I think it goes without saying that this is a difficult week for our country. After the tragic loss of nine lives at the hands of a racist terrorist in South Carolina, I think we are all trying to both make sense of the world and find out how we fit into the national dialogue. The positive side of the story is that Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine African Americans after being welcomed to join them at their Bible study, has been detained and charged with nine counts of murder. It seems that most of the country views this as an indisputable tragedy and has treated it as such. And there’s been a huge movement to remove the Confederate Flag from the state capitol of South Carolina (because for fuck’s sake, it’s literally the least they could do).
These are positive signs of progress that should be kept in mind as we delve into some of the darker issues that need to be addressed in our society. We can’t keep pretending that issues of racism, both personal bigotry and systemic violence, have been erased with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. There are a lot of hard conversations that need to be had as we continue to face the realities of the world around us.
And to my fellow white feminists, it’s time for one of those hard conversations.
You guys remember reading To Kill A Mockingbird in high school? I realize that this may not be a universal experience anymore, as our educational system is hesitant to expose students to anything that may *gasp* inspire controversy or critical thinking. But for those of you who did have the privilege of reading this most excellent piece of literature, I want you to think back to the trial of Tom Robinson – a black man who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman.
After 55 years, I don’t think I need to save any of you from spoilers, but just in case, here is your courtesy spoiler alert.
Tom ends up convicted, despite it being blatantly clear that Bob and Mayella Ewell were lying about the alleged rape. Tom is later shot and killed when he attempts to escape from prison. Despite Atticus making a stellar case for Tom, and despite the evidence pointing to the Ewell’s being two bonafide racist liars, Tom falls victim to a corrupt system; one that has been using white women’s virginal purity as a defense for the slaughter of black men for centuries.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what had Dylann Roof stating “You rape our women” when he shot up the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s lynch logic, plain and simple. It’s the same logic that led to Emmett Till’s death at age 14 after he whistled at a white woman. One fucked up racist with a dumb ass haircut decided that the voice of all white women sounds from the barrel of a gun.
Fuck that noise.
It can be really hard to find where you fit in the dialogue of a national tragedy. There are a lot of feelings stirring, and especially in a racially-motivated crime, tensions are extremely high. You don’t want to silence the voices of the oppressed communities who are being directly affected by this tragedy, but on the other end, to stay silent is to remain complacent. You don’t want to be that asshole who takes a tragedy and makes it all about you. And I’d hope that you’re not of the unbelievably shitty mind that where we are as a society is totally okay.
So what do you, as a white feminist, do? You address the issue that is yours. When Dylann Roof says he committed his act to defend you, you turn right around and tell the world what’s what. No, you don’t speak for me. You don’t get to commit this horrendous act of terror in defense of some mythological modesty you’ve ascribed to my body. You don’t get to fetishize my sexuality by way of Snow White purity in order to validate your reign of terror. You don’t get to steal my autonomy in order to perpetuate a culture that deems me a slut or a virgin as best suits your defenses, but silences my own sexuality.
In essence, you don’t get to drag me into your bullshit.
The myth of the dangerous black man hiding in the alley just waiting to rape white women has been pervasive for years and used as justification for countless violent crimes against black men. Because white women are a commodity to be put on a pedestal and protected at all costs until they are taken into the possession of a white man (or a Republican politician) in order to be objectified and oppressed in the right way. By a proper white man in the suburbs within the union of a heterosexual marriage. Misogyny the way God intended.
By staying silent when terrorists like Dylann Roof (or your run-of-the-mill racist piece of shit) use lynch logic as a defense for terrorizing black communities, what we are saying is that, in some way, we agree. We buy into the bullshit that black men function to steal away white women, assault us and ruin us for life. We’re agreeing that, while it may not be ideal, on some level it’s okay that black men die at the hands of white men because maybe – just maybe – there’s truth to the skewed logic. What we’re agreeing to is that it’s okay to sit at home and think black people are scary rather than to stand up and ask why these fears exist. We’re saying it’s okay for others to live in terror so long as we feel safe from imagined fears.
I know we’re all better than that. If you were tentative about how to join the conversation about the recent tragedy in Charleston, speaking up on this front is a pretty good way to get your voice heard. And if you are one of those girls who was tentative about identifying as a feminist because you don’t want to seem like a man-hating feminazi, well, now would be a pretty fantastic time to re-evaluate your views. And trust me, if we don’t speak up, it’s only a matter of time before Men’s Rights Activists try to appropriate this crime as oppression against the male community. This conversation has been stolen for a lot of causes but, for fuck’s sake, don’t let it go to a bunch of fedora-clad douchebags crying about not being able to make rape jokes.
What happened in Charleston isn’t, at its core, about us. It’s about The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, The Rev. Dr. Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson. It’s about #blacklivesmatters and the continuing struggle for equality in America. It’s about a community trying to grapple with the continuing, senseless, unjust loss of life day in and day out. It’s about trying to find an answer to an incredibly complex question.
But just because it isn’t about us doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for our voice. Listen, help and offer support at every opportunity you can. But don’t forget to let your voice be heard.
When Dylann Roof says “You rape our women,” yell right back: “You don’t speak for us.”
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.