White Women, We Need To Do Better

White Women, We Need To Do Better racism
“‘Doing better’ is an oversimplification,” writes Barry, “and doesn’t carry the weight of just ‘how much better’ we need to do.” Pictured: White people form a barrier between police and protesters to protest the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. (John Obeto II / Twitter)

White women need to do something, do more and do better.

I am a white woman, and I need to stand with my Black sisters and brothers by doing more and something and better.

Everything in this article has been written on and discussed by Black scholars, writers, activists and feminists. In times like these, of peak collective mourning over Black death, theirs are the perspectives we should be reading and uplifting—as they speak from decades of experience and have the closest possible relation to the issues at hand. It is most important that we listen. 

To continue the conversation, on Thursday evening, almost 250 people joined Ms., Girls Learn International and the Global Fund for Women for a discussion between activists M Adams, co-executive director of Freedom Inc. and co-author of forthcoming book Freedom to Ferguson; and Lori Adelman, vice president of influence and engagement at the Global Fund for Women; and moderated by Dr. Loretta Ross, co-creator of the theory of reproductive justice and co-founder and former national coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. 

In their discussion of the current racial climate in the U.S., Dr. Ross expressed concern for the media’s use of “Black death pornography,” and Adams lamented authoritarian, state-sanctioned violence and surveillance, while stressing the importance of radical, Black, queer feminist movements for liberation. 

You can (and should) watch their conversation here. (Access Password: 1Justice!)

Of course, as Adams and Adelman noted, the horrific events we see as we scroll through our timelines are nothing new. 

This is why expressing shock is not only unhelpful, but actually extremely offensive to the hundreds of thousands of Black folks who have been experiencing varying degrees of white supremacy and racially-motivated violence their entire lives.

When white women say that we are “shocked” by the racist violence against Black people, we are ignoring history, separating ourselves from the reality that has existed for Black communities since the dawn of slavery (and even before then). This “shock” and horror plays into the racist idea of white women as damsels in distress, who must be protected from the very violence we ourselves are helping to perpetuate. We must first acknowledge racism and white-perpetrated violence, as well as our role in it, in order to then unlearn our own racist behavior. 

‘Doing better’ is an oversimplification and doesn’t carry the weight of just ‘how much better’ we need to do. (An immediate first step in ‘doing better’ would be to stop calling the police on Black folks, knowing full well this can be a death sentence.)

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When requested to stop calling the police, white people usually respond with confusion. What else am I supposed to do? Many of us, as white people, are taught to practice dialing 911 as children, to use it as our own personal hotline. It becomes second nature, muscle memory. As a result, Black communities are forced to engage in the devastating task of teaching their children how to not get murdered by the police—as if they have a say. 

Freedom to Thrive—a national convener of Black and brown organizations fighting for reinvestment in their communities and an end to the punishment-based criminal and immigration systems—has put together a list of options besides calling the police.

So has MPD 150, a community-based initiative challenging the narrative that the police exist to protect and serve.

Restorative justice is loosely defined as a justice system that prioritizes “the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large,” and does not involve policing. The Black Lives Matter movement offers endless resources and guides towards this model for justice. It is important allies find our local Black Lives Matter chapters, listen to their calls to action, and show up for their protests. We should especially be there as white women using our bodies as shields for Black and other POC protestors, as white women have long been protected and assigned fragility by the police and the state. 

If we aren’t able to attend the protests, there are countless ways to support anti-racist work. Activists Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein have compiled a growing list of anti-racism resources for white people—including reading lists, articles for allies and parents hoping to raise allies, organizations to which to donate and more.  

Showing Up For Racial Justice also has important resources, such as chapters to join and suggestions for white people hoping to act as allies. 

I have seen the videos of George Floyd’s murder, and of Amy Cooper calling the police on Christian Cooper—instigating a similar fate by telling police “an African-American man is threatening [her] and her dog.” (He wasn’t.) We watch as Amy Cooper calls upon her privilege as a white woman to threaten a Black man, using intentional language with the understanding that the desired police involvement could very well result in the murder of this Black man. When white people call for the cops, they are equally calling for an execution. 

This should make us incredibly uncomfortable and ashamed. However, the discomfort we feel watching blatant displays of white entitlement and racism is not an excuse to avoid or ignore white supremacy and violence. We cannot prioritize our emotional comfort over Black lives.

As I watched Amy Cooper, I had a familiar sensation in my stomach—the same feeling I experienced months ago when, while working at a movie theater, I was asked by a fellow white woman to call the police on a Black man for walking past her. She made sure to emphasize this when she told me. A Black man.

I remember feeling horrified and embarrassed that she’d expect me to be on her side, and her anger when I refused.  When she’d arrived at the theater and walked past me in the box office, she commented on the book in my fingers (What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About), noting how nice it was that my generation of feminists could talk about things with our mothers, how she was a “life-long feminist who never had that opportunity.” Soon after, this “life-long feminist” wanted to call the police on a Black man for walking near her in a crowded theater, requesting they come armed. 

It makes sense that she would assume I was on her side; this is what white women have done throughout all of history. When Cooper called the police with racist lies, she called them to murder someone—to treat Christopher Cooper the way that they treated George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade and countless other Black folks throughout American history. She recognized the power in her white woman victimhood and weaponized it through the centuries-long terror police officers have used against Black communities. 

