Nafissatou Diallo, Dominique Strauss Kahn, Race, Immigration, and Power

Newsweek DSK Maid CoverI haven’t had much time to write this week, but I wanted to quickly take a look at the unfolding DSK sexual assault case.

The framing of cases is so important, as it shifts judgements in the court of public opinion. Since Diallo has chosen to step forward as the accuser (perhaps in response to the media backlash around her life and reputation), news outlets have clamored to get the scoop. Newsweek published an exclusive interview a few days ago, with some telling language:

“Nafi” Diallo is not glamorous. Her light-brown skin is pitted with what look like faint acne scars, and her dark hair is hennaed, straightened, and worn flat to her head, but she has a womanly, statuesque figure. When her face is in repose, there is an opaque melancholy to it. Working at the Sofitel for the last three years, with its security and stability, was clearly the best job she’d ever hoped to have, after years braiding hair and working in a friend’s store in the Bronx as a newcomer from Guinea in 2003.

Only in cases involving rape or assault is how the victim appears a subject for commentary. This is part of rape culture, the idea that we have to evaluate the attractiveness of a person alleging assault along with the other facts in the case. Melissa McEwan so succinctly put it, rape is not a compliment. Neither is sexual assault. Yet time and time again, we see people accused of sexual assault, abuse, or rape try to weasel out of it by saying that they weren’t attracted to the person in the first place. (We see you, Albert Haynesworth.) It’s disturbing to see reporters play into the same idea. This is why feminists continually stress that rape is a crime of power, not desire. Rape is not related to the attractiveness of the victim. Rape occurs because one party does not consent to a sexual encounter, but they are forced into it anyway.

Also, that first discussion of “clearly the best job she’d ever hoped to have?” It sets the stage for more prejudical plays on class, race, and immigration status later in the piece.

Diallo is about 5 feet 10, considerably taller than Strauss-Kahn, and she has a sturdy build.

This inclusion is also somewhat perplexing. The idea that she’s sturdy and tall again introduces the idea of doubt to her story, which falls into another common trope about rape and sexual assault cases – why didn’t the woman just fight him off? Interestingly, the authors do not bring up the fact that generally, most jobs don’t allow workers to assault guests, even if the guests are violent. And, in the moment, there are many different ways people will react to being assaulted, particularly if the first act of violation has already begun. This portrayal of Diallo also subtly plays on the idea of fragile, thin, small victims as the only real victims – and goes hand in hand with the idea that black women are “unrapeable.

DNA evidence in suite 2806—the result of all that spitting that mingled the maid’s saliva and Strauss-Kahn’s sperm—makes it virtually impossible to deny there was a sexual encounter between DSK and Diallo. Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers raised the possibility early on that it was consensual and have left it to others to speculate about the circumstances under which that might have been the case: that Diallo expected money that she did not receive, or that the sex got rougher and more aggressive than she would accept. The New York Post published stories attributed to an anonymous source that claimed Diallo was at least a part-time prostitute. Her lawyers, Kenneth Thompson and Douglas Wigdor, are now suing the Post, saying the story is false. The newspaper stands by its story.

When crime, power, and scandal combine, there is always the idea that the more powerful person is being set up by the person with the least amount of power. And, commonly, the victim in sexual assault and rape trails finds themselves subjected to invasive probes about their own sexual background, mental health history, and any other improprieties. For Diallo, her background as a new immigrant to America increases the amount of scrutiny she is subject to:

In her interview with NEWSWEEK, Diallo didn’t disguise her anger at Strauss-Kahn. “Because of him they call me a prostitute,” she said. “I want him to go to jail. I want him to know there are some places you cannot use your power, you cannot use your money.” She said she hoped God punishes him. “We are poor, but we are good,” she said. “I don’t think about money.”

Perhaps. But on the day of the incident, by Diallo’s own account, she made two telephone calls. One was to her daughter. The other call was to Blake Diallo, a Senegalese who is from the same ethnic group but no relation. He manages a restaurant, the Cafe 2115 in Harlem, where West Africans gather to eat, talk, politic, and sometimes listen to concerts. Nafissatou describes Blake as “a friend,” and one of the first things he did for her after the incident was to find her a personal-injury lawyer on the Internet.

All of her associates are heavily interrogated, as were her tax statements…and her application for asylum:

In late 2003 Diallo applied for asylum. Because she had suffered genital mutilation as a child, and doctors confirmed that fact in a medical report, she probably would have qualified for asylum in any case, given current law and practices. And she insists she was raped after curfew by two soldiers. (This is not unheard of in Guinea. In 2009 soldiers conducted mass rapes and killed as many as 160 people in a Conakry sports stadium, according to human-rights organizations.) But bad as the realities were in Diallo’s homeland, she admits the account that she gave the U.S. government on her asylum application was heavily embellished. Her fictionalized narrative worked to get her a green card and allow her to bring her child to America. But her past misstatements may make it impossible to win a criminal case against DSK based on her testimony.

The only saving grace in this situation is that DSK has also had a long public life, punctuated with “situations,” improprieties, one inappropriate (and mostly, but not fully, consensual) relationship with a subordinate that put Strauss Kahn on trial as well. Normally, only the accuser is interrogated, with past indiscretions held up to light – but Strauss Kahn is receiving an equal grilling in the press.

