Not in My Name, or, Whiteness Goddam

In the days immediately following the George Zimmerman acquittal I was in a state of shock. I wasn’t alone. I was stuck home with children too young to take to after-bedtime demonstrations, so I sat in front of my computer and tweeted with like-minded, grieving, angry fellow travelers.

But now that a few days have passed, I have moved from my sense of helpless, hopeless horror to my version of an action phase. I’m going to share it with you, and perhaps you’d like to join me, or if it doesn’t apply to you, you might pass it on to a friend to whom it does.

As a white woman, I feel a special responsibility (I almost wrote “culpability” and I’m not sure that’s far from wrong) regarding this case. I’m not saying it’s my personal fault, but my “identity” (not necessarily one I choose, but one that is put upon me by everyone who looks at me) is an enormous working piece of the machine that killed Trayvon and denied his family justice.

Because of this, when I first heard about the makeup of the Zimmerman jury, I was really, really worried. I hoped against hope that maybe being moms of teens might help these women empathize with Trayvon. But (especially after hearing from the anonymous juror on CNN), we all know that didn’t happen.

The fact is, throughout U.S. history—especially after the Civil War—white women have been the rhetorical foil white men have used to justify violence and terrorism against Black men. In the 1880s and 1890s there were several lynchings of Black men per month. In fact, in some years of those decades there were three or four lynchings per week. The overall “reason” given for these lynchings by almost everyone in the press—even in the Black press, which decried lynching but didn’t always challenge the accusations leading to it—was the rape of white women.

But Ida B. Wells (my favorite dead person of all time), challenged this claim by investigating every lynching she could, finding that in fact only 30% of lynchings were actually claimed to be about rape, and that very few of those actually were rape cases. (Many of the cases involving sex between Black men and white women, were in fact consensual relationships, as Wells pointed out, garnering death threats for her pointed honesty.)

No one accused Trayvon Martin of rape. But the icon of the threatening, always-already criminal Black boy or man is an icon perhaps not invented, but certainly refined, in the heyday of Strange Fruit, and is made out of white men’s need for sexual (well, and everything else) control of white women. This is well accounted for. Just go watch D.W. Griffith’s Birth of Nation  and you will see the story unfold there just a few years past the height of the lynching era. In that film, anxiety about white men’s loss of political and economic control to Black men is finally too much to bear when control of white women’s sexuality is added to the pile of straws.

So when George Zimmerman assumed, based on appearance that Trayvon was a criminal, a big part of why he assumed it was this history of Black boys and men being considered threats to white women. Sadly, though it’s been nearly sixty years, the twisted logic that made Emmett Till’s life worthless and let his murders go free has done the same to Trayvon.

I say 150 years (at least) of being used as an excuse to terrorize Black boys and men is enough. I’m out. I’m a white woman and I am not afraid of Black boys and men. If some white man is afraid for me, well…he needs to learn to be afraid of me. Because I’m not taking it any more.

How do I change one of the keystones of white supremacy all by my little self?

Fine, I can’t. But I can sure kick against it with all I’ve got and if you’re a white woman, you can join me and recruit all your white female friends to join too.

It is time (way past time) for white women to ally with Black boys and men with all our hearts and minds, with every shred of power we’ve got, and when it comes to this issue, we’ve got more than most of us realize.

Here are a few small things we white women can do almost every day to fight the ideology that Black boys and men are our worst enemies and to refuse anymore to be theirs:

1. Stop using the phrase “I was the only white person there.” It’s code for some kind of perception of vulnerability at best, real threat or danger at worst. But the truth is, if you’re the only white person somewhere, you’re likely to be a guest, and treated as such. If you stumbled into the “wrong” neighborhood, the history above should assure you that you are perceived to be a threat–much more so than a target.

But when you say, “I was the only white person there” with no other context for why this was relevant, you are leaning on that history to explain what being there meant. You are underscoring the idea that generally, Black people are a threat to white people and specifically that Black men and boys are a threat to white women.

Besides not saying this yourself, you can refuse to support it with your silence when other people are saying it.

When you hear someone toss the “I was the only one…” line into conversation, stop the speaker and say, “what’s your point?”

This will either force the speaker to unveil the racism behind the phrase, or to be clearer about why race legitimately mattered in the situation.

This isn’t the only phrase of this kind. What are some others you hear in what seem to the speaker to be white-only conversations? Interrupt them whenever you can.