Charles M. Blow wrote on the inherent danger of this so-called “white purity” in the New York Times’s “How White Women Use Themselves as Instruments of Terror”:

Throughout history, white women have used the violence of white men and the institutions these men control as their own muscle.

From the beginning, anti-Black white terrorists used the defense of white women and white purity as a way to wrap violence in valor. Carnage became chivalry.

We often like to make white supremacy a testosterone-fueled masculine expression, but it is just as likely to wear heels as a hood.

Particularly in the post-Civil War era, when slavery had been undone, white male politicians used the fear of rape of white women by Black men to codify racial terror. …

There are too many noosed necks, charred bodies and drowned souls for these white women not to know precisely what they are doing: They are using their white femininity as an instrument of terror against Black men.

Throughout history, white women have instigated a powerful and violent role in Black death. The racist, false accusations of white women were used to justify endless lynchings. By calling the police, we continue to orchestrate modern day lynchings of Black people. 

Ms. scholar Janell Hobson also wrote on the ugly history of white women, Black men and lynching, and the false accusations of white women that allowed people to discredit survivors and act as apologists for perpetrators of sexual abuse.

Hobson posed the question: If Amy Cooper had not been caught on video lying, “Would police automatically believe she was threatened by a Black man (the underlying threat interpreted to be sexual assault)? How do we reconcile #BelieveWomen with this history? And how do white women challenge the underlying patriarchy—white women must be protected from predatory Black men, which is why they are so heavily policed—which supports white supremacy and why the Amy Coopers of the world believe law enforcement is at their disposal?”

Rachel Cargle, an important writer and activist, is another one of countless Black women and women of color who have been writing about this forever. She wrote about toxic white feminism after the murder of Nia Wilson in 2018. She wrote about white fragility and violent silence in 2019. Recently, Cargle posted resources for people looking to engage in anti-racist behavior on Instagram.

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To show up you must come forward boldly with three things. KNOWLEDGE + (radical) EMPATHY + (radical) ACTION. • My heart is so heavy. The weariness I see in the eyes of my people is crushing me. Breath is short and sighs are long and optimistic hope is feeling fleeting. • I’m going to log off for a while but I wanted to leave this here for the thousands in my ear asking what actionable items they can take. • Here is a resource dump, the only thing I can cough up at this point — I haven’t the energy to engage much more at the moment but I hope you’ll make the choice to DO something. • In the words of Angela Davis “it is not enough to be not racist, you must actively be anti racist.” • I implore you to remember — the point of AntiRacism work isn’t to make white people feel they are “doing better” in their positions of privilege and power within this immoral system— it is for them to hold themselves and their white community accountable for addressing and attacking the very system that needs to be destroyed in order for black people to stay alive and to be well. • #RevolutionNow • Head to the link in my bio to find links to all of the resources featured in the sides. I updated my Racial Justice Research Doc to include recent murders. • Support the people you are learning from. Whether it be me or my hundreds of thousands of brothers/sisters/comrades who are on the front lines physically, emotionally or intellectually. • Cashapp: $rcargle PayPal: PayPal.me/rachelcargle Venmo: @rachelcargle My non profit that provides mental health care access for Black women and girls: @thelovelandfoundation My monthly online learning platform: @thegreatunlearn

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In her post, she quoted Angela Davis to remind readers, “It is not enough to be non-racist; you must actively be anti-racist.” 

It is very easy for us as white women to tweet about Karens and Beckys to differentiate ourselves from these women. But we, by definition, are benefiting from the exact same privilege and status and entitlement and racist, violent power as they are. 

There is choice in our actions. We can choose not to call the police on Black folks. We can choose to disrupt our trend of white entitlement and hold ourselves accountable for the actions we have taken (and not taken) that directly or indirectly contribute to the suffering of Black folks. Therefore, we can (and should) make a conscious effort to dissuade and challenge the racism of those around us.

Just as important, we should engage in the active unlearning of our own racist views and behavior. Denying that we have white privilege and its corresponding social currency is unhelpful, naive and harmful. It is important to do this work to unlearn our own racism so that we can organize and address structural change.

I never want to share videos of Black death, retraumatizing the Black people and other people of color in my life who follow me. However, that isn’t an excuse for sitting with this violence quietly and curling up around it like some excusable little secret. I can (and should have been) writing to other white people, women in particular, about our disturbing and uncomfortable role in the violence towards and murders of Black people throughout our past and current histories.

Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” We as white women like to quote that a lot.

We quote Kimberle Crenshaw and like referring to ourselves as intersectional. 

We quote Audre Lorde and say that our silence will not protect us.

Where is it, exactly, that we have drawn the line in regards to whom we protect? When we, as white women, do not actively participate in anti-racist work and do not support the work of Black Lives Matter and other advocates for racial justice and Black lives, we have chosen the side of the oppressor. 

All of this information is out there. If we are not finding it or reading it, it is because we are deciding not to. We need to have these conversations amongst ourselves and stop asking our Black friends to explain to us how to act like decent human beings. We can read the countless resources available on how to be anti-racist. 

As Erin Heaney, director of Showing Up For Racial Justice, shared on Friday: Rather than simply performing outrage, white people must organize towards lasting and structural change.

There’s too much at stake to spend our time performing and not organizing.

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Maeve is a recent graduate from Occidental College in Los Angeles, where she studied English Literature; Creative Writing; and Gender, Women and Sexuality. She is a former Ms. editorial intern and editor of multiple Lit mags and feminist zines and is currently working on a book of essays and making a documentary film.