The white terrorist who gunned down six Black women and three Black men, peaceful worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, announced his murderous intentions by first declaring, “You rape our women.” We all know that he meant white women, like me. “His” women, as a white man like him would think of us.
But the thing is, white people are the ones who need to change in the United States. I read the grief-stricken request of a Black woman who asked that white women call this out and repudiate it, so that’s why I’m writing.
There is something terribly, disastrously wrong with how white people tolerate racism among other whites, how we interact with people of color, how we interact with the Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by our ancestors. This is not something we can fix by promising to renounce racial slurs, nor even by promising to correct each other’s racist speech in private. The rot goes deeper.
Firstly, because it’s important to emphasize: White men are the ones who are most likely to rape white women. Especially those white men who think of us as their own, particular property. The majority of rapes, like the majority of all crimes, are committed by people known to the victims. White men have built a parallel society in the United States to keep white women and children in a society where a white person can often go for days, weeks, or longer, without meeting a single person of color who is presented to us as a peer. Whom else do white women usually know?
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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These segregated, insular, white communities so many of us live in, we are told, were set up so white women and children could be “safe” in “good” neighborhoods, and many of us enthusiastically bought this story too. “Good” neighborhoods protected by police forces who are enjoined to act like white people’s personal enforcers—sometimes as agents of terror against Black children, women, and men, and against other people of color—rather than as public servants with a lawful duty to every citizen. “Good” neighborhoods where the only men around who have the social standing to rape with impunity are white men. And they do.
White men tell white women to be afraid of Black men. They ask us to call the police in the event of a “suspicious” non-white man in the neighborhood, especially a Black man, whatever he may be doing. We white women have often been eagerly complicit in this false, learned fear that has unleashed such devastating white terrorism on Black communities. It’s so much simpler for us to believe anything besides the truth, so we do. Too many of us have bought this slander of Black men, even as the men who usually rape us, and who so often get away with raping non-white women, are white men.
The tragic massacre of peaceful Black women and men at the AME church is exactly where these attitudes and behaviors were meant to lead. They are meant to produce a vicious, hateful willingness to destroy whatever a white person can’t “protect” through ownership.
There’s no possible legacy for a society run with such brutality other than mass murder and wanton destruction. If we would not be held responsible for these atrocities, we must rid ourselves of the attitudes that got us there. That means much, much more than legislators agreeing to take down the idols of Confederate treason in the South.
Every one of us must reject these white supremacist attitudes, these claims to ownership over other people’s lives and well-being for the gratification of our own egos. We need to reject the moral authority of anyone whose ethics begin and end with their own rights to amass property. We have to look very hard at every part of our society where we perpetuate the idea that people can own each other.
And we must certainly look at the part of white women in all of this, since we’ve also been here, all along. Was it not white women who came in like locusts to loot the homes and businesses after the white male rioters and the National Guard burned Black Wall Street in Tulsa? Was it not white women who would have set out the family’s Sunday best and brought along the picnics for the lynchings that can be seen in those old postcards? We were there. How long did it take after the fall of Jim Crow for white women to even begin to think of mourning murdered Black children as if they were our own nieces and nephews, the children of our sisters?
In slave-owning white households, was it not also white women who made the lives of the enslaved Black women around them miserable and sometimes unimaginably tragic out of jealousy, instead of seeing the rape of their sisters and finding a way to act from compassion? Indeed, in the Jefferson household, as in countless others, Sally Hemings was in fact Martha Jefferson’s half-sister, because their father raped the women he enslaved. When the freed descendants of these enslaved Black women first took up paid labor in white households doing similar work, they were often still subject to the same threat of rape by white men and treated with scarcely more compassion by white women.
White men have spent hundreds of years raping Black women in the United States. White women have long refused to face this, helping hide the truth behind victim-blaming stereotypes of hypersexual Black women. Just as we have refused to face that we often have more to fear from the white men who live with us than dark-skinned strangers walking down the street.
