Growing up as a chubby white girl, I remember being warned about Black men. I remember receiving messages that Black men were sexually predatory and that they take advantage of insecure white women. These messages came from the mouths of people in my life as well as portrayals of Black men I saw in myriad media sources. I was taught to approach Black men with wariness from our first interaction, and to question their intentions before learning their names.
I think a lot about Carolyn Bryant, the woman Emmett Till was accused of whistling at. I think about how she must have viewed him and how she must have viewed herself. And I am reminded of the violence that built—and sustains—white femininity.
Whiteness as a political category was wholly born from violence, codified in the destruction of the Black body through slavery, lynching, and the countless channels white supremacy has used to assert itself throughout history. White femininity is uniquely and intentionally positioned in the matrices of identity to enable the perpetuation of oppression through its own disempowerment. Those who perform white femininity are expected to be reliably well-mannered objects of sexual purity in need of protecting, and this vulnerability creates a vacuum into which the perceived menace of Black masculinity, and Blackness in general, is pulled.
“Whiteness as a political category was wholly born from violence, codified in the destruction of the Black body through slavery, lynching, and the countless channels white supremacy has used to assert itself throughout history.”
We need look only so far as the diatribes of Dylann Roof, who perpetrated a terrorist attack on a Black church in South Carolina, to see that violence against Black bodies is so often done (implicitly and explicitly) in the name of protecting white women. And the measuring stick of white femininity is used to deny the humanity of Black women and those who perform Black femininity.
Carolyn Bryant lives in my skin when I walk down the street, when I pick a seat on the bus, when I step onto a dance floor. I think about how real her fear must have felt to her, real enough that empathizing with it feels inhumane. I recognize this fear of Blackness in so much of supposedly anti-patriarchal discourse, replicated in conversations about street harassment that center around the man on the street corner and not the ones driving by in a Range Rover.
“When our privilege interacts with our years of social conditioning as caretakers, the result is a unique kind of white saviorism.”
White girls should not need more of a rationale for investment in antiracism than the reality that white supremacy is seeking to destroy human bodies and communities. However, we ride this contradiction of caretaking and condescension that makes our presence in antiracist spaces potentially harmful. When our privilege interacts with our years of social conditioning as caretakers, the result is a unique kind of white saviorism. This is the kind that travels to Africa or South America or an “inner-city” school to take pictures with Black children and pass out journals. Think Hermione Granger handing out buttons for the house elves that want to be left well enough alone. But as Lilla Watson so famously said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” As long as Blackness is criminalized, white femininity will be protected, undermining the agency of those who perform it. As a white woman, I am interested in constructing a femininity that does not rely on persistent violence done in my name.
That is impossible without the destruction of white supremacy.
Our liberation and our humanity are inextricably bound to this. And once we recognize that, we can begin to imagine ways of being that prioritize collective liberation as not only possible, but essential. We need not simply to develop a relationship of harmony between gender and racial justice, but to recognize the relationship of contingency that exists between them. These forms of oppression, along with so many others, require one another to be maintained. Neither can be truly dismantled while the other is upheld.
As much as Carolyn Bryant colors my femininity, I hope to also carry with me the legacies of white women like Jessie Daniel Ames, who led protests against lynching, and Marilyn Buck, who received an 80-year sentence for assisting in Assata Shakur’s escape from prison. These women were not perfect, but they provide a vision of alternatives that I think we need as white girls and white women.
How do we ensure that we carry the right legacy? Hit me up. Let’s talk about it.