How We Can Redirect the Language of Victim Blaming in Our Classrooms

During my sixth year as a teacher, I finally got the opportunity to teach the novel, Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.

In case you’ve never read it, it’s a pretty spectacular novel to teach for many reasons:

It allows students to relate to characters and cultures that were otherwise foreign to them,  it allows for exploration of the significance of Western occupations in the Middle East, and it’s all set amidst the backdrop of a universal topic: the quest for redemption.  Oh, and the movie is  awful…so the students never bug you to watch it.

As an English teacher, I totally nerd out when I get to teach it.

However, it was just this year (four years after I started teaching it), that I realized the novel also opens up discussions addressing an unexpected topic… the language of victim blaming.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, the plot is set into motion after one of the characters, Assef, brutally rapes one of the novel’s protagonists, Hassan.

Now, nothing in Kite Runner puts the blame of the assault on Hassan’s shoulders.  Hassan is clearly depicted as the victim and is written about with a great deal of sympathy and compassion throughout the novel.

The victim blaming, weirdly enough, only happened outside the fictional world of the book, when both the students and I would get into discussions about the events of the novel.

It was during one of these discussion that I was reminded of a Ted Talk by Jackson Katz that I watched during the summer:

In the video, Katz explains how even the structure of our language is set up to blame victims.  The video does a great job of explaining this, but to summarize his points, he,in essence, says that we, as a society, tend to frame the discussion about sexual assault and abuse around the victim, rather than the abuser.  And when you make the victim take ownership or agency in their own assault, that…is victim blaming.

Victims don’t act in an assault.  They are acted upon.

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Student work framing the abuse around the victim

So I began noticing this syntactical pattern in the conversations the students were having…someone would refer to “the part where Hassan got raped.”  And another kid would reference an event that happened, “after Hassan was raped.”  And while I was listening to conversation go on, it dawned on me that the way the conversation was framed, around Hassan, sounded so scarily natural.

So, I posed a question:  I asked the students if Hassan, in fact “got raped.”After a quick pause, one kid said, “no…Assef raped him.”

I’m not sure if it resonated with any of the students beyond a superficial level, but for the rest of the unit, anytime Hassan was discussed as the subject of the assault, I would redirect the conversation so the ownership fell on Assef’s shoulders. And from time to time, a student would catch themselves mid-sentence and redirect themselves.

Yay.

Then, a few weeks later, while discussing the play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with another class, the same re-direction on my end happened anytime a student referred to “Blanche’s rape,” as the climax, rather than “Stanley raping Blanche.” Or anytime a student judged Stella for re-entering an abusive relationship, I asked if it was worse to be the one returning to  abuse, or the one creating it.

 
And when another group of students were discussing the play, An Inspector Calls, and mentioned the time, “Eva Smith got pregnant after she was raped,” well… they were re-directed towards making sure the conversation focused on the character of Eric, since he was the one who raped her.

I’m not going to lie…there didn’t seem to be many light bulb moments during these discussions. No kid put their head in their hands and said to themselves: “My God…how could I not have seen this!”

For the most part, I’m sure I just annoyed them.

And yeah, this doesn’t just apply to Literature teachers.  Many educators, at some point, will be able to re-direct the conversations and discussions that happen in our classes whether they are about the topics we teach, students in the school, or current events.  Heck, most of us, myself included, need to re-direct our own unintentional forms of victim blaming when we talk. This applies to all of us.

But as a Literature teacher, I am shocked by how deeply engrained victim blaming is in our language: If you think about it, through books, plays, and stories…sexual assault and abuse is turned into a collective experience for the reader and audience. And yet even when readers are given the context, intentions, and motivations behind an assault, our language and our students’ mostly still defaults to victim blaming.  It’s awful.

And yeah…I know, I know…most of the times in a lot of schools I’ve worked at, the kids don’t even have the books, and if they do, they don’t read them.  And when they do, they hate them, and don’t want to discuss them at all.  I get it.  We, as teachers, already have a laundry list of “big ticket items” to deal with.  So what am I getting at?

What’s my point?

My point isn’t that we should stop reading the ALARMINGLY high number of texts that pivot on sexual assault in our classes.

My point is that we can start using these texts to address the very real problem of the unintentional use of language that blames victims rather than the assailants who victimize them.

My point isn’t that this type of re-direction in our classes is going to change the prevalence of victim blaming in society.  I’m not that much of an optimist.

My point is that if we re-direct these types of conversations enough in the context of our classes, eventually, maybe, one kid out of the thousands we teach in our careers, will re-direct these types of conversations outside of our classes…in like…the real world.  Where it really matters.

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