Before white men could own slaves, they could take wives. A wife is not a slave, but in much of historical white culture, neither was she a free person. Under the doctrine of coverture in English law, she was not quite a person at all, and the last of the laws that stemmed from coverture were stricken down in U.S. courts in the 1970s. Marital rape could not even be conceived of as a crime in white culture until the middle of the 20th century. And from the start of Western literature, it was already established that a wife and mother was not even supposed to speak in public, as an act of modesty and humility in honor of the family patriarch, while a first rite of manhood was to claim the authority to shut her up.
From the social fantasy of the model, upper-class, white wife comes the ideal of the passivity of white women. She is quiet, meek, pale with hiding indoors, she reacts, she supports. She gives, and loves, and simpers. Instead of acting, she asks, and so she acts under permission, under his authority as a good little girl ought to. The story she remembers of her own life is a story of things done around or near or to her, things witnessed from a remove, except the blur of menial tasks and social obeisance. She is helpless, unaccountable in the innocence of that helplessness, and in constant need of rescue by the white male hero. She is necessarily insecure, because what can she do?
Yet while white women can be trained into creating a convincing simulacrum of such a person, that has never been anyone’s authentic self. It’s a box built for women’s personalities so that white men could believe that we naturally exist as objects for their conquest and ownership, whereas no such thing is true.
As Andrea Dworkin said, “Genocide begins, however improbably, in the conviction that classes of biological distinction indisputably sanction social and political discrimination.” White women have sat for too long as passive spectators to brutality and genocide committed by our own families, in our names, because we have been full of such false convictions. Even if we did not start them, we can decide now to end them.
It doesn’t deny the misogyny we’ve been subjected to for us to acknowledge any of this. That isn’t how it works.
Because this fantasy of our “natural” passivity, so convincing a lie told about white women by white men that we often come to believe it ourselves, must go. We must give up being objects before we can seek a basic decency greater than that of those who would own us. And where we cling to these myths from fear, which is often, it’s a lie that turning ourselves into wish-fulfillment objects for white men will make us safe. Objects can’t love, nor can they be loved. Only love can make people truly safe with each other.
And we must all learn to be moved from love to act with terrible urgency. The deadly present crisis of white racist brutality toward the Black community demands it.
So we need to call each other to walk away from learned passivity and towards love, as many times as it takes. We must stop forgiving each other’s bad behavior, or asking for forgiveness, and insist on change, following the example of the dearly beloved Black women and men our nation is in mourning for right now.
It’s not Black people in the United States who need to change.
Every one of the AME worshippers died as a model of the kind of person all white people should strive to be. I hope my son will want to grow up to be like them. I hope he will be like the loved ones they left behind, people who showed incredible forbearance as cameras were shoved in their faces by white people who were asking for forgiveness before the bodies were even cold.
In the aftermath of white supremacist terrorism, white people must absolutely listen to the requests of the Black community that we stop asking them to act like the Rev. Martin Luther King, another peaceful Black person murdered by a white supremacist. Black people, like the murdered Rev. Clementa Pinckney and Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, already knew how to act like that. The slain worshippers lived as a testament to the church’s 200-year-old legacy of standing in fellowship against white supremacist terror. They easily extended their hospitality to a complete stranger, a hateful man who would sit with them for an hour before gunning them down, just like his white supremacist idols who had murdered other Black people they could not own or control.
Have Black people not been terrorized over the last few hundred years into a meekness toward white people that runs so deep, African-American men have been seen to politely ask their white attackers to stop hurting them even as they were taking their last breaths?
White people would do better to start listening to King’s request of us throughout his life and works, and throughout the life and works of the other women and men in the Civil Rights Movement, that we learn to listen to and love our Black sisters and brothers. That we make white society decent and humane at long last.
What is white fear of the “angry” Black person besides a worry that we will be held to account for the merciless slander and persecution of Black people by whites that each and every white person bears responsibility for tolerating as if it were not a deadly emergency?
We must do everything we can to put an end to white supremacist attitudes. It should be clear by now that this ideology won’t just fade away in time with the old, it must be rejected and extinguished as a matter of deliberate intent.