Our racial prejudices, the ones that we heard the older people in our family say, the racial jokes about Mexicans without regard for Latino and Hispanic ancestry that isn’t just from one country, or about Chinese or the Koh-reeans to the Aa-rabs, they all inform our worldview. The offspring of these people are forced to navigate murky social waters seeing as how this society becomes more and more pluralistic, it could easily make going to a diverse high school even more challenging if being raised in a household where a certain ethnic group or nationality is constantly looked down upon for everything.
That being said, I’ll never forget a conversation in high school either my sophomore or junior year of high school in which a classmate, black and male made a comment about a teacher he wasn’t too fond of and he said “She got WWS.” Naturally, I asked “What’s WWS?” and he responded “White woman syndrome,” to which I burst out into spontaneous laughter. I immediately got the joke. There was no need to explain what he meant by it; it was already understood. In that moment at the turn of the millennium, two young black men, me from the South Side of Chicago and he from the West Side shared a moment that spoke volumes.
For us, even at the age of 15 or 16, we knew what it meant to be black and a male in a public high school in an urban city. Our parent had already given us pointers on safety when riding the L at night from a late night band concert at school or something, and I’m sure his mother, like mine, had given us more than one pointer about how to avoid suspicion when riding CTA. I’ll never forget in 8th grade my mother telling me to watch myself because people think I’m older because of my size. And she was right. At 14 and 15, I was always assumed to be 16 or 17 because of my height. (To the point, I notice myself doing it now, the larger the young person, you automatically assume they’re older.)
What it also meant was that, at 13 I remember walking downtown on the bus and the first time I observed a white woman clutching her purse on the opposite side of her body as I passed her–and that was a pivotal moment for me. I asked myself would she have done that if I had been white. Now granted I was raised in a household where my skin color was affirmed and I never once had a feeling of disgust about being black as a result of it, but it did color my impressions of race relations moving forward. And more specifically, it did lay a ground work for this concept of white female privilege.
I specifically say white female privilege because images of white femaleness are indeed specific to that gender and that ethnicity, particularly in pop culture. I grew up hearing my mother speak with disdain about the movie “G.I. Jane” and probably why I’ve never seen it till this day. My mother dismissed the movie saying to the fact that aside from it being unrealistic it was something to uplift white women. And of course my mother said this as a black woman. At the time, in 1997, how often did movies starring black women with this almost supernatural ability ever get showcased?
For me, growing up in the 1990s, these movies of white female supernaturalistic powers over blacks has been a dominate image in the media. Let’s not forget movies like “Dangerous Minds” which in a sense showed that it took a white woman to get the ghetto children under control. And oddly enough, movies like this have been played out more than once, lest we forget the exact same meme resurfaced again with the movie “Freedom Writers.” Most recently, this sentiment fueled some criticism when Sandra Bullock starred in the movie “Blind Side” even though it was based on real events.
Perception wise, it fuels this image of white women as the oft-times savior for the “darker” race. I don’t speak in intentional hyperbole by saying “darker” race, but rather I use the stark term to illuminate the gap between distance analogies and proximate truths. White women will never have to worry about the fear of being pulled over for driving while black that black men feel every time a cop car is found sitting squarely in their rearview mirror. Images in pop culture show white women as being plucky or being the inquisitive ones that can “identify” with the plight of the ethnic underclass based on their womanhood. It was even this same criticism that the movie “The Help” came under as well.
I did offer a pushback and simply asked the question “Are not white women, as a demographic entitled to telling their own story as well?” The answer is a resounding yes, and should be a yes without any equivocation. The problem with telling one’s story is that one then narrates the voice–or lack thereof–of the other characters. When white women are imaged as the savior of the helpless and have the power to lift all others out of despair, it then causes some issues indeed!
One of the problems we have with the national conversation on race is that much of it is really based on cultural ignorance. That was a lesson I learned back in 2008 when I purposely accepted a summer internship in a mostly white suburb of Washington, D.C. I learned a LOT. And it’s been fundamental to my approach to ministry and just social relations since then. I left an email with one of the assistant pastors in an attempt to try and work through some of my hang ups and some of the cultural challenges laid at my feet. (For a point of reference, on the third day of me being in the group, my supervisor, the 28 year old youth pastor who grew up there asked me point blank were white people allowed to attend Howard University as we traveled on the Green Line to Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street.) It wasn’t so much that there was an inherent problem with the fact that I was black, and they were white, but more the cultural differences, ones that could similarly exist with someone from Maine versus someone from southern Georgia.
However, this white female privilege is one that masks itself it automatic bias. It’s as if to say that because a woman may already identify herself as a “minority” because of her gender or someone from a discriminated
protected class that the idea of being prejudiced or bias is impossible. Well, Juror B37 in the George Zimmerman trial blows that theory out of the water.
White teachers who sign up for Teach For America who get dropped in these urban schools with these altruistic intentions are in a for a rude awakening thinking that they watched enough episodes of “The Wire” and currently have 2 Chainz or Drake on their iPod playlist to fully understand black culture, and that’s where the disconnect happens, and this what results in this white female privilege: 1) the intersection of disbelieving that they can be prejudiced and 2) believing they already understand the non-white ethnic culture. Juror B37 was the epitome of what that intersection looks like.
