Although she may not realize it, Amanda Knox, the American citizen recently convicted of murder by the Italian government, has provided a teachable moment to illustrate what privilege is.
In 2009, Knox was charged with murdering Meredith Kercher, a British student she roomed with while studying abroad. After being acquitted following an appeal in 2011, the Italian supreme court ordered a retrial. Knox was subsequently found guilty again.
The investigation and trial has been a media-fueled frenzy from the beginning. There are generally two polarized camps on the issue: Those who think the investigation and trial are an injustice fueled by anti-Americanism and misogyny, and those that think the outrage itself is a form of reverse-sexism that ignores evidence.
Is she being victimized and slut-shamed by the Italian government? Is she being pedestal-ed and given special treatment by the American public for being hot? Or both?
There’s another story waiting to be told here: The story of how privilege affects the administering of justice not only – also – in America, but especially.
In an interview with The Guardian, on the day of the verdict, Knox explained how her life has changed since the trial began and how it’s affected things she used to take for granted.
“I’m a marked person. And no one who’s unmarked can understand that. Like I don’t even know what my place is anymore. What’s my role in society?”
The second sentence is especially important. What does it mean to be “unmarked?” This is the condition of being privileged.
Privilege manifests in various ways, but the experience of being privileged is always the same – it’s unnoticed. It’s kind of like not noticing not having a headache or not noticing not having a hand. Really, though, it’s not noticing not being discriminated against on a regular basis for something you have no control over.
Another aspect to privilege is the propensity to not believe it exists. For those not routinely discriminated against, it’s hard to believe it happens to other people. This leads many to question the honesty or mental health of those claiming to be singled out based on things like skin color, biological sex, sexual orientation, gender expression and so on. They must either be lying or it’s in their heads.
A Guardian article written in 2011 illustrates the phenomenon of distrusting minorities and how misogyny affected the way the Italian police investigated the case. Talking about the way her gestures and actions, like kissing her boyfriend or looking happy, were being used to determine her culpability, he said:
“An inclination to oversimplify the minds and motivations of others lies at the root of sexism and racism.”
Guessing what someone is really thinking or feeling by studying them through the lens of predetermined beliefs is the definition of prejudice. Using prejudice in criminal justice is obviously an issue and one that is seen too often.
What Knox is going through is an everyday reality for many in the United States, the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Reports of sexual violence against women are regularly mishandled by police; in one Human Rights Watch study, it was found that 40 percent of rape reports were not adequately documented or investigated. People of color are put behind bars at a higher proportion relative to whites, making up only 30 percent of arrests but 60 percent of the prison population.
One of the harshest critics of the overwhelming support of Amanda Knox is American lawyer Alan Dershowitz.
“We treat poor people and minority people much worse in the United States by our criminal justice system than they do in Italy, so we really have no standing to tell other countries that their system is unfair. And based on [the evidence against Knox], in America, if she were not an attractive young woman — if she were an ordinary person — charged on the basis of this evidence, she would be convicted and would be serving life imprisonment, or even worse, the death penalty in the United States.”
It should be noted that while Dershowitz hits the nail on the head in the first sentence, he contradicts himself with the second. In another interview, he stated, “On balance, it’s more likely than not that she did, but there’s not enough evidence to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.” He also felt the need to add that he would not let her date his son. It’s unclear who was asking.
Knox’s damnation came at the hands of the Italian government. In the United States, while racism is a problem rooted in cultural beliefs and attitudes, its most systematically-onerous manifestation comes through the justice system.
Those outraged by Amanda Knox’s treatment must also look at what privilege is and how it affects and controls the prison-industrial complex in America. There’s a lot of work to do.
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