The Messy Truth of Race, Rape & Class

By Keith Woods

"Beyond Rape: One Survivor's Story," by Joanna Connors, The Plain Dealer

"Telling Our Own Stories, Becoming Better Journalists," by Mallary Tenore, The Poynter Institute

In her remarkable story, "Beyond Rape: A Survivor's Journey" Joanna Connors, a reporter at The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, writes about her experiences getting raped. But the story isn't just about rape. It also addresses important issues of race and class.

The essential tension resides in a simple and explosive event, now 20 years old: A black man raped a white woman. The history of that potent narrative is packed with truth and lies, racist injustice and racial suspicion, cliché and mythology.

This story lurches powerfully into race in the first of five chapters, as Connors speculates that she might have run away in the awkward moments before David Francis attacked her had it not been for the fear that she'd appear racist. A few paragraphs later, readers learn that the rapist taunted Connors, asking if she'd fantasized about sex with a black man. That's a pretty raw entrée into race in what was already a bold step into another taboo.

Then things really get interesting. Connors tracks down Francis' family and interweaves her story with theirs. As I followed her into the black and poor side of Cleveland, I found myself bracing. Would some misguided liberal guilt cause her to ennoble this man and his family, with their hard upbringing and harder lives, now that she'd seen up close the truth of the country's racial and class divide? Would she stumble into stereotype or worse? Would this become part of a long list of bleeding-heart tales that end with, "and I found out these poor black people were just like me"?

No. No. And no.

The beauty of the story -- beyond the excellent reporting and writing -- is that it embraces the complex messiness of race and class so that you can feel repulsed and sympathetic before getting from one end of a paragraph to the other. That sort of writing rejects the idea that there is a single, grand truth to deliver and, instead, lays out a set of conflicting images that cause you not to judge, but to think. I had a lingering question when I was done, which I sent to Stuart Warner, the editor who called my attention to the piece:

[Connors] spoke one simple truth that I think I'd wanted to hear more about: That it was her desire to not appear to be a bigot that might most be responsible for the decision to go into that theater [where Francis raped her]. That's a much scarier racial truth, to me, than the more mundane, 'I found myself afraid of all black men' truth that she was hesitant to speak. Because if white women -- or white people in general -- were to act on the first notion, that you question your racial motivations at your great peril, then in a way we'll encourage more acts of exclusion and outright prejudice.

What I wanted her to explore was what a right-thinking white woman does when she realizes that she made a bad move based on a good motivation. Is there another answer than to just listen to those voices in your head that say danger when you see a black man? The lesson is certainly not to ignore that voice. What, if anything, is in between?

Connors wrote me to say that there was one more element to inform her fateful decision in the theater -- what she called the "good girl tape" running through her head. It says, "don't be rude," Connors wrote, and it might have caused her to follow a white man into the theater 20 years ago for fear of offending him in another way. The lesson about race in all that, to me, is that journalism's pursuit of simple cause-effect stories leads us to stop too early in interviewing, falling short of mitigating facts that would paint a less absolute -- but more accurate -- picture of things racial.

One last note about the series: among the reasons the editors decided to run the package in a single day rather than spreading it out over five days had to do with race: the cumulative picture of the black characters in the story is nuanced and deep. But The Plain Dealer staff decided that it was easy to see little more than stereotype if you read some of the chapters out of context. It's something to think about any time you're following a developing story about race relations or racial conflict.

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    Keith Woods

    Keith Woods is NPR’s vice president for newsroom training and diversity.


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