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.
Do 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.