There’s a long history of white women harassing Black people and getting cops to arrest them. The only danger they feel is of losing their place within the white patriarchy.
There’s a scene in the film The Color Purple—based on Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer-winning novel set in 1930s-era rural Georgia—that has been coming to mind far too often lately with all the BBQ Beckys and Permit Pattys having their moment. In it, the town mayor’s wife Miss Millie, a white woman, walks up to Sofia, a Black woman who is out enjoying life with her children while her husband is pumping gas. Miss Millie, in a moment of peak caucasity, walks up to these Black children, squeezes their faces and kisses them, and compliments Sofia on how clean they are. Then she asks if Sofia would like to become her maid.
Sofia, a free, feisty robust Black woman known for not taking any mess from anyone, responds with her signature, “Hell nawwwww.”
The mayor comes over and slaps the shit out of Sofia, who defends herself, nearly knocking him into the afterlife. But the sheriff cracks her in the head with the butt of his pistol and she falls to the ground unconscious. She is imprisoned, then released to work as Miss Millie’s maid.
I think of Miss Millie every time I hear another story about one of these white women who has been accosting or calling cops on Black people for simply living and breathing, whether it’s mowing lawns, or selling candy, or families having barbecues, or an Ivy League student napping in the library. These Permit Pattys are living archetypes of white females lording their privilege over Black people.
I’m talking about the white woman who called the police on a Black Oregon state representative while she was out campaigning. And, in Memphis, the white woman who called the police on a Black man wearing socks at a pool (she was recently fired). In another pool incident, a White man called the cops on a Black woman just because she had the nerve to be there. Side note: What IS it with white folks and swimming pools anyway?
A white woman in Maple Heights, Ohio, called police on a 12-year-old Black boy who was mowing the lawn, and in another part of Ohio, a white woman called the police on a 12-year-old Black boy for looking “suspicious” while doing his paper route. #PermitBetty lost her job after calling the cops on Mexican street vendors in San Francisco. A white female barista in Philadelphia called the cops on a Black male Realtor who was waiting for clients in a Starbucks. Another white woman called the police on a Yale student taking a nap in the lobby of her dorm.
How about the white woman who called police on a Black man for listening to a yoga CD in his car? Or ol’ #NewportNancy, who called in the law to report a Black woman who was smoking a cigarette in a parking lot? Or the CVS employee who called the cops on a Black woman over a fraudulent coupon?
That’s an overwhelming list, right? And these are just the ones we know about.
Yes, there are white men who’ve earned their viral hashtags through racist police calls, but know that the majority is coming from white women. Public acts of white-on-Black racism appear bolder and more numerous in the Trump era, but it’s important to remember that they’re not new. And to fully understand them, we must examine the historical dynamics that have always been at play.
Which brings us back to Miss Millie—a literary symbol reminding us that this historical manifestation of the Jim Crow era is alive, well, and ever-powerful today. From the white mayor’s wife touching children who aren’t hers to keeping Sofia, a Black woman who hates her, as her servant after instigating her being beaten half-blind; “allowing” Sofia to go home for just a few precious hours to see her children for Christmas, then sabotaging her visit by crying and having a classic Becky meltdown because there are Black men nearby, forcing Sofia to cut her family visit short—we can see these patterns in recent incidents.
These hashtagged Beckys are contemporary versions of the plantation mistress and Miss Millie from the Jim Crow era. The growing list of white women calling the police today reminds us that they feel entitled to have a say in and control over Black people’s lives, reinforcing their entitlement by calling in the law when they feel offended. While a few police officers are exhibiting a rare common sense by not attacking or arresting the Black victims, they remain the exception to the rule. The risk of danger is ever-present when a white woman takes out her entitled fingers to dial 911.
If white women decide that they feel uncomfortable, upset, or threatened—again, without any cause or provocation—they know they can always call in the white patriarchal soldiers to back up their racist suspicions. They make those calls with the expectation that they will be believed and the Black person will be “put back in his or her place.”
We’ve seen a lot of think pieces about the “angry white man” in the era of Trump. But what do these stories tells us about white women’s state of mind?
As African-American author Morgan Jerkins writes in his Rolling Stone essay, “Why White Women Keep Calling the Cops on Black People”: “If we are ever going to meaningfully address racial injustice in this country, we must unpack the power of this fear and understand how it is inextricably linked to discrimination, police brutality and other forms of racial terrorism.”
Not only do we need to unpack and understand white women’s historical “fear,” we must examine the under-recognized, feminized work that white women do as mothers, teachers, property owners, and gentrifiers to shape and support racial order in public spaces and how they continue the ongoing work of perpetuating segregation and white supremacy.
A lot of folks keep arguing that fear and suspicion is behind these women’s need to call the cops on Black folks. And yes, they are feeling increased white extinction anxiety. In ethno-nationalist societies, white women’s ability to gauge threats is heightened. Increased racism heightens the power of white women through sexism.
As Tommy J. Curry, author of The Man-Not explains: “Historically, white women have acted as the triggers of white male patriarchal violence. They establish the racial proxemics within societies. For centuries, the alleged hyper-vulnerability white women have had to racialized men and their discomfort around raced bodies has served as the justification for segregation and apartheid in colonized spaces the world over.”
Curry also asserts that the discrimination white women face limits their individual aspirations and controls their bodies in exchange for the safety from and superiority to racialized groups. This gives white women an extraordinary managerial power over Black lives.
But because white women today are also in this place where they don’t feel privileged because of a combination of sexism and general economic crap affecting all but the one percent, they flex what power they do have in weird ways, so they’re less inclined to imagine themselves as oppressors. Their sense of trumped-up fear and vulnerability against people of color, especially Black people, has been historically validated—rarely if ever challenged or questioned—and so if and when they call the police or the mobs to exact violence, they know they will rush to their defense.