Based on the interview she gave to Anderson Cooper and despite the mixture of softball questions and relatively solid ones, it was apparent to me that she had no intention of ever convicting George Zimmerman. Regardless of however the prosecution presented the case, she fundamentally believed that Zimmerman was in fear of his life at the moment he pulled the trigger and therefore was legally justified.
Her interview contradicted itself at many moments and her logic was grandly flawed. Anderson asked if the trial was ever about race, and she said no, and pulled a line from the post-trial interview of Mark O’Mara and Don West that that was a concoction of the media and “others.” This was a grand rewriting of historical facts as Al Sharpton cleared up immediately on Saturday night. The protests came from the fact that Zimmerman was never even initially arrested for the murder in the first place; the initial protests came so that Zimmerman would get his day in court–and so would Trayvon Martin.
For her to be so blind to the racial overtones surrounding this trial came off as disingenuous and insulting. Namely because she had no problem with Zimmerman getting out of the car–and somehow misremembered it to the point that she recalled the 911 dispatcher “egging him on” to get out of the car, when in fact Zimmerman was told twice to not follow Trayvon–for the sake of being a concerned neighborhood watchman. She said she felt that Zimmerman would have done the same thing if Trayvon had been white, Asian or otherwise. I think that misses the fundamental fact that racial profiling exists in this country at an alarming rate and it dismisses the prejudiced overtones uttered by Zimmerman on the 911 tapes.
This juror admitted that there were “fabrications” to Zimmerman’s story to detectives, but still valued “credible” witnesses versus “non credible” witnesses. By all accounts, there wasn’t one witness that took the stand who was wholly non-credible on either side, and the way she discredited Rachel Jeantel proved her unmitigated bias. Thankfully, CNN had Rachel Jeantel live directly after Juror B37s interview and let Rachel give a direct response to Juror B37 calling Rachel “uneducated” basing it on her speech impediment and such.
What I thought was even more telling of Juror B37s white female privilege and her clear bias towards George Zimmerman was the fact that when asked by Anderson was she aware of how the case had blown up, she said no. I would like to know what rock she had been living under prior to her jury selection. Fundamentally, her white female privilege resulted in a bias that was fully evident that regardless of what was presented, George Zimmerman was going to get a not guilty verdict from her. Juror B37 scares me because she sounds like the typical moderate, maybe even liberal, who would pepper conversation with “Oh I have black friends” or “I voted for Obama the second time” and it makes me cry out the prayer my mother said many times “Lord, deliver me from liberal white folk.”
Juror B37 is the updated version of Miss Millie from “The Color Purple.” Much like we are no longer dealing with Jim Crow laws, but the disparity in sentencing laws is very much like we’re dealing with Dr. James Crow, Esq. laws instead. The juror’s bias was so pronounced and so blatant that I’m beginning to question the prosecution’s voir dire process. She spoke with such impunity as she retold the story of the trial answering Anderson Coopers questions. The white female privilege reared its ugly head again as she played the damsel in distress role decrying that the jury instructions and the law itself was too cumbersome to really understand.
White female privilege, as it appears to come off is that not only does it allow one to disbelieve in their own prejudices and automatically think they know another ethnic culture (in turn dismissing the racial and cultural gaps), it allows to them to flip flop between “damsel-in-distress” and supernaturalistic woman mode. For Juror B37, when it was convenient she was able to tell the difference between credible and non-credible witnesses apparently just by looking at them and how they talked, but suddenly lacked the discerning power to understand the law or take the time to read the jury instructions. I am bothered that for someone who seemed so overwhelmed with the law wouldn’t have taken more time with it to understand it. I got the direct impression that rather than take more time, they decided to vote not guilty because it was the easier option!
I specifically say this is a privilege afforded to white women because in comparison the social system favors whites, namely white males, but white women have created a niche for themselves in which they operate from the positions of hegemonic power. The juror’s seeming dismissal of Trayvon Martin’s life is the lynchpin for her privileged seat of power to say that she was sorry for both Trayvon and George Zimmerman. It was not a mistake that Jeffrey Toobin, the legal analyst for CNN had a very sharp retort that “Only one of them was dead!” leading another panelist to say “Trayvon Martin is dead; George Zimmerman was inconvenienced.”
At the heart of the emotions surrounding this case is not the letter of the law nor even the spirit of the law, but undergirding issue that black male life is not valued and that for the sake of white sensibilities as evidenced by Juror B37, that it’s okay for the lives of black men to be undervalued. Juror B37s white female privilege will allow her to go home and sleep soundly tonight. And if not, the book deal she plans on signing I’m sure will provide her enough money to keep her company at night.
Her white female privilege did not provide a distance analogy enough as a woman who could potentially have a son walking, wearing a hoodie and possibly understand the fear her son could feel if a strange man got out of the car pursuing him. Nor did she have her hands on a proximate truth that was relevant enough to drive the story home for her. In grand cinematography, Jake Briggance brought those two concept together in his closing argument, and subsequently won the case for his fictional client in the movie “A Time to Kill.”
The frustration comes from the fact that this so-called “jury of peers” had at least one woman who had zero cultural relevance to the social strata or racial aspects that were in play: justice for Trayvon Martin never had a chance with Juror B37.
The dismantling of this privilege, at least to the point of acknowledging that it exists is the work that has been tasked to those of us who are still here in the land of the living.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL