Note: It is four days later and I am just back from a weekend workshop in Kripalu on healing and being healed. I stayed up until 3:00 am talking about Brock Turner with my husband. Ron expressed concern that Turner will not survive his mistake and I awoke to read this message from his mother. Sometimes an issue becomes a lightning rod and people will pile on. I did. I reacted swiftly and wrote this post. I want to be responsible. I stand by everything I wrote and I believe this national dialogue is constructive. I do, however, wish I had expressed it with less judgment and more empathy.
It is easy to place the entirety of societal dysfunction and angst upon a hapless young man, a protective father, and the sentencing judge. I am constantly reminded that that “other is us.” Always. I can relate to female survivors of sexual assault and have endless compassion for what women endure. I believe I’m now meant to extend myself to truly feel compassion for Brock Turner, his parents, and Judge Persky. I fervently pray that my children will never make such a grave, life-altering mistake. But what if? Would I want grace extended to my son? Would I do what I could to commute his sentence? I just saw a photo of Judge Persky and recognized his face. We were at Stanford together and graduated from the same International Policy Studies program. My memory of him? A thoughtful, conscientious, and kind young man. This stopped me cold in my tracks. He is no longer an anonymous Every Judge.
Brock Turner did not invent white privilege. His parents are not the only entitled, clueless parents. Judge Persky was asked to weigh the evidence, include extenuating circumstances, and serve justice. Yes, we must ask probing questions what happened. But I would do well to ask myself a few questions, too. In what ways am I privileged and entitled and clueless? What would I have done had I been in Judge Persky’s shoes? It’s so easy to pass judgment. Do we want to be right or do we want to help heal the planet? It’s more challenging to be truly constructive. I’m most grateful to friends who love me enough to tell me what I need to hear, in ways that can be received, and who will support me through my struggle. I’m grateful for this national conversation that shines a light on inequities and holds a mirror up to our shadow selves. Might we be better served by directing our outrage towards positive change rather than a punitive kind of flagellation? Is it possible to advocate for justice in a way that can help lift us all?
I’d love to hear what you think. Sending survival level gratitude to my tribe, my safe place where I am seen, held up, and challenged to grow <3
A 19 year-old Stanford athlete is found guilty of sexual assault. He blames party culture and peer pressure for his transgression. His father writes an “impossibly offensive defense” of his son. The judge agrees and gives him a lenient 6-month sentence because he is concerned about the “severe impact” prison will have on him. An activist group labels this “rape culture at work.” The media publishes baby-faced high school photos of the perpetrator because it took months for Stanford and local authorities to release a mug shot.
Oh, we are outraged.
We are taking a closer look at what this means and it doesn’t feel good.
Do we understand what rape does?
I am a woman. I do not navigate the world with fear but I am also not naive. I look carefully before entering a stairwell or an elevator. I don’t like empty parking lots. When I was 17, one of my teachers was raped in the early evening while walking back to our dorm, along a route that I took multiple times a day. I’ll never forget the look on her face and the faces of my housemates. It changed us.
The actual violation is only part of the violence. The rest of it comes as we understand how it is perceived through the lens of others. How do we feel, as a society, when someone uses physical strength or other advantages to overpower, take advantage of, harm, and steal from another? Are we lenient? Do we send a strong message? Are we consistent? Do we mince words? And what do we think happens to the survivor when the power structure sympathizes with the attacker?
If we do just one thing, I hope everyone will make time to read and share the 12 page victim impact statement. Don’t skim it. Sit down and pretend that it’s written by a sister, a daughter, a spouse. I had difficulty choosing a couple of excerpts.
I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation…
My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition. I became closed off, angry, self deprecating, tired, irritable, empty. The isolation at times was unbearable. You cannot give me back the life I had before that night either. While you worry about your shattered reputation, I refrigerated spoons every night so when I woke up, and my eyes were puffy from crying, I would hold the spoons to my eyes to lessen the swelling so that I could see. I showed up an hour late to work every morning, excused myself to cry in the stairwells, I can tell you all the best places in that building to cry where no one can hear you. The pain became so bad that I had to explain the private details to my boss to let her know why I was leaving. I needed time because continuing day to day was not possible. I used my savings to go as far away as I could possibly be. I did not return to work full time as I knew I’d have to take weeks off in the future for the hearing and trial, that were constantly being rescheduled. My life was put on hold for over a year, my structure had collapsed.
Rape may not be murder but make no mistake… it creates an irrevocable kind of rupture because it sends the message that we are no longer safe. It destroys lives. But not this one. People the world over are cheering for this woman. Despite so much disappointment, she found her voice and it soars.
Are we willing to sit with the idea of racism?
We are decades past Jim Crow laws and Archie Bunker crassness. We celebrate Martin Luther King Day. We know what it means to be politically correct. But we also know that racial tensions are real… and explosive. Are we willing to take a hard look at racism 2.0?
