White Women And Witnessing Racism

By Kelsie Jones

In the last few weeks, social media platforms and popular news outlets have been featuring stories of mass sympathy for white women who were involved in situations of racism. The trend seems to have started with a Tennessee teen whose parents disowned her for dating a Black peer. As a queer person, I often witness the damage of parents disowning their children over one’s choice in partner. While anyone facing disownment needs support, the popular repose to this incident and situations like it are harmful in a myriad of ways. Via social media, people responded with an outpouring of sympathy and support for the white teen, including thousands of dollars to support her college education. The willingness of people to support the white teen is telling of the toxic way in which white people tend to only empathize with and act against racism when a white person is harmed. The election of President Trump has revealed that white Americans, including 53% of white women, are still indifferent too if not actively invested in racism and white supremacy. White women opposed to Trump’s election have called for solidarity between women, some of whom are pushing back against Trump’s racist policies.

Yet the differentiation between Trump and anti-Trump white women is often unhelpful, especially when one considers the ways in which liberal white women contribute to and benefit from racism. For instance, in the situation of this Tennessee teen the internet and all its white inhabitants were conspicuously more sympathetic to a white woman who was hurt over racism than the actual Black person involved. The young white woman was not disowned for who she is, she was disowned by association with her Black partner. Further, where was this support after the racist incidents this young man has likely encountered in his life time? Where was the college fund for him, especially considering the structural barriers young Black men often face in pursing higher education (when I was at UCLA Black male students made up a 1.9% of the student population.) The support for this young woman is another painful example of white people only having compassion for harm done to other white people, while continuing to ignore the reality of racism for folks of color. There are white women attacking people of color under the thin veil of “Make America Great Again,” and there are those who use their association with people of color to excuse them from responsibility for the aforementioned white women.

This is only one instance of many in which white people support other white people, particularly white women, through their run-ins with racism. Earlier this month, a news headline included a story about a Black woman being forced to the back of an American Airlines plane, despite having a first-class ticket and a prestigious membership with the airline. The incident was disturbingly similar to Black people being forced to the back of public transportation under Jim Crow Laws. (And in case you didn’t already know, it's similar to Trump being sued by the U.S. Government for blatantly denying Black folks housing in the properties he owns.) When the Black woman tried to question the airline staff as to why she was being forced to the back of the plane, they blatantly ignored her. A friend who was flying with her, a white woman who has no membership with the airline, was treated with respect, had her questions answered, and was given her first-class seat at the front of the plane. The white woman tweeted, “It's actually amazing how much racism I've experienced on @AmericanAir this morning for sitting with a friend. Like genuinely amazing.”

The white woman’s tweet is emblematic of the issue at hand. The white woman wrongly states the racism “I’ve” experienced for her association with a Black woman. The white woman’s disbelief shows her unfamiliarity with actually experiencing racism, and she fails to recognize that her Black friend was the target of the racism. Moreover, if you are a white person who actually has friends of color, you should be able to attest to the fact that your presence can exacerbate their racist mistreatment. White people often punish people of color who dare to associate with white people and whiteness. For example, the white teen’s relationship with the Black teen subjected him to a specific situation of racism that he otherwise may not have experienced.

Following the Trump’s administration rise to power, incidents of subtle to violent racism are on the rise. For the first time in decades, the number of white supremacy groups is rapidly growing. It is imperative that white people testify to and push back against racism, rather than choose silence and avoid the discomfort of acknowledging white privilege. The outpouring of sympathy and support for white woman present in these types of racist attacks excuses white women from their role in the attack. The massive internet support masks how white women inherently perpetuate and benefit from white supremacy. Further, it re-imagines the victim of the racist mistreatment as the white woman, and only through that lens recognizes the suffering caused by racism. Meaningful solidarity requires thoughtful action and ownership of difference. White women bearing witness to racism will only be productive if it recognizes complicity in white supremacy, pushes back on white woman victimhood, and empowers the narratives of people of color.