The verdict may be in, but the debate over Tyson goes on

Racine S. Winborne

February 25, 1992|By Racine S. Winborne

MY BLIND date and I were sitting on beanbag chairs in my living room, eating Chinese food and watching the women's Olympic figure skating contest on TV when my guest asked to switch to ABC's "20/20" broadcast. He said he wanted to finally size up the woman who, in his words, "did it" to Iron Mike Tyson.

By now everyone knows that the 25-year-old former world heavyweight boxing champ was convicted earlier this month of raping an 18-year-old beauty contestant, Desiree Washington, in Indianapolis hotel room.

My companion, munching on shrimp foo young as he watched Ms. Washington field questions from "20/20" co-host Barbara Walters, seemed literally to hiss each time Ms. Washington responded.

"Why would a true Christian lady go to the hotel room of a man she didn't know to begin with?" he complained.

I replied that the same might be said of my having invited him, a person with whom I had only spoken on the telephone a few times, into my home. (My younger sister, who had known him for several years, arranged the introduction. Our eventual face-to-face meeting had been planned as a way of settling a friendly wager on Super Bowl XXVI, which I had won by choosing the Washington Redskins over the hapless Buffalo Bills.)

"Suppose you turned out to be a wolf in sheep's clothing and attacked me," I asked. "I can already hear the cynics questioning my integrity and saying I 'should have known better.' "

My date failed to see the similarity. He, like many other men, seems to have rallied around the ex-champ and branded Ms. Washington a scheming vixen intent on toppling a boxing hero. So I asked him directly whether he really thought Tyson hadn't raped the woman.

"I believe it happened, but that doesn't make Tyson guilty," he replied. "She's out to destroy him. She's a gold digger. Just wait until she files her lawsuit to get his money."

"Let me get this straight," I said. "You believe she was raped but it's her fault?"

"I just don't believe she's as innocent as she pretends," he insisted. "A good Christian woman wouldn't go to a stranger's hotel room!"

At that moment I, the daughter of a Baptist preacher seated across the room from the son of another Baptist preacher -- couldn't help but recall a verse from the Book of Matthew: "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"

My companion could acknowledge that Tyson probably raped Ms. Washington. Yet in the next breath he implied she should have kept her mouth shut so as not to jeopardize the career of a promising young man.

"So you think that even though he did it, Tyson should go free?" I asked, realizing with some sadness that a wedge had come between us. For him, a black woman who accused a black man of rape was simply a traitor to her race; a woman who went to

the room of a man she didn't know got what she deserved.

Somehow it was important to me to puzzle out the matter from his point of view. I sensed his ambivalence about the changing nature of male-female relationships. He felt betrayed when black women like Ms. Washington and Professor Anita Hill, who nearly derailed Judge Clarence Thomas' confirmation for the Supreme Court, stepped forward to accuse black men of sexual misconduct.

It is a view shared by many men, I know. For that matter, an older black woman phoned me recently to ask: "How can a man rape a women unless she lets him?"

Finally I asked my companion: "Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a woman said 'yes' and later changed her mind?" He seemed to twirl the question around in his head. Then he replied guardedly: "Yes."

We paused eating our Chinese food, avoiding looking at each other directly. Then the awkward moment passed as we changed to another subject of conversation. But we each knew neither had been persuaded of the other's point of view.

Years ago, when I was 18 and naive, my father told me that I was "a sandlot player trying to hit in the big leagues." It was his way of telling me that the guy I was going out with had a lot more experience than me. I can still hear my father's gentle laughter as he said it.

Recently I've been wondering what my father would make of the Tyson case if he were still alive. Surely he would have little patience with the Baptist ministers who have rallied to Tyson's cause. But he might well conclude, as I have, that Ms. Washington was a bright-eyed, star-struck young woman -- a "sandlot player" -- who came to the big city and lost her innocence to an unscrupulous player from "the big leagues."

Racine S. Winborne writes from Baltimore.

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