2. Make a friend. No, your Black friend won’t be your get-out-of-racism free card. (And trying to wield it as one will lose you your Black friends fast. Because doing that is racist.) But let’s face it, if you DON’T have any black friends, you’ve got a problem. (I’m talking to U.S. Americans who live in the U.S. here, not the people of Iceland.) And everyone knows that the best kind of friends not only reflect our sense of self back to us, but challenge our sense of self, stretch us to empathize with others’ experiences and teach us new skills and ideas.

Real, honest, vulnerable friendships (based on something other than “hey you’re Black and I need a Black friend!” of course) are always valuable. When they are made across the boundaries society polices the most, they can help undo the implicit bias everyone in our culture carries around. (According to this research, seeing anti-stereotypical images helps combat implicit bias. What’s more anti-stereotypical than a true friend?)

Meanwhile, cross the daily thoughtless, race boundaries society has erected whenever the opportunity comes your way. Smile, and say hello to the Black man in front of you in the grocery store line, look those Black teen boys in the eye when they pass you on the street (whatever you do, don’t cross the street!), sit by a Black man, instead of another white woman, on the bus.

Seek out integrated spaces as much as possible. Don’t settle for the easy thoughtless comfort of being around a bunch of other white people. Try putting yourself in the minority often enough that you learn to be comfortable there.

3. Stop identifying with whiteness. I don’t mean stop allowing yourself to be labeled white by the census or the law or whatever, but to identify with whiteness within yourself. Identifying with whiteness is a pillar of white supremacy. Whiteness was made up. It didn’t fall from heaven decreed by the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You may have to be it in the eyes of others and ironically, in working to undo it you must acknowledge the unearned privilege it gives you. But you don’t have to give a flying fig Newton about it, yourself. You don’t have to take the wrong side in historical stories, for example.

Back when I was teaching race in U.S. history and culture to college students, the white ones would eventually come to me all distressed that “white” people had done such terrible things in U.S. history. Half these kids’ families weren’t even in  the U.S. at the time of some of the events that troubled them. I told them there was no reason to identify with Thomas Jefferson and no reason not to identify with Frederick Douglass. Your heroes should be the people who share your values, not your melanin levels.

Again, I’m not saying Jefferson didn’t set it up sweet for you if you are white nowadays and you must acknowledge that, but you can be proud to be a U.S. American because of the heritage you share with others–a heritage that includes people like Harriet Tubman and W.E.B. DuBois.

TrayvonMartinHoodedDo you have any personal examples of how you’ve carried out any of the things on my list? Do you have any suggestions to add to the list? Please share them in the comments. It’s time we U.S American white women got together to form a ring of love and protection around our Black boys. But first, we have to recognize that they are ours.

14 responses to “Not in My Name, or, Whiteness Goddam

  1. YES! I am a white woman and also denounce the crimes that have/are committed in my name and to make me “safe.” I agree with you that it is our (white people’s) responsibility. I wrote about this on my blog here: http://racismisawhiteproblem.com/ and will be giving a sermon in a few weeks to publicly call my community to accountability.

  2. Yes. This is very important. My husband and I moved to a very mixed-race neighborhood with our daughter because the old neighborhood had gotten whitewashed over time. I don’t like being in a place with only one dominant cultural influence. We go for walks and talk to anyone who’s out and about. i feel safer in this neighborhood than in the last, since we know so many people. I need to work a little on 1), since I try to explain high school partly by listing the numbers of races, but that is not a reasonable thing to do – I hadn’t thought of it that way. Oh, and where’s 3? :) I really appreciate this post.

    • Ha! Did I skip 3? I’ll fix that. Originally, this list had ten things but then I tried to neatly put them into fewer, broader categories. Clearly the copy editor around here has been slacking…

    • I’m not against demographic descriptions if they mean something important! I tell people all the time that Rogers Park (where we live in Chicago) is 30/30/30/10 Black/Latino/White/Asian with a huge proportion of all categories being first-generation immigrants. I suppose some listeners might hear “danger!” when I say that, but it only occurred to me now. I say it to give a fuller sense of what I mean when I say “integrated” or (a word I really loathe because it is almost meaningless) “diverse.”

      • When I started college at Mills in Oakland, CA, they advertised how diverse their student body was. When I actually began attending, my first thought was the same as when I visited my friends in Piedmont – “There are too many white people here!” That is still my response to many places, and it forced me to recognize how much I prefer places with more than just white people. I mean, white people are fine, as long as they aren’t the only influence!

