How White Women Can Use Their Privilege to End Racism
What might happen if the Beckys, Karens, and Amys of this world actually used their racial privilege in the interests of social justice?
By now, many have internalized the horrific video that captures the scene of a White Minneapolis police officer crushing the life out of George Floyd. Nearly 10 minutes of footage reveals Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling forcefully against the neck of a shirtless, handcuffed Black man, with his face writhing against the pavement and the victim pleading for his life. “Please, I cannot breathe! Don’t kill me!” Floyd cries out to no avail.
A 46-year-old Houston native who had recently traveled to Minneapolis to work, George Floyd had every reason to live, including caring for his two daughters. Ignoring his humanity, however, Chauvin exerts greater pressure on Floyd’s neck, while the three officers accompanying him provide shield for the 19-year police veteran. “Mama! Mama!” Floyd cries out, seconds before he permanently loses consciousness. Even then, Chauvin refuses to release his grip, determined to showcase his total authority over a defenseless, dying man.
The video also displays the anguish of predominantly Black bystanders, including children. The expanding crowd pleads with the police officers to let up on Floyd. “He enjoying that,” a bystander observes of Chauvin’s demeanor. “It’s the Whites. They like to mess with Black people,” a woman can be heard saying.
The recording also captures a White-appearing woman who has united with the crowd to call for Floyd’s release. As of now, this woman has yet to be identified, but in this situation, she isn’t just your typical “Becky” with a camera.
What might happen if the “Beckys,” “Karens,” and “Amys” of this world actually used their racial privilege in the interests of social justice?
“Check for a pulse. Let me see a pulse!” she insists. She introduces herself as “a first responder,” which means a great deal in the current context, where a disproportionate number of African Americans are dying and suffering from Covid-19. It’s likely that, in recent months, this woman has come face-to-face with the prospect of preventable Black suffering.
It quickly becomes evident that the woman possesses some degree of knowledge about emergency care. “The fact that you guys are not checking his pulse and doing compressions if he needs it… You guys are on another level!” She motions to Officer Tou Thao, who functions in the video as the main shield between Chauvin and the expanding crowd (and who was sued for his excessive use of force in 2017). “I have your name tag, bitch!” the woman reminds the officer, who is Asian. “That’s not very professional,” Thao responds.
The proximity with which this woman approached the officer conveys much about her sense of conviction, but it also calls attention to the privilege that she enjoys as a White woman, who likely understands that she would suffer no real repercussions for taking such a bold stand against the police.
This Minneapolis woman’s efforts mark a stark contrast to the footage coming out of New York City, where, over Memorial Day Weekend, a White woman threatened the life of Black man through actions that could have garnered him the same fate as Floyd some 1,200 miles away.
Juxtaposing these two incidents in Minneapolis, where one White woman used her racial powers of privilege for good, and New York, where another intends to use her powers for ill, one wonders what might happen if the “Beckys,” “Karens,” and “Amys” of this world actually used their racial privilege in the interests of social justice, particularly where Black lives are concerned. Perhaps it is a foreign concept to most, but White people drawing upon their privilege to oppose racism is not entirely unheard of in our nation’s history.
What can genuinely concerned White women do to help end these daily assaults on Black life?
Founded as an interracial organization in 1909, the early history of the NAACP provides a well-known example. Among the NAACP’s numerous co-founders were Mary White Ovington and Fanny Garrison Villard, two White women who were born to abolitionist parents. Lending their leadership to a number of movements, they used their privilege to arouse public indignation around a number of issues that directly impacted African Americans, including legal segregation and various forms of structural racism (such as housing, employment, and voting).
During the 1930s and early 1940s, the 4 million women who worked under the auspices of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) helped bring greater attention to lynching. The organization was comprised solely of middle- and upper-class White women who believed they should play a critical role in helping to impact popular opinion against the diabolical practice. As allegations of rape and sexual assault against White women frequently served as a pretext for mob action against Blacks, they exerted pressure on local law enforcement, the media, churches, and political leaders to stem the practice. The organization’s conservative position on states’ rights led them to oppose a federal anti-lynching bill, exposing some of the group’s limitations as allies. However, along with the ongoing efforts of the NAACP, perhaps ASWPL also contributed to a reduction in lynchings going forward.
During the modern civil rights movement, various White women also joined with Black civil rights activists to challenge racial discrimination. However, Viola Luizzo, a housewife and mother of five, was the only White woman (that we know about) who achieved martyrdom for her actions. Originally from a small town in western Pennsylvania, Luizzo had been a member of the Detroit NAACP. Upon witnessing “Bloody Sunday” on television, in March 1965, she headed south to assist with Black voter registration. While shuttling civil rights workers between Montgomery and Selma, members of the KKK drove alongside them and emptied bullets into the car, leaving an African American teenager wounded and Luizzo dead.
Like, Luizzo, 32-year-old Heather Heyer paid the ultimate price for her anti-racist activism. While marching during counterprotests against Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, Heyer was killed when a neo-Nazi mowed her and dozens more down with a car.
Short of martyrdom, then, what can genuinely concerned White women do to help end these daily assaults on Black life? Well, instead of demanding to see the store manager for trivial reasons, what if “Karen” demanded to the see the store manager because one of their employees has been trailing Black people around the store? What if a latte-toting “Becky” (or “Chad”) stood up to the manager as he attempts to toss Black shoppers out on the pavement? Or maybe it is as simple an army of “Amys” looking up from Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat and penetrating the personal space of a police officer who is squeezing the life out of a Black man for no other reason than being Black.
Tikia K. Hamilton, PhD, is a graduate of Princeton University and a fellow-in-residence at the Newberry Library in Chicago. She also operates Triple Ivy Writing and Educational Solutions, and she is currently working on a book entitled Making a Model System: The Battle for Educational Equality in the Nation’s Capital Before Brown. (A special shout-out to my own “Karen,” Dr. Karen Barzman of Binghamton University, who insisted that I write this article.)