In a rare, but frankly predictable moment, the police chief of the Minneapolis police force stepped down in the wake of the death of Justine Damond, an unarmed white woman killed by a black police officer. Speaking of Justine, her attorney stated that she was the ‘most innocent victim of a police shooting”.
The statement was shocking in its disregard for the black children who have been fatally shot by police officers – Aiyana Jones was 7 when she was killed by a police officers in a raid, Tamir Rice only 12, not least for the countless innocent black men and women who have been killed by police. Shocking, but predictable.
White women are always innocent.
In the case of Justine she truly was, and as with any other victim of police brutality her and her family deserve justice.
But white women are innocent even when they’re not innocent.
A recent study on perceptions of black girls that was widely reported on gave evidence to the fact that “adultification” of black girls begins as young as 5*. Black girls are perceived as having less need for nurturing and protection compared with white girls. Stereotypes of black women as angry, more masculine and difficult to deal with are projected onto young black girls.
But this as much about stereotypes of black women as it is about entrenched beliefs about white womanhood.
Since before slavery, white womanhood has carefully crafted a propaganda of innocence, supported by white men initially for their own sexist purposes (which I won’t detail here) but often used by white women to absolve themselves of responsibility in a myriad of situations. White European women are perceived as delicate, fragile, pure, kind and well intentioned despite historically being wholly complicit in some of the greatest atrocities against other humans, many of them black or brown.
White feminism has tried with some level of success to rewrite modern history as a story in which all women are united in a struggle against the evils of a white male patriarchal system, when the truth is that white women have often used this system to their benefit to abuse black men and women. Slavery was not a white male institution. Colonialism was not a white male institution. White women stood alongside white men during slavery, during colonialism and during segregation. In England, white women posted signs on their doors saying “No coloureds, No Irish, No dogs”. More white women who voted, voted for Trump than Clinton – yes, at least half of white women voters were more committed to upholding a white supremacist narrative than a seemingly feminist one.
But white women are always innocent.
A younger friend of mine recently told me of situation in which she was called defensive and aggressive by a supervisor who has been bullying her at work. She didn’t have to tell me what happened. “Let me guess”, I said, “She called you aggressive and said you were intimidating”. More than several black women have had the experience in the work place of being constantly goaded by passive aggressive white women who employ racial micro-agressions and bullying as a form of emotional abuse, and then, when the black woman finally gets angry she is told that she is being ‘hostile’. Because inherent in white womanhoods propaganda of innocence is the idea that black women are the antithesis of it. Even when we are the victims, we are the aggressors. Our inherent masculinity in the white imagination positions us as the constant perpetrators. Even during slavery when white men were raping black women in droves, black women were accused tempting white men away from their wives. Even rape was not enough to make us victims.
The propaganda has been so successful that even in the black community we associate white femininity or proximity to it, as innocence.
The idea that white men are the ‘enemy’ but that white woman are desirable, innocent, even potential ‘allies’ to black men in their struggle against ‘the man’ often plays out in the ease with which black men partner with white women but historically have recoiled at the idea of black women doing the same with white men.
But white women have always known that the combination of their presumed innocence and black men’s presumed sexual deviancy could be used as a weapon against black men and women. Littered throughout history are the bodies of black men who have been lynched both literally and figuratively by white women who have accused them of being abusive, often sexually. (It goes without saying that not every accusation of rape by a white women against a black man is or was false). Alongside them are the black women who have had to mourn the loss of sons, brothers, fathers, friends not only through death but undeserved prison time.
The rape of black women during slavery is well documented, but less well known are the stories of black male slaves who were coerced into sexual acts by their white female masters. Rape isn’t always about physical strength but it is always about power. Despite white women’s protestations that they are victims of misogyny, it is completely ludicrous to ignore the fact that not only have they historically occupied a position of privilege and power in comparison to black men as well as black women, but that they have used white men’s misogyny as a form of deflection from their own complicity in racial violence. Just as black men can endure racism at the hands of a racist society and still practice misogyny in their own communities, white women have proven time and time again that their supposed innocence is simply a facade when it comes to their racism.
As adamant as I am that the idea of white womanhood being inherently innocent is mythological I am just as adamant that black women are equally if not more so deserving of being typecast as innocent. While white women wielded their presumed innocence against us, black women often fed, defended, even nursed the children of these white women at their breast. Black women, despite the constant assaults on their womanhood and families, offered and continue to offer themselves as allies in feminist movements that refused to centre them or even peripherally serve them. The role of the mammy, the big black woman forever coddling and nurturing white children while themselves being asexual, undesirable and nothing more but a facilitator of white happiness continues into adulthood – from the sage black woman being a sidechick to white women in a popular film, to black women being asked to lay aside their specific concerns because ‘we’re all women’.
Black women in America, and likely in England also are some of the most faithful church goers. It is no surprise then, that we have been taught to presume that turning the other cheek means turning a blind eye. We sit under the watchful gaze of white Madonnas, benevolent and infantile, a fitting symbol of the propaganda of white womanhood if there was any. Mary, an unwed teenage Palestinian mother of an ethnic minority child, made a pariah by her community who are themselves colonised and governed by the Romans – is ironically almost always falsely portrayed as an innocent white woman.
No human or group of humans can claim inherent innocence. But if there’s any group I had to choose, it wouldn’t be white women.