Standing Outside the Door: White Women's Responsibility to Renisha McBride
When I heard about Renisha McBride being shot and killed while seeking help after a car accident, my first reaction was grief. If it isn’t sad enough that this young woman lost her life, that her family lost her, it is infinitely sadder that she was lost in such a senseless incident.
But my second reaction was anger. Because, truly, there is nothing senseless about what happened to Renisha. The automatic assumption that she was a threat, that she could be killed with impunity, that she was, essentially, worthless, falls perfectly within the logic of race and gender in the United States.
It is a logic that allows a white man to remain free and uncharged for days after shooting an innocent Black woman in the face, while another Black woman goes to prison for firing a warning shot in the air to prevent herself being assaulted. It is a logic that started long ago and which Black girls and women battle every single day in every form from micro-aggression to murder.
It is a logic that depends in no small part, on the cooperation of white women with men—especially white men—to replicate itself.
I am a white woman who calls myself a race traitor. By this, I mean that I refuse to side with “whiteness.” I believe whiteness is nothing but a set of unearned privileges made up of a continuing history of violence and the denial of the full humanity of anyone who isn’t considered white.
Many smart people agree that whiteness is made up. And it is high time we unmade it.
How can a white woman help unmake it and stand in solidarity with the Black women and girls at whose expense it is made?
The first thing we can do is recognize that our privileges do not exist in a vacuum. Here in the U.S. we try to tell ourselves that everyone can have it all—that we only have what we deserve and anyone who works hard enough can have as much or more too. But the fact is, some privileges are stolen from the opportunities and dignity of others.
Too often, Black women’s losses are white women’s gains in a patriarchal society that keeps women in check at least partly by pitting them against each other. We are taught a virgin/whore sexual dichotomy, a white/Black beauty dichotomy; we are taught to take double standards for granted and even to reinforce them.
Beginning in slavery, Black American women were devalued as mothers and treated as breeders and concubines by, mostly, white men. Thus began a self-fulfilling prophesy of Black women being pathologized for their distance from the patriarchal ideal of a mother whose sexuality was contained by marriage and controlled by a man. Such an ideal—spurious as it might be—was never available to them.
But such always-already “fallen” women were necessary to create value in the women against whom they were defined—white women, whether slave mistresses or abolitionist missionaries. White women could remain virtuously untouched as long as there were Black women available to the men who refused to control their desire to touch. White women could have beautiful homes and well cared-for children as long as there were Black women to leave their own homes and children neglected in order to do white women’s domestic work.
Thus, Black women have become an imaginary landscape of desire, fear, revulsion and romance in white men’s—and women’s—minds: Black women are unrapeable because they are always-already unchaste, their children can be taken because they are always-already bad mothers.
It is no surprise to me that the man who shot Renisha McBride has a white woman for a lawyer. It is one of the U.S.’s great stories—a white man steps back while white women fight Black women as his proxy, ultimately keeping them all in subjection to him.
Being a race traitor and a feminist means I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to listen to the Black women and girls who have long struggled in the trenches and on the margins and have seen and can see what I cannot. I’m going to take their word for their own experiences and I’m going to privilege their perspective when it comes to making meaning of U.S. American culture.
When I have a choice of where to stand, I will stand with the women and girls who don’t have that choice, but are shoved to the bottom, to the edges, off the grid entirely into the underclass. It’s those women who truly have something to teach the U.S. about itself. Their view is unique in our history.
“Only the BLACK WOMAN can say 'when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”
Anna Julia Cooper wrote these words in 1892. She argued that when Black women were allowed to take part in every aspect of civil society, their unique perspective would bring not only the “whole Negro race” but in fact, the whole nation to a new place of enlightenment and civilization.
Cooper was speaking from and to a culture that claimed to believe women were special in their civilizing influence on the world—a cult of domesticity or “true womanhood” that gave lip-service to the idea that the home was the natural center of society and women were the natural center of the home.
But rather than embracing Black women as the center of society, white supremacy needed them to be, and so kept them at, the margins. When Sojourner Truth asked “Aren’t I a Woman?” The answer from white supremacy was a resounding “no.”
What Cooper missed in her hopeful essays and speeches, brilliant as they were, was just how dependent upon the degradation of Black women that cult of true womanhood was.
The pedestal that “true women” stood upon was made up of the backs of degraded women who could never hope to make it to the top. Those women were poor, were not sexually chaste enough by cultural standards, were Black.
That pedestal is still being offered to white women today. If we keep an aspirin between our knees, if we speak in the proper “tone” and never become angry, if we smile sweetly and keep our family skeletons in their closets, if we keep ourselves in our closets—we may earn a place up there. But if we would overthrow the system that keeps some women on their knees, we need to step down off of the pedestal, get off their backs and listen.
We need to listen to the women who knew Renisha McBride as well as to the ones who didn’t know her, but understand her life (and death) from the perspective of their own experiences. We need not to defend the white man who offers to pay and protect us with his money, his house and his gun. We need to stand instead with Renisha outside his door and demand, not ask for, justice. Because unless Renisha can get it, none of us truly can.