I am Chinese American, the first generation in my family to be born here. I know what racism looks like… even by well-intentioned people who tell me that I’m so normal, they don’t even think of me as Chinese… even by those who say that Asians are so smart, we’re not really minorities. I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek because I know how fortunate I am — beyond measure. But my heart has always been with the underdog. I have understood, all my life, what it’s like to not quite fit in. Maybe it makes it easier for me to ask these questions.
If the perpetrator is white, do we relate to our sons… and if the perpetrator is black, do we relate to our daughters?
Are black men punished more severely than white men for the same offense?
If you rub elbows with powerful people at your country club, can you pick up the phone and make a problem go away?
Do these people tend to be white more often than not?
I am haunted by stories about people who matter less because of the color of their skin.
Like this one from black former football star, Brian Banks. At age 16, he was wrongfully accused of sexual assault. Banks agreed to plead no contest and lost five years of his life to prison (along with his hopes of an NFL career) rather than stand trial where he faced a 41-year to life sentence if jurors believed his accuser. Where was the abundance of concern for this boy?
Do we understand how privilege works?
Privilege is power. Who makes the laws? Who skirts the laws with relative impunity? If you want to know how a society works, look at how our most vulnerable are treated. We know this. Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. – Matthew 25:40
Our country is losing its middle class. More and more people feel that things are less and less fair. The rich are getting obscenely richer and passing extreme wealth onto their children. Established interests protect themselves. The deck feels stacked and people are understandably angry. Privilege manifests often and in surprising ways.
I recently learned that some of my junior high school friends and many other girls, now women, were repeatedly abused by a trusted teacher only to come up against successive school administrations, from 1963 to 2000, that were in denial. My school allowed a pedophile to continue to teach and host overnight 7th grade school trips. Young girls were molested for 37 years. School officials finally apologized in 2014, ten years after the molester committed suicide.
There were so many reasons why these guardians and stewards, in whom thousands of parents trusted their kids, did nothing. The interests of the school, the administration, and the molester were privileged above those of the children. Bystanders looked away. When the apology finally came, there was no crisis of conscience. It happened because the survivors dared to tell their stories again, and vast numbers of alumni signed class letters, threatened to withhold donations, and vociferously demanded that the school do the right thing. It was a horror show and I remain profoundly repulsed.
My activism focuses on children’s health. I’m especially concerned about the deleterious effects of corporate corruption and government inaction, and how institutionalized “rules of the game” leave our most vulnerable out in the cold. This is especially true for women and their children who don’t even know there’s a game being played, let alone that there are rules — up for grabs to the highest bidder — that do not serve them. Elites are enriched. Bystanders and participants look away. Mothers are insulted and invalidated when they speak out. Women and children disproportionately bear the brunt of this shameful exercise of power.
Hey parents… are we failing our kids?
I am a parent of two boys. My 15 year-old son is discussing this at school. And I’m discussing it with both of them at home. No is no, even (and especially) when no one is looking. We must look out for each other and above all for those who are more vulnerable, for any reason. There is no substitute for doing the right thing. The alternative is the wrong thing. This is a teachable moment and it’s a responsibility for all of us.
But it’s not so easy to make this okay. I look in the mirror and I’m unsettled. Parenting is comprised of many little actions. What do we do — in the name of fear, love, pride, shame, caution — that emotionally cripples our kids?
What do children learn when we give them what they want… intervene to solve their problems… reward achievements… make excuses for shortcomings… and pull strings to make opportunities magically appear?
Do we tell them, “No, I’m not going to give that to you but maybe you could work to earn it?” Do we let them stumble and fall and fail? Do we allow for natural consequences to be the teacher? Do we offer praise for the right things? Do we give them a chance to find out if they are hungry enough to make something happen for themselves?
How do we teach compassion?
When dad runs interference and produces a light sentence, what does this teach his son?
Do entitled children become entitled adults? Are we so busy trying to get them into club sports, Carnegie Hall, and Harvard that we send the message that they’re very, very special? Do they learn that athletic prowess means the rules don’t apply to them? Do we become the clueless dad who laments that his son will pay such a steep price for “20 minutes of action” and conspicuously fails to acknowledge the grievous harm done to another? Do we then wonder how the son can write that he wants to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life (i.e., one life, his).
I am a Stanford grad. Many of us are parents. Brock Turner will be called the “Stanford rapist” for a long time to come. Do we regard this as a one-off incident and mutter something about how it happens everywhere? Do we recognize his father?
Stanford’s Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Handling of Sexual Assault Cases at Stanford page is being updated. I found this 2014 post by an outraged Stanford rape survivor whose assailant was found responsible for sexual assault and received a five-quarter suspension plus a requirement for 40 hours of community service and completion of a sexual assault awareness program as punishment.
After all, we wouldn’t want to ruin a promising future now, would we?
Rape. Racism. Privilege. These are heavy topics that resonate deeply. It is a tragic story about a promising young man who made a terrible decision. But it is also a cautionary tale for our society, and for parents, about the ways that we continue to fail survivors of sexual assault, people of color, and, yes, guys like Brock Turner.