  3. Good stuff. I’m in.

  4. Bravo! I make it a point to stop and talk to groups of Black teens in our community – boys in particular especially if I don’t already know them – when I can since I am raising 2 boys who are Black (as a White woman) and I see ALL children as being “ours” – “in community” – sometimes I am met with curious stares or negative/sarcastic comments, but more often than not I am met with polite and sometimes interesting conversation. When I hear my “visual peers” (other White women) talk about “the problems at the library” I ask what problems? and expect them to explain the code language in our community for “the Black teens that hang out on the library steps” – same for “the neighborhood is changing” comment and the “achievement gap” in the schools discussion which both seem to result in most White people trying hard to point out that it’s “more about socio-economic differences than race” so they don’t appear racists (to themselves, I think.) Speak up, ask questions and do not be afraid.

  5. I really appreciate the call to white women as a group-your thoughtful reasons why-and all of your hows…

    As a white mama of two brown boys-and as a public school teacher -I try super hard to model much of your action steps-and work with other parents and educators to explore their own white mind. My favorite micro-step is just what you suggest; the wide, open smile and hello to every Black person (males seem particularly important too) I see. And I cross the street TO get to that greeting!

    Thank you for your inspired work.

    • One of the pleasant surprises of transracial adoption for me, was that when I am out in public with the kids, Black men (as a rule) don’t seem to fear me. It’s so subtle, those of us who haven’t experienced it being lifted might not even notice it’s happening. But, though I’m used to it and take it for granted now, I really noticed when they kids were babies. It was so nice to have Black men strike up friendly conversations at the playground or the grocery store. Once or twice someone overtly asked if I was partnered with a Black man (presumed to be my kids’ father). I suppose the message the kids send is “that woman isn’t afraid of men like me.” So fear on all sides is diminished and more authentic connections can happen.

  6. Jennifer Torre

    Thank you for writing this! I’m also a white woman and share the frustration you’ve expressed here at being used as a justification for racism and also at having the vile noise from racists like Paula Deen and Ann Coulter drown out sane and reasoned voices like yours. The racist Zimmerman jurors do not speak for me, nor do they reflect my political position, nor my opinion on the murder of Trayvon Martin (which in my opinion was murder in the first degree and Zimmerman should have been convicted of that). I would also add that the disrespect with which not only Martin’s memory was treated (it appears that HE was the one on trial) but also that his friend, Rachel Jeantel, has been subjected to in the media coverage of the farce of a trial. I agree with all three of the action steps you propose and I would simply add that while I definitely understand the importance for white women to make friendly social overtures, gestures of friendship and support to Black men and boys, let’s make sure that we do not neglect to make the same gestures (not empty gestures, meaningful and sincere gestures of substance!) to Black women and girls. One place that jumps immediately to mind where we can stand with and stand up for Black women and girls is in school. We can refuse to be part of the “soft” lynch mob that piles blame and patronizing paternalism on Black women, that negates their intelligence and strength and wisdom and seeks to impose white values and white parenting paradigms on women who are daily combatting a multitude of challenges that white women cannot even imagine. We need to stop this ongoing insult to the power and beauty of Black women and girls that takes place in the classroom and in the principal’s office. If you’re not sure who’s side to take, take the Black mother’s side, take the Black kid’s side and simply acknowledge to yourself that you have NO IDEA what they have been up against day in and day out. I would also suggest implementing your own affirmative action plan. Do you need a plumber? Why not check to see if there is a Black-owned Business directory or association in your area and contact them for a referral? Are you in management and do you have the authority in your job to making hiring decisions and recommendations? Why not make it a priority to bring in more African Americans for interviews and to bring them on board your staff. The economic realities faced by the Black community are a huge obstacle to social equality and even if you’re just the manager at a coffee house, you can be proactive in making your establishment more welcoming to Black people as customers and as staff. Why not contact a local Black youth organization and tell them you’re interested in recruiting young people to work at your business? We need to brainstorm and look at all of the privilege we enjoy and break it up and spread it around. This privilege is unearned and undeserved and I for one don’t want it; but if I’ve got some position, some pull, I owe it to the Black community and to other people of color to do whatever I can to work for social and political justice. Thanks again for the article!

    • All wonderful points, Jennifer! I had to reign myself in on this post to try and make it specific to the Trayvon situation, but really, everything we do to lessen the strangle-hold of white supremacy is good for…everybody.

  7. I have nominated you and your blog for a Liebster Award. Read my latest blog post to learn more about it… http://2mommiestryingtoadopt.blogspot.com/2013/07/an-award.html

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