How White Women Can Be Better Allies With Black Men
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 week has 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.