The White Knight Delusion

Abi Wilkinson   February 23, 2016
Paul VanDerWerf

A sign in Berlin. / Paul VanDerWerf

Even before full details emerged of the string of rapes and sexual assaults in the German city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve—perpetrated by men described as predominately African or Arab in appearance—the news was met with a heady mix of horror, pure outrage, and vigorous disgust across European media. Unlike in various other high-profile instances of sexual violence, public support for the white victims was near unanimous, with outpourings of fulsome concern.

Initial reports suggested most of the assailants were Syrian and Iraqi refugees, stoking tensions in a country that had committed to accepting more asylum seekers than any other European state. It was later found that only three of the fifty-eight men arrested were from these countries. Still, commentators professing to ask “difficult questions” in the wake of the attacks focused on the EU’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis and the issue of integrating Muslim migrants into European societies. Few people zeroed in on the victims’ clothing or asked whether the amount of alcohol they’d consumed or their flirtatious behavior might have given their attackers the wrong idea—questions that are routinely raised when white women are sexually assaulted by white men.

Allocating responsibility in those cases is traditionally seen as a far slipperier matter. In the United Kingdom, more than a third of people say they believe rape victims are at least partly to blame if they’d been flirting beforehand, and more than a quarter think they’re responsible if they were drunk. After British footballer Ched Evans was convicted of raping a near-comatose drunk girl while two of his friends watched through a window, his victim changed her identity five times to escape relentless harassment from Evans’s supporters, who blamed her for what happened to his glittering sporting career. Similar attitudes are prevalent across the continent. Almost half of Estonians agree with the statement that “women cause their victimization or rape by their clothing.”

According to this logic, only women who conform to strict rules about appropriate behavior deserve not to be assaulted—and primarily as a show of respect to their partner or male family members. In reality, of course, no amount of obedience can protect women from the risk of sexual violence, though it may reduce the chance they’ll be blamed for their own victimization. (There’s a silver lining!)

But in cultures with a strong legacy of white supremacy, only white men are considered to have domain over white women. This, in part, was what shielded the women attacked in Cologne from probing questions about their alcohol consumption, clothing choices, and general “respectability”: their Middle Eastern and North African migrant assailants weren’t seen as having a natural-born right to sexual access to their bodies.

The idea that non-white men are a sexual threat to white women is an established racist trope. Following World War I, there was public outcry about the stationing of French Algerian troops in occupied Germany. British journalist E. D. Morel complained that France had “thrust barbarians—barbarians belonging to a race inspired by Nature . . . with tremendous sexual instincts—into the heart of Europe.” Across the Atlantic, 12,000 people gathered in Madison Square Garden and petitioned Congress, stating that “the Moral sense of the American people demands the immediate withdrawal of the uncivilized French Colored troops.”

A level of cognitive dissonance is required to view rape as a problem of Muslim cultures while failing to recognize its pervasiveness in your own society.

Media coverage of the Cologne attacks has reproduced this “dark-skinned predator” narrative with very little variation. The most extreme op-eds have explicitly suggested that rape, groping, and street harassment are the exclusive preserve of swarthy villains from Muslim countries. Last week, a popular Polish magazine published a front cover showing a white woman, dressed in the EU flag, being assaulted by three darker pairs of male hands under the headline “The Islamic rape of Europe.” At the other end of the spectrum, measured, carefully worded pieces from left-leaning columnists have posited that cultural factors may mean refugees from Syria and Iraq are especially inclined to commit sexual offenses, and that letting them seek refuge in Europe could therefore be irresponsible. In the Guardian, liberal commentator Michael White warned against the possibility of a “sexual jihad.”

Opportunistic proponents of anti-refugee sentiment love to accuse their critics of refusing to face facts at times like this, so let’s be clear: what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve was shocking, brutal, and unusual. When British MP Jess Phillips compared the attacks to a regular night out in her hometown of Birmingham, she was fairly criticized for downplaying their severity. Multiple instances of gang rape occurring in a small geographical area within the space of one night is not, in actual fact, normal in Birmingham. Nor is it normal in any other European city, town, or village. Equally, though, it is not normal in Algeria, Morocco, or any of the other countries the attackers originated from. Sexual violence on that kind of scale rarely occurs outside of war zones, where systematic rape is often used as a weapon.

Though the Cologne attacks were undeniably exceptional in terms of number, nothing about the nature of the crimes was alien to contemporary Europe. There was no offense committed by migrant men in Cologne that hasn’t also been committed by white European men on countless occasions. White men have planned and carried out brutal, sadistic gang rapes. They’ve abducted and tortured women. White men have raped babies, children, disabled people, and the elderly. In Austria, a white man held his own daughter captive for twenty-four years in a basement dungeon, physically and sexually abusing her and impregnating her several times.