It is always difficult to fairly represent all sides of painful matters like assault or rape. It is especially fraught since no one can truly know what happened except for the people involved, and juries and arbitrators are trying to weight highly subject evidence. But it is disturbing that the deck is stacked so hard against victims of sex crimes – particularly when those victims are women of color. Jamie Leigh Jones, who just was dealt a crushing decision in her lawsuit against KBR and the contractors she accused of rape, was initially believed and had powerful support from many corners, including the media. The Latina girl in Texas who was gang-raped did not have that same support. The article written was heavy on victim blaming, prompting the NYT to apologize for the “lack of balance”. And here again, Newsweek has subtly framed Diallo as guilty by employing the usual tactics of rape culture and the usual stereotypes about class, immigration, and women of color.

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  • Anonymous

    This is a broader conversation on rape and sexual assault. Coercing someone into oral sex is considered sexual assault. The reason this is coercion is because of the power dynamic – due to her job, she would not have been able to act against a customer in that way. There is no “right” way to react when one is being sexually assaulted.

  • dersk

    Well, it seems to me that the whole Newsweek article was probably prompted by her and her lawyer deciding that they’d try to find a more sympathetic outlet for their side of the story. It sounds like all those quotes are more or less replies to the anonymous accusations made by the Murdoch papers – that she’d lied to get asylum, that she’d been a prostitute, that her first call to her buddy in jail (oh, you mean immigrant detention center?) was oriented around monetary gain.

    In other words, the article was *intended* to fight the ‘usual tactics of rape culture’ that was initiated by the Post. I think you’re looking at the wrong offender here.

    • Anonymous

      The Post loves to take journalistic principles and wipe their ass with them. But that’s why I am talking about the framing. All the facts have to come out, but what do we chose to reveal and how do we frame the conversation? That’s why I linked to my Poynter piece on the NYT rape article, because it did something similar – and despite the NYT apologizing, there were still people who believed they were just recounting facts. Reading the Newsweek article, the questions raised by the journalists were reflective of a specific mindset, which is why the facts were accompanied by a lot of value judgements (best job she’ll ever have, determining she is not beautiful, etc). The framing on an issue matters heavily, and that’s where you see the most media bias.

      I wish there was more to contrast, because her ABC interview had a different feel and tone, but ABC is television, which relies on the person to tell their own story, and Newsweek is print, where the article is through their lens of interpretation. However, TV interviews and print interviews are different animals.

  • Xerophyte

    Wait, so if her past “misstatements” (whatever the hell that means) make it impossible to win a case, doesn’t that basically mean that it’s de facto legal to rape anybody who’s ever lied, no matter what their reasons are for lying?

  • Brotha Wolf

    This nation’s media is sick. Rape culture in the news media condemns the victims while saving or protecting the perpetrators.  

  • Escritora2006

    “Only in cases involving rape or assault is how the victim appears a subject for commentary.” Actually, no… It’s damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t.

    From experience working on national magazine and newspaper articles, if I DON’T put in descriptors of whichever non-famous person I’m profiling, I have to deal with angry letters and e-mails from visually impaired readers accusing me of favoring the sighted because they can see the photos included with the article and they can’t.

    I’ve been accused of being bigoted, violating the ADA and about a dozen other accusations because (god forbid, true or false) I made reference to a photo in the article itself. Not to mention I’ve been begged various times to be more specific with physical descriptors, or describe people more “texturally” (I’m still not sure what that means) so that the visually impaired aren’t left out.

    Not to mention, the writer rarely knows if the photographer/media will eventually be given permission to publish photos on highly controversial subjects — that’s sometimes a last-minute decision. So if I DO write a physical description, assuming no photo will be included, I (for instance, I’m not the article writer) can get slammed by people like the author here today; if I DON’T write a physical description, and permission comes through to include the picture at the last minute, I’ll get slammed by visual impaired readers for not telling them things like the color of a person’s hair or their body type.

    So I’m not sure this is an instance of big, mean journalists picking on a subject. It’s just journalism basics.


    • Xeginy

      That was fascinating, thank you. It’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place for journalists.

    • Fyre Chylde

      Seriously, Escritora2006? If it were just concern over the magazine’s visually impaired readership, why were the only descriptors given to DSK “a naked man with white hair,’ yet Ms. Diallo’s were of her skin, hair, eyes AND body structure?  Let’s not forget the judgmental “not glamorous” phrase, thrown in for spice?

      For my part:  Not Buying It, Table for 1.

    • Kat

      Are you sure you don’t mean “non-famous women”?! I have yet to read an article describing the hotness/non-hotness of a non-famous male person in a news article. 

  • Big Man

    I thought they went soft on Strauss-Kahn and provided context for his accusations without providing context for her choices, at least not early enough. 

  • Xeginy

    What a bullshit article. It seems like Newsweek is attempting the cowardly “devil’s advocate” stance, for some mysterious reason. I really hate that rape survivors are treated like this in the media, I really do.

  • Val

    This makes it very clear that if you are not a middle-class White woman who has led a stellar life you are suspect. 

  • Soulsentwined

    I’m so tired of this. If I worry about my safety I am a paranoid hysterical over emotional woman. But if I am ever attacked I will immediately be blamed for not taking enough safety precautions and being too trusting. We can’t win.

  • mischiefmanager

    This makes me livid.  I’ve been trying to talk my husband into cancelling our Newsweek subscription ever since Tina Brown turned it into Vanity Fair Lite.  He’s been resisting, but this is the final straw.  offensive, victim-blaming, racist in every possible way.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t understand what evidence could possibly qualify for trial if this does not suffice.  Medical evidence, physical evidence on the scene and the electronic record of the door all line up: what more could there possibly have been?