Anthony Golden / Gavel Media

BC Sociologist Examines Sexual Assault

Shawn McGuffey, an Associate Professor of Sociology and African and African Diaspora Studies at Boston College, was recently honored with the 2016 Kimberlé Crenshaw Outstanding Article Award. Bestowed upon him by the Division of Racial and Ethnic Minorities (DREM) of the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP), this award commends the author(s) of the best research article in the study of race and ethnicity published in the past three years.

The Division of Racial and Ethnic Minorities is a contingent of scholars and activists; it seeks to employ various empirical and theoretical sociological models in order to attain higher levels of inter- and intra- racial understanding, interfaith collaboration, and intimate camaraderie toward the abolishment of systemic racial prejudice and inequity.

Professor McGuffey’s article, “Rape and Racial Appraisals: Culture, Intersectionality and Black Women’s Accounts of Sexual Assault,” uses Black women’s responses to same-race sexual assault to demonstrate how scholars can assess occurrences revolving around interpersonal violence to interpret complex social processes and develop conceptual paradigms to better address systemic deficiencies.

Relying on more than 100 interviews with Black women survivors in four major metropolitan centers, McGuffey argues that African Americans tend to use “racially inscribed cultural signifiers to root their understandings of rape within a racist social structure which they also perceive as sexist.” The persistence of this improvident ideology is rooted in a fervid contempt for institutional discrimination that enables and “encourages silence about same-race sexual assault,” McGuffey asserts.

The award-winning article is principally rooted in an analysis of the concept of racial appraisal, an integrative approach that assists sociologists in evaluating the structural and cultural elements of traumatic circumstances. Trauma theorists that use culture as an explanatory tool to explain racial differences in responses to traumatic occurrences suggest that “races of people in the United States typically, but not always, adhere to cultural practices that distinguish themselves from one another,” McGuffey argues in a research article co-authored with Professor Tanya Sharpe of the University of Maryland.

Screenshot courtesy of bc.edu

Screenshot courtesy of bc.edu

Drawing from his empirical assessments of patients coping with the aftermath of trauma-inducing episodes, McGuffey explains that even among scholars who employ a broader conceptualization of culture that includes individual experiences of discrimination, cultural frameworks imply that traumatic responses are characterized by “a set of individual level outcomes rooted in particular attitudes and behaviors associated with particular cultural practices.”

In his article, McGuffey seems to add to and refine the observations he has made in recent years regarding the phenomenon of racial appraisal and its implications for victims and their family members. In an earlier research article published in Oct. 2005, “Engendering Trauma: Race, Class and Gender Reaffirmation after Child Sexual Abuse,” McGuffey cites empirical research studies to assert that an individual’s interpretation of a traumatic event exerts a significant influence on how he or she responds to a stressful scenario. To that end, a patient’s judgment and response to a stressful situation constitutes a situational appraisal.

First and foremost, a person must establish whether a scenario or experience is threatening. If a situation is perceived as threatening, a secondary appraisal determines the options for coping with the trauma in question. It is here that McGuffey identifies gender as a formative element of the trauma response along with race, and uses the term ‘gender affirmation’ to demonstrate “the way social actors recuperate after a situation has been interpreted as detrimental, challenging, or stressful to heteronormative gender relations.”

McGuffey explains that racial appraisal helps sociologists conceptualize how trauma survivors understand coping as a socioculturally constructed process of discernment, acknowledging that race-based structural inequality can mitigate and even facilitate the interactions of victims. In fact, race can even allocate the social and psychological resources from which survivors can draw in cognitive processes, McGuffey implies.

Using the conclusions he made inEngendering Trauma: Race, Class and Gender Reaffirmation after Child Sexual Abuse, and other studies he has conducted on the phenomenon of racial appraisal, McGuffey views the ordeal faced by indirect victims of traumatic events (such as family and friends) as a means to use the concept of racial appraisal to analyze how survivors themselves deploy race and gender in the aftermath of rape through detailed accounts in “Rape and Racial Appraisals: Culture, Intersectionality and Black Women’s Accounts of Sexual Assault.” McGuffey explores these survivor accounts to highlight the intersection of race, class, and gender in the context of the highly politicized issue of sexual assault and its connection to Black feminist/intersectional theory.

The award will be presented to Professor McGuffey at the DREM annual business meeting in Seattle this August.

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