial issue. Individual allegations are typically highly contested, often more so when made by a white woman against a black man. We live in a historical context of hundreds of years of racist violence and oppression, where countless black men have been victims of extrajudicial murder (lynchings) and a racist legal system, often on the basis of false, unproven or unfounded charges of sexual harassment or assault of white women. Case in point, this past Sunday was the 61st anniversary of the murder of Emmitt Till, one of many horrific and unjust instances of this. Meanwhile, white men routinely committed rape but were held much less accountable, a racist legacy that continues to this day.

Our country’s history is also characterized by epidemic levels of rape committed by members of all races against members of all races. All of these things are true and warrant consideration in our conversations about sexual violence. It is with this complexity in mind that we respond to Nate Parker’s Ebony interview.


NP black and white

Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images (Image converted to black and white)

Ebony’s recent interview with Nate Parker may be unlike anything that’s been published before. It is the portrait of a man who has maintained his innocence about a rape he was accused of committing years ago, and who is now publicly reckoning with new understanding and information that challenges his self-perception as an innocent man. Here is an excerpt:

NP: I was acting as if I was the victim, and that’s wrong. I was acting as if I was the victim because I felt like, my only thought was I’m innocent and everyone needs to know. I didn’t even think for a second about her, not even for a second.

You asked me why I wasn’t empathetic? Why didn’t it come off more empathetic? Because I wasn’t being empathetic. Why didn’t it come off more contrite? Because I wasn’t being contrite. Maybe I was being even arrogant. And learning about her passing shook me, it really did. It really shook me.

E: Had you thought about her and this incident over the last 17 years?

NP: No, I had not. I hadn’t thought about it at all.

Parker admits that he had not thought about the incident over the last seventeen years; he was able to put it behind him and go on with his life. For his victim, there was no such peace to be found. A brother of the victim was recently interviewed by Variety:

In court, she testified that she had attempted to kill herself twice after the reported rape. Her brother said that she suffered from depression after the incident. Her death certificate, obtained by Variety, stated that she suffered from ‘major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse….’

‘If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point,’ Johnny told Variety. He said that prior to entering college, his sister was an outgoing, popular girl who loved animals and school. He envisioned a career in marketing or media for her. ‘The trial was pretty tough for her,’ he said…

‘It’s hard,’ he said, ‘seeing my sister’s life slowly crumble while these men are by all accounts relatively successful and thriving.’

Part of reducing the prevalence of rape involves valuing the humanity of people who have committed rape, and prioritizing their treatment and rehabilitation. It’s essential, though, that we center the experiences and humanity of the victim or survivor whose life has been forever impacted, and in this case destroyed, by those who committed rape.

Parker is still alive to speak on these events and help shape public perception of them, seventeen years later. His victim is not. Only the public record and her family survive to offer her perspective.

According to these sources, Parker’s victim was sentenced to a lifetime of trauma by those who committed rape, harassment, and institutional negligence against her. It was too much to bear. 

broken-mirror

When I started working at STAR in 2012 (the same year this victim committed suicide), I began immersing myself in survivors’ stories. From the public, I heard tales of misunderstanding and confusion about consent, and of “good guys” being victims of false charges or otherwise undeserving of accountability.

When I listened to survivors’ experiences, however, I found a different, more challenging picture: one of violently disempowering assault, utter disregard for consent, and destructively traumatic impacts. The public perception of rape decidedly did not match survivors’ experiences.

Given this inconsistency, I also wanted to hear from offenders. And in listening to them, I found that their version is usually what the public latches on to and believes, though this makes no sense. People are not traumatized by consensual sex. So how is it that a person may be forever traumatized by a rape and its aftermath, but both the offender and the public treat the incident in question as consensual?

After the high-profile rape charges against Kobe Bryant were dropped, he made an interesting statement:

“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

This is a perfect example of how the offender’s version of the story is viewed as a more credible version of reality, while the survivor’s perspective and observable, documented impacts of trauma are dismissed. This is where we find ourselves: we can acknowledge that an alleged victim didn’t “feel like” she consented, while maintaining that no one is guilty of rape. Repeatedly, we encounter rapes with no rapist.

Part of this is because rape often doesn’t come down to sadism, like we are taught to believe. It is too often rooted in something horrifically mundane: thoughtlessness, self-centeredness, arrogance, and a lack of empathy and consideration for others that thrives in a context of unexamined power and privilege.

That is what is truly upsetting: that committing rape can be done so casually, yet be so destructive.

In the Ebony interview, Nate Parker demonstrates thoughtful self-questioning and self-examination, and this is commendable. He also demonstrates continued denial, which is a problem.

According to Mayo Clinic:

When you’re in denial, you:

  • Refuse to acknowledge a stressful problem or situation
  • Avoid facing the facts of the situation
  • Minimize the consequences of the situation

Denial is a coping mechanism and a form of self-protection, but there is often overlap between self-protection and antisocial, harmful behavior. Parker’s belief in his own innocence is likely how he justified his range of traumatizing actions. Yet now he is having to confront the dissonance between his view of himself and the evidence of the impacts of his behavior on the victim.

It makes sense for anyone who has committed rape to be in denial. The problem is when we as a society automatically believe the accused without considering that they have every incentive to deny the accusation and distort what really happened for the purposes of self-protection.

In the interview, Parker cannot bring himself to label his actions as rape. Sure, it is only a few weeks since he has been made to reckon with this publicly, and only so much growth and developed consciousness is possible in the span of two weeks. And there are possibly liability issues to consider.

Still, it has been seventeen years since he was on trial for rape. He says learning of the victim’s suicide “shook” him. Does being accused of rape not “shake” someone and cause self-reflection on how they may have unthinkingly raped or harmed someone? When there is living, breathing evidence of trauma, is that not enough to shake you?

Parker has recently consulted with survivors, placing the burden of educating him two decades too late on those who have already endured enough. In response to one of his questions, yes, there are notable black men speaking up about toxic masculinity, gender, and sexual violence, many who have been doing so for years. Here are just a few:

To his credit, Parker states: “This is a step of one of many, many, many, many steps I need to take toward a lot of things that will refine me and make me better suited for leading anyone out of any place of injustice to a place of justice. I got work to do. I got a lot of work to do within myself.”

Seventeen years after the fact, perhaps we can take this interview as a sign of progress with regard to increased public awareness and accountability for rape. It is also too little, too late. Sadly, that’s the only kind of progress any oppressed people can hope for.

Here’s hoping that many more revelations lead to acknowledgment, acceptance, and meaningful action to prevent future perpetration of rape. To accomplish this, we must all refuse to sanitize and minimize the violence we and our role models have committed in the past.

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