[If you knew of my existence in my first eighteen years of life, there was about a ninety percent chance you thought of me as "Viveca's sister." At the time, I didn't always see that as a good thing. I do now.
I'm so grateful to have my sister, Viveca Gardiner, in my world. She's the extreme version of everything I aspire to be. Plus, she wrote the guest post below and created its cool image. Don't forget to share your thoughts about her post in the comments. And if you want to be aware of future guest posts by her (and all of the other posts on this site), subscribe to the website's weekly email list.]
Why Blame the Victim?
Excuse me while I step into my sister’s blog. Each week she writes an interesting explanation for why she believes something. I’m not doing that this week. My title is a question, and I don’t have an explanation.
I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, but the particular incident that inspired me to write this guest post appeared in the otherwise excellent article, “The Plague Year” by Lawrence Wright, which was published in my favorite magazine, The New Yorker, in the January 4 & 11, 2021 edition. I read all my magazine from cover to cover in the order I receive them, but I’m a little backed up, and I just got to this one in June.
This riveting article reviews how some of America’s top researchers and public policy advisors responded to novel coronavirus 2019. When it gets to Dr. Barney S. Graham, the man on whose work the first COVID vaccines were based, it backtracks to discuss some problems he and his soon-to-be wife Cynthia Turner (now Turner-Graham) ran into trying to complete their medical education together.
Here’s the full text of the paragraph that upset me:
First, he and Cynthia had to complete residencies. They wanted to be in the same town, a problem many professional couples face, but additionally complicated in their case because Cynthia is Black. She suggested Nashville: he could apply to Vanderbilt School of Medicine and she to Meharry Medical College, a historically Black institution. Tennessee had only recently repealed a ban on interracial marriage.
Do you notice anything about this paragraph? Two things struck me hard:
1. What race is Barney Graham?
You don’t know? Me neither. Because it is never mentioned.
Okay, I’m being disingenuous. I know he’s white because his race isn’t mentioned. (Well, and there’s a picture later in the magazine.) You know the way meteorologists and airplane pilots say we’re going to get “weather” to mean “bad weather”? Well guess what? Sunny days also have weather.
2. Why is her being Black a problem?
The problem is that some racists took issue with a mixed-race couple. And maybe with a high-achieving Black woman. The problem the Grahams encountered was racism not race. Saying a problem was complicated by Cynthia being Black is blaming the victim. And that’s not okay.
I am very disappointed by The New Yorker. And if I were reading this anywhere near January 4 & 11, 2021, I hope I’d stand up for Cynthia and send them a letter. But I can’t imagine them publishing an irritated response to a six-month old article, so I’m shaking my fist on Carita’s blog.
And I’m not actually asking you why people blame the victim. I’m asking you not to do it yourself.