Two weeks ago, you might have read Questlove's piece about his experiences being profiled daily as a black man in light of the George Zimmerman verdict. "You ain't shit. That's the lesson I took from this case.... These words are deep because these are words I've heard my whole life." The musician describes dampening his emotions and heightening his perception of how others perceive him in public as a black man. Citing one instance in particular—when he found himself alone in the elevator of his swanky apartment building with a woman who made her discomfort known—he discusses how both personal interactions and society at large broadcast loud and clear that his life, like that of Trayvon Martin, "ain't shit" to other people.
In fact, the idea of black men as dangerous predators—the assumption that (in my opinion) made George Zimmerman follow Trayvon Martin on that Sunday night—goes hand in hand with the idea of pure, white femininity that reaches far back in American history. From Reconstruction-era lynching to 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was murdered less than 60 years ago by two white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman.
So when you're going to tie pereceived threats of black men to potential assault, as Kim Foster did in her Medium.com editorial "Why the Questlove Article Exposes Our Racism—and Our Sexism," you need to acknoweldge that history and how it continues to impact us—on the street, in pop culture, in the news. Instead, her post (tagged "gender justice/feminism") flips the script. Foster, a white mom living in Harlem, latches onto the elevator story as a cautionary tale. When women are—or perceive themselves to be—in situations when they're threatened, it's "one of those times that is truly not all about race, it's mostly about gender and power."
First question: Where, exactly, does that leave black women and other women of color who don't have the luxury of leaving race out of the picture? While Foster lays out the tragic realities of rape culture that many women face (like social indoctrination to be passive and pleasing), black women must face that and more—exotification from white men,violence from police and law enforcement, not to mention having their voices drowned out by the feelings of white women.
It's this neglect of race and the centering of her experiences as a white woman (and her friends) that's so problematic, and one that more white feminists need to be aware of. As Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony puts it, "There is a time and place to discuss the very real concerns about feminine safety in the presence of strangers and that time, nor place, is hooked to the murder of a black teen who was killed because someone looked at him and made assumptions."
In a recent, very relevant piece at the Toast (please go read the whole thing), Jessie-Lane Metz writes about allyship and "the worst of best intentions":
When a person of colour speaks to their own experiences of racism, they are speaking to a collective pain, and speaking truth to power. When a person with white skin privilege gives an anecdote about racism, whether their own or someone else's, they are exposing more racialized people to this discrimination, and reasserting their own privilege. The narrative is no longer about Black victims of racist crimes and a deeply flawed justice system, it is about white feelings about Black bodies and their experiences. This is not helpful to intersectional practice, as it implies that only by making an oppression about the oppressor can power-holders work towards becoming allies. Secondly, it disregards the feelings of Black people by exposing them to further racism in an effort to work on white privilege. I do not consent to being confronted with racism in the hopes that white folks can maybe start to exorcise their own internalized issues. Allies need to do this work on their own.
While Foster's point that "middle class, middle-aged white men in business suits are just as able to take you by force and fuck you against your will, as a black teen in a hoodie" was perhaps (I hope) an attempt to say that woman should also be wary of white guys—not just the brown ones!—it actually ends up perpetuating a dangerous fallacy: that women are as likely to get raped by black men as white men. In fact, according to the Bureau of Justice, 88 percent of the time, women are raped by someone of the same race. Unless you are Native American, when you are more likely to be raped by a non-Native man. Oh, and black men are prosecuted for rape at a disproportionate rate than white men. But this is truly not about race, so none of that matters.
Perhaps a more dangerous parallel in the piece is when Foster equates Questlove's internal monologue to how white people oppress black people. I'm sorry, but no. Trayvon Martin was killed because he was a perceived threat and his killer has walked free. Prioritizing our perceptions of fear over the realities of others—that's how white people oppress black people.
Questlove's point wasn't that women shouldn't protect themselves, it wasn't that women should smile more. I think one of the reasons the elevator anecdote was so powerful was that it hit so many uncomfortable points and intersections of race, gender, and class. White women may ask the same question we asked ourselves when we heard the decision of the mostly white-lady Zimmerman jury: "Would I have done the same thing?"
What Foster perhaps should have focused on was not the elevator scene, but what Questlove says early in the piece: "Imagine a life in which you think of other people's safety and comfort first, before your own. You're programmed and taught that from the gate. It's like the opposite of entitlement." Foster has a good idea of what this means from a white woman's perspective, as do many white feminists including myself—we're really good at approaching issues of gender from a singular perspective! But this ends up with well-intentioned but extremely harmful messages when it comes to issues like race, transphobia, healthcare, foreign policy, and more. This singular perspective doesn't just harm our movement, it harms other people—other women—by prioritizing the bodies, opinions, and realities of white women. We need to make that leap to see the"opposite of entitlement" elsewhere, we need to recognize the space we take up—on the street, online, and in our movement.