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18 Aug 2017 00:01
Not in our name: The Charlottesville violence has highlighted the need for white people to act decisively. (Photo: Justin Ide/Reuters)
The world is reeling from the events that took place in Charlottesville in the United States this past weekend. Violence at the Unite the Right rally, where marchers used Nazi slogans and the Sieg Heil salute, left three people dead, one the victim of a white supremacist, who drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
American politicians have publicly condemned (by ineffectual handwringing) the violence, using words like “repugnant”.
It wasn’t long before the colour-blind cavalry of “good white people” showed up. With Lady Gaga in tow, most of them women, they heralded their arrival with calls for tolerance and love.
There have been many damp-squib takes on the events in Charlottesville and the US at large, but none more maddening than “good white people” exclaiming, “This is not America”, symbolised by the hashtag #ThisIsNotUs.
#ThisIsNotUs has since become the source of legitimate anger and pain. On Twitter and Facebook, it was quickly taken over by people of colour calling out the issues they have with the idea that white supremacist terrorism is unAmerican and thus “not us”. The hashtag allowed these “well-meaning” souls to be a “good white person”, condemning but not admitting to their privilege, or making sacrifices.
The white supremacists in Charlottesville were angry about more than the removal of an antebellum statue. They are nostalgic for a long-gone US, in which white, male, Christian men’s lives are the only ones that matter.
Historically, white women have been complicit in and benefited from white supremacy, even in popular culture, from the film Birth of a Nation (1915) to Get Out (2016).
Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who, in 1955, accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of whistling at her, lied. Her falsehood led to Till being kidnapped, mutilated, fatally shot and his body discarded in a river. Vanity Fair recounted her story, describing her not as a liar but as an “attractive mother”.
In 1995, Susan Smith said a black man had hijacked her car with her sons in it. It later emerged Smith had drowned her sons because her lover didn’t want to be burdened with children. She drowned them by letting her car roll into a lake, while they sat strapped into their car seats.
Protecting the supposed purity and sanctity of white women led many black boys and men to their deaths around the world, from the US to the colonies.
The idea that black people are inherently mindless beasts committed to defiling white women fuelled lynching in the Jim Crow South, according to Lisa Lindquist-Dorr, a history professor at the University of Alabama. In her book, White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960, Lindquist-Dorr writes: “The myth insisted that black men were driven to assault white women, and that, as a deterrent, ‘black beast rapists’ should pay with their lives.”
White women weren’t just the justification but often champions of racial violence too. The suffragette movement is an example of how white women have prioritised racial solidarity.
Many suffragettes, including Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt, advocated lynching and promoted voting rights as a way to strengthen white supremacy.
In November last year, white women came out in their numbers to vote for Trump, despite his well-documented history as a bigot.
It’s time for white women to say emphatically: “Not in my name!”
Not every white person is a white supremacist, but white supremacy benefits all white people, even those who don’t force black people into coffins or threaten to shoot them for talking back. That’s why it survives. To pretend otherwise is to be complicit in the systemic subjugation of black and brown people.
White guilt is only useful in so far as it’s enlivening.
We don’t need more “good white people”. We need more people who act decisively, more people who disassociate themselves from racist peers and family members. We need more allies who are not colour-blind. We need people willing to introspect and self-evaluate the ways in which they support toxic masculinity in their partners and friends, or silence members of marginalised groups — even when we don’t mean to, even when they mean well.
If this is too much to ask and your first instinct is to cuss me out or say, ‘But it wasn’t me!” maybe you ought to get a tiki torch and be honest.
Kiri Rupiah is the Mail & Guardian’s online editor. Read more from Kiri Rupiah
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