On a recent field trip with my 8-year-old daughter to the Virginia State Capitol, I felt such joy watching her walk in the rain holding hands with her friends. As we visited the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial on the grounds and read about plans for the Women’s Monument, I felt hopeful.
But what about inside? All of the statues and tour narrative were about influential, elite white men. I couldn’t help but consider the metaphor in the midst of my frustration—want to learn about people of color and women during the last 400 years? Please step outside.
As I sat next to the giant bronze sculpture of Robert E. Lee in the Old Hall, standing in the spot where he accepted command of the Confederate forces, I kept waiting to hear something about Virginia’s African-American delegates after the Civil War.
It never happened. I did find a pamphlet in the hall which I shared with everyone within my reach. I felt the way I did after my first few African-American History and Literature classes in college—like I had been robbed.
A whitewashed education damages all of us by preventing access to amazing accomplishments under the worst of circumstances. How can we deconstruct race when false images of whiteness and blackness, selective memories and constricted narratives continue to be accepted?
Raising children in a racist society requires acknowledging painful truths about how we got here and how it is sustained. Black people continue to experience the horrific, daily impacts of systemic racism (birthed under slavery and reinforced by Jim Crow segregation); white people continue to enjoy varying degrees of privilege from the same system.
As a mother, I feel it’s my duty to teach my children that we do not live in a colorblind, post-racial society. It makes for a great meme, but here in the real world you will have to choose a side and commit to do something about it. In the wise words of Desmond Tutu,
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
You can either stand with the elephant or you can stand with the mouse—but you can’t do both.
I began to think about role models I could offer my daughter for white women who always stood up, no matter the consequences. In 1965, Viola Gregg Liuzzo was shot in the back of the head by Klansmen for her participation in Selma. The 39-year-old white mother became a Civil Rights martyr for a radical, irreverent, empathetic act—she chose to surrender her white privilege and take a courageous stand against systemic racism.
What message should her life send to white women in 2015 who continue to insist we are committed to real, anti racist activism as authentic allies of women of color? How do we pass that along to the next generation?
I’m not attempting to make sheroic white women the centered martyrs or “saviors” for anti-racism in America. Viola Liuzzo wasn’t the first and will not be the last; yet how often do we hear anything about white women on the front lines fighting against racial injustice? Where is our modern-day Eleanor Roosevelt?
Historically, white women have benefited from keeping a foot in each camp—the oppressed by gender and the oppressor by race. Black women don’t have that luxury. I want my daughter to understand that because of white privilege, her understanding of history must be critical and expansive. I have to admit, at one point I lost patience with the power plus privilege equals racist definition. My boss is black; the superintendent of my school system is black; my President is black and so is my Pastor. That doesn’t change the fact I can drive my crappy 2005 Nissan Altima into any wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood in the country and no one is going to bat an eye that I am there.
Back to history–let’s start with the invention of white women . . .
In 1662, the divide and conquer strategy of white gentry class Englishmen became focused on motherhood. Two laws were passed in Virginia that dealt exclusively with the illegitimate children of female indentured servants and slaves. One would sever the relationship between black and white mothers–“Negro women’s children to serve according to the condition of the mother.”
Black and other white women who had once worked together side by side in the fields, served as wet nurses for elite English women’s children, and endured being raped by masters were now pitted against each other in profound new ways. If you want to truly understand the intersection between race, class and gender, study early American law.
In 1691, Virginia passed a law to insure other white women (and men) would be adopted into the elite white privilege club as an incentive not to bond with their brothers and sisters of African descent. The first anti-miscegenation law was designed to prevent “negroes, mulattos and Indians” from intermarrying “with English, or other white women.” Failure to abide by the restrictions would result in “banishment.”
These other white women were not part of the elite class. Female Irish, German, Scottish and English indentured servants were granted membership in the newly invented sisterhood of whiteness with a few conditions—sell your soul by abandoning women of color and surrendering control of your uterus.
Yes, those “other white women” were created by law. As Theodore Allen pointed out,
During my own study of page after page of Virginia county records, reel after reel of microfilm prepared by the Virginia Colonial Records Project, and other seventeenth-century sources, I have found no instance of the official use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status before its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691, referring to “English or other white women.
Imagine our President, Barack Obama, being born prior to 1691. He would have been free according to the condition of his “other” white mother of Irish descent. If he was born in 1692, they would have been banished.
Systemic racism has always been about money and power; it was intentionally constructed upon skin color. So how does it persist in 2015 when the leader of the United States is a black man with both power and money? Because laws are not enough to change deeply ingrained thoughts and feelings that were strategically planted hundreds of years ago.
To many white Americans, consciously or subconsciously, President Obama is still the mulatto child of one of those “other white women” who crossed the boundaries; she had the audacity to raise a prominent man of color in a world that would rather see him banished like it’s 1692.
What can those of us who identify as descendents of the other white women do to stand as true anti-racism allies with our sisters of color? The kind of critical thinking that promotes real change, not lip service, takes time and a commitment to both learn and unlearn:
- Learn to recognize and challenge racially coded language
- Speak up and take a stand against racism
- Have difficult, respectful discussions with black women who don’t have the luxury of picking up and putting down privilege at will. Stop talking and drop the defenses long enough to really listen.
- Take the other out of mother
- Demand an educational system that hasn’t been whitewashed
- Acknowledge and surrender white privilege
- Stop participating in the dominant narrative echo
To my black and white sisters trying to raise a black son in a culture that devalues his existence daily in myriad painful and dangerous ways, I stand with you. I do so respectfully and within the space where I am invited–because though I can empathize, this other white woman knows my reality as a mother is not yours.
It’s time to leave the middle ground sanctuary of neutrality and end almost 400 years of selling out for white privilege. All of our daughters and sons are counting on it.