In times of national distress, white women need Black people, especially Black women. They are longing for someone to take care of them and they resent that they can’t command that any more. These police calls are tied up with them missing their sense of power. They want us to clean for them. To be their magical Negroes sacrificing ourselves on their behalf. They are insulted by our sense of joy, our freedom of movement, and ownership over our own bodies, our lives and our children. I think it’s a “why am I not in/controlling/allowed/considered in this equation” when they see Black joy and freedom. This is about repression, projection, the sublime pleasure of anti-Black racism, and a return to the Jim Crow era.
There are also other factors at play.
Across the country, white women are dying at higher rates from excessive drinking, drug overdoses, and suicide. Add to that the fact that white women are having fewer babies and they are on course to be surpassed by people of color. The assault on abortion rights has become more aggressive than ever—we’re looking at the “when” not “if” Roe v. Wade getting overturned—because white men are anxious about their biological representation in a majority-minority future.
But white women, who are being fucked over by white men’s misogyny legislatively and otherwise, are most comfortable displacing their rage and disappointment onto Black people. They are anxious and don’t feel confident handling everyday encounters with people of color, and because they misinterpret situations due to internalized racism. Most white women don’t have non-white friends. Even if they teach Black children, or adopt Black children, they rarely face challenges to their sense of entitlement, of privilege, of superiority, and of vulnerability in the face of non-white people. That creates all kinds of issues in terms of internalized racism because there are no checks on the white-supremacist socialization that grooms them to behave in these ways.
“History, as well as the voting patterns of white women, show that white women will endure the antipathy of misogyny for the benevolence of patriarchy,” Curry argues. “Their position as white women, vulnerable, fragile, and in need of protection places them above and distanced from the violence and death that defines the conditions of Blacks, Muslims, and immigrants in this country. It’s an easy choice white women have made over and over again.”
Those who feel pressure or oppression deflect their rage onto those over whom they feel superior. White women have actively participated in the subjugation and segregation of Black people in the United States for over a century. In the 19th century, white suffragettes sought to disenfranchise Black men and exclude Black women from the ballot, in the early 20th century white women started KKK organizations, in the mid-20th century white women created national organizations around the preservation of segregation contrary to the federal mandate in Brown v. Board of Education, and in the 21st century a majority of white women chose the racist ethno-nationalism of Trump over democracy.
Consider the segregation even today, in 2018, of U.S. public schools in cities across this country. White women also practice voluntary segregation, moving to homogeneous neighborhoods because of better schools, and fail to make efforts to integrate their children with friends of different races. White women, the most influential force in parenting, are resisting measures to integrate them, especially in New York City where wealthy whites have been resisting plans to diversify neighborhood schools.
There is a long history of this. It is through white patriarchy, the one power white women could exercise freely was by having control over the spaces where Black bodies existed. They had “pretty” power—which was lethal. White women weaponized their tears and femininity to assert their power over Black lives. From Emmett Till to the Scottsboro boys, white women would cry for attention and make false rape claims and white supremacist men were eager to believe it and exact violent retribution for crimes not committed. Today, they continue testing their power over black bodies and manipulating white male hatred and state authority to see if they’ll “defend” them.
White women, while in large part historically politically powerless during slavery (unable to vote and the literal property of their husbands) were nevertheless culturally powerful. White women were tasked and with schooling and Christianizing Black folks, all done from a sense of superiority and know what’s best for Black folks than they could possibly know for themselves. White women, due to white patriarchy, had more daily proximity to Black bodies on the plantation, and after slavery as Black women worked as domestics in their homes.
During slavery, white women set out to “civilize” enslaved Black women whom they forced to nurse their children, cook the family’s food, and act as handmaids for the white children who sometimes technically owned them. White women beat and tortured enslaved Black women and children in an effort to silence discontent and quell resistance. Meanwhile, these enslaved women’s proximity to slave masters made them even more susceptible to rape and other physical abuse. And white women remained silent, normalizing slavery, the breakup of families, brutality and rape in service to white supremacy.
They were also committed segregationists and have kept their allegiance to the racist, misogynistic power structure and have no interest in dismantling the racist structure. During Jim Crow and the civil-rights movement, white women acted as the “constant gardeners” of segregation.
Policing Black bodies in everyday activities was core to their sense of identity as “good” white woman and mothers. Within those roles, white women felt an obligation to oversee and police the color lines where public and private life intersected. For instance, midwives determined the race of the babies whose births they had assisted. White schoolteachers removed students who they thought might be mixed-race from their classrooms.
As the movement against racial segregation grew, white women worked around their lack of political muscle by resisting through verbal attacks on Black people, calling to harass employers who were pro-integration, teaching their children to bully Black people, and even lying about being threatened or attacked, as Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted in the iconic murder of Emmett Till.
The white women’s cries of “rape” that often ended in a lynching was one way to leverage the attention from and power of white men. White women enjoyed and benefited from the “intimacy” of slavery, and Jim Crow interactions with Black people. This gave them power. They no longer have access to that kind of unfettered power.
These hashtagged racists are suffering from a profound neurosis. Their irrational thoughts result in irrational action. But we can’t just write this off as fear. These white women are not only completely aware of the heritage they are upholding—they remain as committed as ever to wielding any power at their disposal to maintaining a white-supremacist status quo.
Miss Millie is alive and well and oh so very real in 2018 America! And she is a continuing threat to every Black person in her environment. Her dwindling sense of power is sending her into overdrive, trying desperately to regain her sense of power and superiority by flexing her ability to summon the authorities on a whim. Each of these women is making these calls not because they feel legitimately threatened, but because they need to bolster their deflating identities as “mistresses of the universe,” fully aware of the very real dangers to the Black people involved at the hand of the police.