The Privilege of Despair

The Privilege of Despair

A preternatural calm settled over me on Saturday afternoon as I heard the news of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. I wasn’t reconciled to the outcome; my calm did not come from satisfaction. Instead, it came from the awful confirmation of a different kind — that the United States was still the white supremacist, classist, misogynistic place it had been designed to be since inception. By 1790, the governmental systems of the United States had endowed wealthy, free, white men with political freedom, and limited the political liberty of all others by their degree of difference from that ideal. Slavery was legal. Poor, free men could not vote. A free, married woman’s political existence was wholly governed by coverture, and a single woman’s by her association with, and presumptive inheritance of, that status. Native land was a prize to be won, not the holding of a sovereign nation that should be honored.

Confirming Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite the credible allegations of sexual assault against him, over the protests of thousands of individuals at the Hart Senate Building, in the streets of Washington, D.C., and across the internet, was business as usual. As Native American professor Adrienne Keene wrote on Saturday, October 6, “Just a reminder: the system in what is currently known as the US isn’t ‘broken.’ It was designed by white supremacist slaveholders on stolen Indigenous land to protect their interests. It’s working as it was designed.”

I found some measure of terrible comfort in this. The mechanisms of power had tumbled and clicked into place just as they always had to protect a powerful, rich, white man from the just consequences of his actions. I knew this place. I had lived in it for years. We had not regressed as many would argue; instead, we were standing still. What I refused to do in that moment was exactly what the powerful hoped I would do — despair.

Instead I thought of the millions of women, non-binary, and trans individuals (especially those who were black, Indigenous, or of color) who had refused — despite the best attempts by the kyriarchy’s finest — to despair before me. Brett Kavanaugh’s climb to power was predictable. But so was resistance. I refused the GOP’s ready narrative of their triumph and turned to clear-eyed fury instead.

I write as a survivor of more than one sexual assault. I have complex PTSD, an illness that persists despite treatment. Kavanaugh’s confirmation process was directly and powerfully painful for me; the contempt of Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee toward the allegations of sexual assault brought against Kavanaugh deeply and persistently triggering. Living through Kavanaugh’s candidacy was an exercise in wrenching physical discomfort and mental agitation, all linked back to the particular way in which trauma had inscribed itself on my body and my brain, moving molecules and firing up synapses, flooding everything with cortisol.

Over the past two weeks my joints burned, my head pounded. I grew panicked in public places, dazzled by too much sensory input in the grocery store and in the classroom. My body constantly prepared for flight, a wearying state of hypervigilance that stole my concentration, my motivation, and my ability to juggle tasks. In the waiting room of my therapist’s office, a man stepped into my personal space for a moment and I froze, terrified, that in this place I might be attacked. I had absolutely no control over my reactions — this was the business of chemistry, of atoms clashing with atoms, predicated by the debilitating terror I had felt when assaulted.

But while I am a survivor, I am also white. While white women have long been raped, assaulted, and abused, powerful white men have only ever cared about those actions when it suited them – and it did not suit them this week. It has, however, on a vanishingly rare number of occasions suited European and American white men to care at all about the rape of Indigenous, African American, Latina, and Asian women. In the absence of meaningful caring and accountability, powerful white men have, instead, planted myths — myths about the hyper-sexuality of African American women, particularly the enslaved, to excuse the rapes enacted by white enslavers and patriarchs; myths about the rapacious appetites of Native men who might steal white women and force them into sexual slavery to excuse the wholesale slaughter of Native communities; myths about the rape of white women by black men to rationalize the systematic terrorizing of African American communities during and since Jim Crow (including the use of rape against African American women and girls).

White women have too often been, to borrow from Rebecca Traister, the willing foot soldiers of this patriarchal and white supremacist violence. While men like Donald Trump railed this past week about men being widely and falsely accused of rape — a situation that is incredibly rare and in which accusers share telling characteristics — we are seldom, as a country, encouraged to consider the false accusations of rape leveled at black men by white women during Jim Crow, or the wholesale invention of such claims by white men themselves.1

We are not asked, as a country, to reckon with the pivotal rapes perpetrated by settler men against Indigenous women since first contact. We are not required to wrestle with the fact that Motoaka — Pocahontas — was raped by men acting in a white woman’s name (that of Queen Elizabeth of England), for example, to force the hand of the Powhaten confederacy and allow the English to secure a colony in Virginia. Settler rape of Native women has been a persistent and ongoing problem since.2

As I watched footage of white women cheering Trump on during a rally that occurred during the heavily curtailed FBI investigation of Kavanaugh; as I listened to Susan Collins speak with such contempt for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s credible first accuser, throwing her support behind Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, I felt the echoes of the voices of long-ago white women reverberate through to the present. White women have been the victims and survivors of unspeakable sexual violence, both now and in the past. But in the despair women like me are encouraged to feel at Kavanaugh’s confirmation, we must see that white privilege is at work — the privilege to only now see the contours of patriarchy’s viciousness when women of different ethnic and racial backgrounds have never had the even pseudo comfort of assuming their bodily integrity mattered to men with power.

No rape is excusable. No sexual assault should ever be discounted. There are among us those who bear the terrible scars of sexual violence, whose lives have been permanently and irrevocably changed by the predation of others. I am one such person. I believe each and every survivor deserves a just and meaningful response to the pain of their experiences that we do not presently have, that we must ceaselessly work towards, which demands that we oppose Kavanaugh and those who enabled his failing upwards toward a seat on the Supreme Court.

I also know that not all of us are equally able to pursue this fight — for some, our bodies and brains react without consulting us and often disable us, leaving us angry, or weeping, or bound up in dissociation. (If this is you, please gift yourself the time and care you need.) But for those of us who can fight, despair is a luxury we cannot afford and more, a luxury many of us have never had. The governmental systems of this country do not favor the abused. But we can make them if we do so with a full understanding of discrimination, of privilege, and a full and honest accounting of the country’s past.


  1. Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). Return to text.
  2. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star,” The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History (Golden, Co: Fulcrum Publishing, 2007). Return to text.

Catherine Denial is the Bright Distinguished Professor of American History, Chair of the History department, and Director of the Bright Institute at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. A member of the Educational Advisory Committee of the Digital Public Library of America, Cate is also a 2018-2021 Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. Cate’s current research examines the early nineteenth-century experience of pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing in Upper Midwestern Ojibwe and missionary cultures, research that grew from Cate’s previous book, Making Marriage: Husbands, Wives, and the American State in Dakota and Ojibwe Country (2013).