The preservation of White women's purity is a core myth of American White supremacy. In order to debunk it, we need more White feminists to be in deep solidarity. And act on it.
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I moved to South Carolina from Massachusetts when I was 16. My family had decided, after financial troubles, to start over again in someplace new, someplace with nicer weather. We had no family ties to the South, no friends down there. It was a clean slate.
My family wound up in Hilton Head, an island town comprising a strange combination of the South and of people like my parents, who fled northern cold for a place where they could golf year-round. Many of Hilton Head’s gated communities where most of its residents live, built around golf courses, bear the name “plantation.” I remember being surprised by the way Civil War history was taught in my public high school, by the fact we were given a list of reasons other than “slavery” for South Carolina’s secession. But I was also surprised to, in my own way, fall in love with the South. It was a reluctant love, one I didn’t admit at first—one that I often feel more now that I live in New York, than I did when I lived in South Carolina full-time.
I still have friends scattered across South Carolina, including those living in Charleston, who have been posting updates on Facebook about the marches and rallies they’ve attended this past week, links to fund-raisers for “Mother Emanuel,” the church where a young White man espousing White-supremacist beliefs shot dead nine people. Cynthia Hurd, 54; Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Susie Jackson, 87; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; and Myra Thompson, 59 were killed in a prayer meeting to which they had welcomed the armed White young man without question.
“Charleston is full of love and unity and everyone has had their hearts broken over this,” Jeanne Cafaro, a fellow former Hilton Head resident, told me. Cafaro now lives in Charleston and owns a food truck, where she was accepting donations for the church. On the streets there, she says, they refuse to sensationalize the killer and choose instead to remember the victims and their work. “We only speak of the wounded and the injustice. Many are calling to action.”
Heather Parsons, who grew up in Columbia, the state capital, and now lives in California, happened to be visiting her family when the shooting happened and joined the rally calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag that flies on the capitol grounds. “The people who attended the action and support the removal of the flag realize that this situation is much bigger than just the removal of the flag. Way more progress needs to happen in South Carolina within the government, communities, education systems, to make sure this won’t happen again,” she says.
The Confederate flag, along with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group descended from the old White Citizens’ Councils formed in opposition to public school integration, has emerged as a focal point in the aftermath of the terror attack. And indeed there is so much about this story that feels so specific. Perhaps it’s simply because I’ve walked those streets—canvassed them, in fact, in 2008 for Barack Obama in the South Carolina primary. So much of it, though, is very South Carolina. Parsons tells me that one of the speakers at the “Take Down the Flag” rally pointed out that the only named African-American memorialized on the grounds of the capitol is Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter that segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond did not publicly acknowledge in life. Thurmond, it should be remembered, remained in office representing the state of South Carolina until 2002. He was replaced by current presidential candidate Lindsey Graham.
And yet. The story of confessed shooter Dylann Roof is more than just a Southern story. In addition to the Confederate flag, photographs show Roof wearing the Rhodesian flag and the flag of apartheid South Africa. His White supremacist beliefs were not, despite the commentary of his friend being passed around, just “Southern pride.” Nor are they limited to the South. And while that particular Southern history feels important and necessary to know right now, the hyper-focus on it also feels like a deflection, a way to ensure we are not implicated. The story of the Charleston shooting is an American story, one that we all recognize.
To really change the way that story ends, we have to confront the ways in which we are implicated. We must stand up and declare which side we’re on, not simply by pointing out that the group that influenced Roof donated to Republicans, but by figuring out ways to dismantle the broader structures of racism—the same structures that killed Rekia Boyd in Chicago and Eric Garner in Staten Island and Renisha McBride in Detroit and John Crawford in an Ohio Walmart, the same system that threw Dajerria Becton to the ground and pinned her there for being at a pool party in McKinney, Texas.
In the wake of the Charleston shooting, I have seen many calls for White women to examine the particular myth that Roof espoused during his attack. “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go.”
The protection of White women’s purity is a core myth of American White supremacy, or perhaps what we should call White supremacist patriarchy. White women’s purity is a commodity to be preserved at all costs, bolstered by violence and by the domestic labor of Black and Brown women. The purported sexual advances of Black men toward White women were used to justify lynchings, beatings, and executions. Segregation—not just in the South—was deemed necessary to keep Black men away from White women. In the wake of the McKinney incident, historian Jeff Wiltse wrote, “In northern cities such as Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh, gender integration brought about racial segregation. Public officials and White swimmers now objected to the presence of Black Americans because they did not want Black men interacting with White women at such visually and physically intimate spaces.”
Feminists fought against being kept out of the workplace, battled the inequality of power that women faced compared to men, but we still have work to do when it comes to dismantling this idea of White female purity. We have accepted in too many ways the benefits that some women get from this myth, and mistaken them for power. We can hear the echo of this myth not only in the words of the Charleston shooter, but in the repeated cries for more police, stricter laws, demands which ignore the way our criminal legal system punishes some and lets others off entirely. We can hear its echo in the fears around sex trafficking that ignore the labor trafficking of the domestic workers who make many women’s high-powered careers possible.
In perhaps an absurd example, take the recent arrests of two Latino men for “manspreading” on the New York City subway. “Manspreading” became a popular meme as women recognized with a laugh the way many men would take up a lot of space on the subway, sitting with their legs spread. We cheered when new subway posters warned against this behavior. But with NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton’s unflagging devotion to “quality of life” policing and arrests for infractions so low-level as to be laughable, what we used to think of as a demonstration of male privilege became yet another way to criminalize men of color.
While we are told that White women need protection, other women are criminalized for protecting themselves. CeCe McDonald, a Black transgender woman from Minneapolis who stabbed a White supremacist attacking her, did 19 months in a men’s prison for defending herself. Marissa Alexander, a Florida mother who fired a warning shot at her abusive husband, faced a possible 60-year sentence before cutting a deal for the three years she’d already served plus two more with a house arrest ankle collar.
We should acknowledge, too, that all of this concern for White women’s safety has not made us safe. The police and the courts routinely fail to protect victims of violence, and renewed activism on college campuses has reminded us that even bastions of class privilege like the Ivy Leagues are not free of sexual assaults. The story of Tamara Seidle, shot by her police-officer ex in front of their daughter and several police officers, should remind us of that. The officers reportedly hugged and comforted the shooter as they arrested him.
Instead of fear and demand for more punishment, more criminalization, in this moment what we need is what organizer Nelini Stamp called to me “deep solidarity.” We need to go beyond quick point-scoring and zero-sum politics and reckon with the hard questions. We need to show up for each other, to act collectively to end White supremacy—not just the words, but the structures. The people of South Carolina are in motion. There are things that you can do at home, too. We need to do it not so that we can feel good about ourselves, but because we have seen what the alternative looks like, and it is not an option we are willing to accept.
Image via Instagram user @BJbrittjones.
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