We cannot talk about the violence that Dylann Roof perpetrated at Emanuel AME last Wednesday night without talking about whiteness, and specifically, about white womanhood and its role in racist violence. We have to talk about those things, because Roof himself did. Per a witness account, we know that he said: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” “Our” women, by whom he meant white women.
There is a centuries-old notion that white men must defend, with lethal violence at times, the sexual purity of white women from allegedly predatory black men. And, as we saw yet again after this shooting, it is not merely a relic of America’s hideous racial past. American racism is always gendered; racism and sexism are mutually dependent, and cannot be unstitched.
As Jessie Daniels writes at Racism Review, white womanhood has been and remains essential to the logic of American white supremacy. In anti-black racism, and particularly in the south, the defense of white womanhood was, in the recent past, used as a justification for the most horrific violence against black people, and particularly black men. Daniels quotes Photography on the Color Line, Shawn Michelle Smith’s book about photographs of public lynchings, in which the 1935 lynching of a black Fort Lauderdale man named Rubin Stacy is described. Stacy, described as “a homeless tenant farmer,” approached the home of a white woman named Marion Jones to ask her for food.
“On seeing Stacy,” Smith writes, “Jones screamed. Stacy was then arrested, and as six deputies were transporting him to a Miami jail, a mob of over one hundred masked men seized and murdered him. Finally, Stacy’s corpse was hung in sight of Jones’ home.” Stacy, Daniels argues, was murdered because he supposedly represented a threat to the sexual purity of a white woman, a perception that also depends on the centuries-old belief that black men are more sexually powerful, and more sexually predatory, than white men. And white men were all too ready to enact that racist violence in the name of protecting Jones’s fragile and immensely valuable white womanhood. “All an individual white woman like Marion Jones had to do to activate the network of white fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins who would come to her ‘defense’ and murder a black man who was asking for help was scream,” Daniels writes.
That lynching happened in 1935. If you have a parent or grandparent who is 80 or older, it happened in his or her lifetime. Daniels notes that contemporary examples of the defense of white womanhood look horribly similar to the murder of Rubin Stacy. She points to the 2013 shooting of Jonathan Ferrell in Charlotte, North Carolina as an example. After crashing his car, Ferrell extricated himself, and knocked on the door of the first house he came upon, to ask for help—as any of us might do in such a situation. “A white woman, thinking it was her husband knocking, answered,” Daniels writes. “When she saw Ferrell she shut the door, hit her alarm and called the police. Ferrell, who was unarmed, was shot ten times by a Charlotte police officer.”
There is an important distinction between white women, a people, and the concept of white womanhood—one that holds that a white woman is the best thing you can be in America after a white man, and that it is the responsibility of white men to protect your virtue at any and all costs. This white supremacist and benevolently sexist ideology depends both on the subjugation of white women by white men, and on the subjugation of all people who are not white—by white people (including white women).
It isn’t just black Americans who are policed by this dual invocation of racism and sexism, and by the holding up of white womanhood as a paragon of purity. When Donald Trump announced his bid for the presidency last week, he dredged up a common fear about immigrants crossing the border from Mexico: “They’re rapists.” To protect the women of America—the white ones, because when we say “women,” we usually, by default, mean “white women”—we must practice this exclusion on the basis of race, Trump implied. This highly selective concern about preventing sexual violence is dependent on the peril of white women; Trump failed to mention that 80 percent of girls and women crossing that border are raped as they make the journey. Those girls and women aren’t white. Gender is always raced, and race is always gendered.
That said, the distinction between women and womanhood should not let individual white women off the hook for how we benefit from and participate in racism. That we are victims of sexism does not erase our culpability in American racism. If anything, the powerlessness we feel as a result of sexism too often urges us to hold on to, and exert over others, what remaining power we have. For white women, that means the power gifted to us by the color of our skin. Few white women resisted lynching in the early 20th century. A gendered and raced pedestal isn’t always comfortable to stand on, but it comes with a lot of perks and not a small amount of power. When contemporary black feminists critique white feminists for failing to recognize, interrogate, and cede their own racial privilege, that complaint is rooted in history. The bonds of sisterhood can be strong, but too often, they have been weakened by some sisters’ willingness to continue benefitting from whiteness (or worse, their stubborn refusal to recognize that they do). While white women are people and white womanhood is an idea, it’s an idea that white women reinforce.
It was, and remains, necessary for white women to decry the violence that is done in our name. It is on us to dismantle racism with just as much commitment as we dismantle sexism, for one cannot happen without the other.
This is also not to say that we should make this horrific event all about white women, or all about white womanhood. It’s not. So often, the defense of white womanhood against black men results in violence against black women, and this time is no different. Six black women were shot dead in Charleston this week because of the centuries-old and still going strong perception that white women are in peril from black men. The reality is that rape, like most violent crime, is more likely to be intraracial than interracial. If we’re genuinely concerned about a sexual threat posed by black men, we should be focusing our energies on the safety of black women. A five-year-old girl is alive because she played dead, and, as Dr. Kali Nicole Gross wrote in Jet last week, “that the girl had the presence of mind to play dead among the bodies of likely family and friends, perhaps more than anything else speaks to the perils of being Black in America and the violence that Black people, especially Black women and girls face daily.” Six black women—Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson—are dead because Roof claimed to want to protect white women. White womanhood might be an abstract idea; the murder of black people is not.
In this raced and gendered hierarchy, black women continue to be the least valuable, the lowest rung on the ladder. As Rebecca Carroll argued last week in The Guardian, those women were shot because the belief that white women must be protected at all costs depends on the belief that black women aren’t truly women, that they’re barely people. That they’re disposable. Racism is always gendered, and gender always raced.
What Roof did on Wednesday was the latest in the long line of acts of violence against black churches; of American mass shootings by white men with guns; of anti-black terrorism designed to make black Americans and their families and friends live in perpetual fear. What was perpetrated at Emanuel AME was all those things.
It was also the latest in an unbearably long line of lethality meted out in the name of white womanhood—in my name, and maybe in yours. In the name of my purity and virtue and perfect femininity. We must not ignore the role of white womanhood in this act of white supremacist violence, or in any other. We must not find a way, yet again, of avoiding talking about whiteness. And until white women decide that we will no longer be used as an excuse for violence, until we decide that we will no longer tacitly condone and benefit from the violence, we will continue to have blood on our pale, “perfect” hands.