What’s more, the problem of sexual violence is endemic to every European society. In Germany, approximately 15 percent of women report that they’ve experienced rape or sexual assault. In England and Wales, the figure is one in five. Given that a significant proportion of the European population believes that women deserve to be raped or molested if they engage in ordinary activities like drinking beer, flirting, or wearing mini skirts—some of the same behaviors the West holds up as signs of its liberation—it seems particularly absurd to suggest that sexual violence is some kind of foreign cultural import.

A certain level of cognitive dissonance is required to view rape as a problem of Muslim cultures while simultaneously failing to recognize its pervasiveness in your own society. Though the men responsible for the Cologne attacks make up only a tiny fraction of the total number of refugees and Muslim migrants currently living in Germany, they’re thought of as representative of a homogeneous group. In contrast, no matter how common sexual violence by white perpetrators is, white sex offenders are always seen as individuals, and will never be understood as a negative reflection on the white population as a whole.

Following the events in Cologne, white supremacist groups carried out a string of “revenge” attacks against refugees and others perceived to be Muslim. Outside a train station near where the New Year’s Eve assaults took place, a group of roughly twenty far-right thugs attacked six Pakistani men, leaving two of them in need of hospital treatment for serious injuries. Self-styled vigilantes congregated in Facebook groups promising an “orderly clean up” in the shape of a planned “manhunt.” The language of household chores, so sweetly borrowed from the tidier gender, is particularly jarring when inciting racist violence.

Protecting white women from sexual aggression has long been used as an excuse for racist violence. In the Southern United States in the late nineteenth century, the claim that black men were innately driven to rape white women was a common justification for lynchings. Pamphlets produced by black journalist Ida B. Wells exposed how few of these murders were actually connected to sexual violence. In one instance, a sheriff accused a man of raping his daughter after the couple was caught engaging in consensual sex. In 1955, African American fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, beaten, and shot by two white men after reportedly flirting with a white shop assistant. In 2015, white supremacist gunman Dylann Roof told his victims “you rape our women and you’re taking our country” as he massacred nine people inside a historic African American church. The anger is not about protecting women from harm; instead, it’s about protecting the notion that white women are white men’s property.

The idea that white men might themselves be a threat to the women they’re ostensibly rescuing doesn’t fit the narrative.

In these delusional narratives of non-white sexual aggression and white vulnerability, non-white women are largely invisible. In the Southern United States, the claim that black men were especially prone to sexual violence was particularly hypocritical given the recent history of slavery. The rape of female slaves by white slave-owners was so endemic that, by 1860, 10 percent of the slave population was mixed race. Mirroring the labeling of black men as instinctive sexual predators, popular writing at the time often suggested black women were lustful “Jezebels” who tempted their white masters. In the United States today, African American women are still more likely to be sexually assaulted than white women.

When pundits cite the Cologne attacks as evidence that Europe needs to reconsider its policy of accepting refugees from Muslim countries, they have little to say about female refugees, though it’s well known that sexual violence increases in situations of war and turmoil, and there is specific evidence that this is currently the case in Syria, Iraq, and in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

If the welfare of Muslim women is invoked as a priority for white Europeans, it’s as part of a rescue fantasy positioning white men as liberal, progressive heroes in contrast with barbaric, backward, and misogynistic Muslim men. The war in Afghanistan, for example, was sold to white populations, by Laura Bush, among others, as a war to rescue Afghan women. In the nineteenth century, women’s rights were regularly used as a justification for colonialism. The idea that white men might themselves be a threat to the women they’re ostensibly rescuing doesn’t fit the narrative.

When white men are discovered to have committed acts of sexual violence while playing that role of heroic rescuer they’ve grown so accustomed to, they’re seen as bad apples and anomalies. The gang rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl by white U.S. soldiers was not considered characteristic of white men universally, or even of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, in the way that the Cologne attacks have been interpreted as evidence of a general problem with Muslim men. Similarly, numerous reported incidents of child sex abuse by EU peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic have not been presented by European media outlets as evidence white Europeans are bringing a culture of rape to other societies. 

The oh-so chivalric attempts to use the safety of white European women like myself as a justification for racist violence and hostility and to deny other human beings the basic right to refuge is particularly tiresome when women in Europe have never been safe from sexual violence, regardless of the movement of migrants. Anti-Muslim and anti-refugee advocates claim to enjoy gallantly confronting “difficult questions,” so here’s one: Why won’t we admit that many of the faults we ascribe to other cultures are equally a part of our own?

Abi Wilkinson is a freelance journalist based in London writing about politics, inequality, gender, Internet culture, and anything else that takes her fancy. She tweets at @AbiWilks.