The Violence We Allow — White Women, Emanuel A.M.E. Church, and the premier of When They See Us
Four years ago, a white man went into a prayer service at Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and as he took the lives of nine African American people, he voiced, “You rape our women,” as his justification.
This happened three weeks into a nine-week advocacy class I was leading at a rape crisis center. A training facilitated within an advocacy framework that hears that dog whistle and its historical legacy of indicting white women in racial violence arcs.
Three weeks earlier I had been re-assaulted, and as news of this massacre reached me, I knew it warranted a response.
Any ethical advocacy for survivors of sexual violence has the choice point to confront the use of white victim narratives to marginalize not only survivors of color, but other forms of meditated violence.
As a white advocate, and a white survivor, the accountability to this form of cultural violence is twofold, because it is perpetuated in our own healing, but also our motivation and established networks for advocacy.
As a white advocate working in a gentrifying city, against the backdrop of nonprofits accelerating the white washing of advocacy and the marginalization of community led resources, I felt this pressure explicitly.
I felt myself silence any disclosure that I may have personally needed to make because of how my experiences might become weaponized and used to reinforce rampant myths about whose pain counts, and whose violent actions gets softened by less honest reflection on how unacknowledged implicit bias shapes our public discourse, and even our internalized mirroring of those conversations.
I felt the choice point, and I knew that my response would be internalized and noticed, either as insufficient, or as timely, or maybe as polarizing and undesired by other white advocates and survivors.
I had been introduced to a book written by Stanford Professor Estelle B. Freedman entitled Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation.
The first line is five words,
“Rape is a word in flux.”
And with them, she opens up an examination of the choices that advocacy has made to allow how we define rape and its root causes to be distorted by racism, citizenship, fear of the other and racialized violence, and specifically, the privileging of white women as the targets of sexual violence.
It is a myth that rape has a naturalized definition. It is a political word before it is neutral.
It is a myth that we agree on how to define and recognize sexual violence, how to prevent sexual violence, how to respond when survivors share their experiences, or how to address their epidemic experiences and increasing visibility.
Our desire to move the needle forward leads us to be centrists, which means centering whiteness.
The effort to distance both white men and white women as actors of violence is explicit and gradual.
Obscured is that a defining characteristic of what privileges white men is their unilateral access to bodily and sexual autonomy. Obscured too is their ability to shape how we describe their misuse of power.
What allows this narrative to be set in motion is the violent experiences of white survivors that name specifically black men as the primary culprits and abusers.
Stories like the recanting of Emmett Till’s accuser that did nothing to save him from a violent death.
There is an exorbitant amount of history for why this framing found traction, and why it is largely untrue. Not insignificantly, the reality that the majority of sexual violence occurs in familiar, trusting and intraracial settings and relationships. That history of distorting information and framing experiences strategically is true presently as it was historically, and political zealots continue to reinforce that underpinning as dog whistles.
Like the one a white man said as he committed a mass murder in a house of worship. Like the sentiment that could be true in Pittsburgh, New Zealand, Charleston, an endless and continuing list.
Like the one that makes us forget that detail — the stated motivation for an attack — when we remember the murders of The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, The Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor, The Rev. Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson.
The one that points to both a state of mind, a level of consciousness, and a belief system shared by a number of others who would be enlisted in humanizing the killer posthumously.
Like the one enlisted in the most recent State of the Union, as here again a foreshadowing occurred around the battleground of representation for survivors and perpetrators of violence.
Like the one we saw in the 2016 Presidential campaigns, and the hardness we maintain for seeing white men as capable of being held accountable for violence they engage in.
Election statistics show that white women consistently vote in support of white men, and against survivors of sexual violence, as well as are among the least likely to publicly associate with those beliefs.
The careful coaching that we have received to trust white men’s motives, and to distrust ourselves or our own experiences of violence leads us to engage in frequent harm to ourselves and others.
In particular those whose representation is distorted to advance our own.
This was highlighted for me the first time I took the Harvard Implicit Bias Test. In my results, my most negative biases were directed at white women, then women of color, then men of color, and finally white men.
The learned internalization was clear — your image is one that is not safe to affirm, and that is used unconsciously to inform my decision making in a myriad of ways.
How do we react to images of ourselves and their uses?
How do we shield ourselves from being viewed as abusers of power?
What role do we have in calling out our privileged status and its distortion of our experiences, our needs, our actions and our self-work as survivors?
Whether violence is passive or conscious, they both yield the same effect. When we can’t look back, we delay the naming of harm as avoidable, we give passes that don’t resolve or prevent anything. We get to keep seeing ourselves as we’ve been groomed to — as flat, as docile, as well intentioned, as the reason violence can be presented as righteous and warranted — excusing the legacy we keep rebirthing because it benefits us with the same hand that it harms us.
The proxy power is tempting when you’re in a season of benevolence from a provider. When the microphone is offered to you. When you’re feeling seen and heard. When you’ve waited for a platform and you have it finally. When a little justice for the wrong reason feels like the practical consolation for transformation of hearts and minds.
Where the uncoupling of how we’ve participated in our own violence, and helped to marginalize other survivors is an impact we’re made more conscious of, grief is inevitable. And appropriately, calls to be held accountable.
We have with the premier of When They See Us produced by Ava DuVernay an opportunity to contend with a depiction of our capacity for violence that is not told for our benefit or approval or perspective. We have a sobering accounting of concrete actions taken that falsely villainized five black teenagers.
We have an account that asks us to let go of what is false so that we can deal with what is real.
We have the choice point of four years ago, more urgent, still redundant, and waiting for us to form a new precedent rooted in actions of accountability and self-knowledge.
May we see the opportunity and seize it, stripping away the deception that keeps us all unsafe.