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Nice White Ladies
The Truth about White Supremacy, Our Role in It, and How We Can Help Dismantle It
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An acclaimed expert illuminates the distinctive role that white women play in perpetuating racism, and how they can work to fight it
In a nation deeply divided by race, the “Karens” of the world are easy to villainize. But in Nice White Ladies, Jessie Daniels addresses the unintended complicity of even well-meaning white women. She reveals how their everyday choices harm communities of color. White mothers, still expected to be the primary parents, too often uncritically choose to send their kids to the “best” schools, collectively leading to a return to segregation. She addresses a feminism that pushes women of color aside, and a wellness industry that insulates white women in a bubble of their own privilege.
Daniels then charts a better path forward. She looks to the white women who fight neo-Nazis online and in the streets, and who challenge all-white spaces from workplaces to schools to neighborhoods. In the end, she shows how her fellow white women can work toward true equality for all.
“KARENS”: WEAPONIZING WHITE WOMANHOOD
“Hi, I have two gentlemen at my café that are refusing to make a purchase or leave. I’m at the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce.” That’s what the manager of the Philadelphia Starbucks told the dispatcher when she called 911 in April 2018. It was 4:37 p.m., two minutes after Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson had arrived. Most news reports described her as a “Starbucks employee” or as the store’s manager. Few noted that she was a white woman, but it’s as significant to the story as the fact that Nelson and Robinson, the people she called the police on, were Black men.
“It’s always a Karen. I learned something, if you go to a white people’s party, just say you know ‘Karen,’ they will take care of your ass the whole day.… ‘Have a pumpkin spice latte!’” Comedian Jay Pharoah included this riff about white women in his 2015 stand-up show called “Can I Be Me?” and claims he’s the originator of the “Karen” meme. Memes, these ideas that circulate through the culture through social media, can be hard to trace back to their origin. The website Know Your Meme suggests that the Karen meme didn’t take off until 2019, but that seems a bit late. In fact, it was in 2018 that a succession of recordings went viral of white women calling police on the ordinary activity of Black people, including the white woman at Starbucks who called the police on two Black men sitting in a coffee shop. It was also in 2018 that Alison Ettel called the police in San Francisco on an eight-year-old girl selling water without a city permit, and Ettel became “Permit Patty.” That same year, Jennifer Schulte called the police from a public park in Oakland because Black people were setting up a grill, and she became the meme “BBQ Becky.” These different nicknames got flattened into one meme: “Karen,” as a shorthand for entitled white women calling 911, asking to speak to a manager, or otherwise behaving badly. In the midst of the global pandemic, several Karen memes circulated of white women angrily refusing to wear a mask.
“Memes have power above and beyond just humor,” says André Brock, a scholar who studies digital Black cultures. “We often use metaphor, which is often at the heart of memes, and emotion or affect to make shorthand of things which deeply affect us.” Part of what people are pointing out with the circulation of these memes is the lethal power of white women. “These memes are actually doing logical and political work of helping us get to legal changes or legislative changes, which is really something to be said,” says Apryl Williams, a sociologist who has conducted computational research on these memes. She contends that they are valuable because they “actively call out white supremacy and call for restitution. They really do that work of highlighting and sort of commenting on the racial inequality in a way that mainstream news doesn’t capture.”
Each time one of these incidents makes the news, I think about the way we are connected, these Karens and me. We are the descendants of white women who instigated, encouraged, and benefited from white supremacy, shoulder-to-shoulder with white men. It’s this destructive history that simmers underneath the internet memes. Understanding this, and how integral it is to American society today, can help us understand the world white women have cocreated with white men.
Of course, part of me wants to disavow my connection to these Karens. Sharing the meme on social media is a way I can signal that I understand the harm she causes and that I am not like her. My retweet of a Karen meme says, “I get it,” “Don’t associate me with her,” and “I would never do this.” Yet I, like her, want the power to dial 911 and summon protection. But there’s a tradeoff in this. My desire for protection and power to summon help from 911 means that I’m activating the launch codes for my body to become a missile that destroys lives and whole communities. One gesture of my nice white lady finger at someone darker, a request to speak to the manager, that call to 911, and my white/queer/femme body becomes an assault weapon. The reality is that none of the women who get spoofed in a Karen meme are ever in any danger, nor did they need the protection of the state when they called 911.
In the Oakland case, Jennifer Schulte witnessed a Black family setting up a barbeque grill in a public park and something in this quotidian act of using shared space set her off. And when the Black people in the park used their phone to record a video of her talking to 911, she cried and ran away. I could speculate about what was going on inside Jennifer Schulte’s mind that day: her phantom fear, her seeming pathological need to control others in a public place, her apparent desire to see others suffer. But I’m less interested in her inner world than I am in how we got here as a culture.
What I want to understand is this: How did we, white women, help create a world that gives us this lethal power? Why do we often feel afraid and entitled to protection? And why do we frequently cry and run away when this gets pointed out to us? And is there a way that we can turn, face ourselves, and help to dismantle this system of violence that we’re currently nurturing?
LOCATING NICE WHITE LADIES IN HISTORY
There is a history to white women’s lethal power, but it can be hard to locate despite the central role we hold in the culture. We are everywhere, yet we are often unspecified. I have a Google alert set for the term “white women.” Almost every morning, the search algorithm crawls the Web for occurrences of these two words together and automagically sends me an email. What I’ve gleaned from these morning emails is that the word women modified by white most often shows up in research and news articles about health disparities, as in, “African-American women are 3–4 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women.” Or we appear in reports about voting, as in, “Black female voters are multiple times more likely to vote Democrat than white men or white women.” There are frequent stories like the one about Jennifer Schulte (“BBQ Becky”), Alison Ettel (“Permit Patty”), Amy Cooper (“Central Park Karen”), and other white women caught on video behaving badly. But there is also a kind of void when it comes to white women, a missing narrative about white women as a collective with a specific history.
Without recognizing this history, the news items about BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, or Central Park Karen devolve into opinion pieces and meta-news items that ask if nicknames in such cases are “too cutesy” or why the internet is shaming white people. In the case of Justine Sacco, the white PR executive who tweeted just before she got on a flight to South Africa: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” and who was fired from her job at IAC by the time she landed, she became the signifier for internet shaming. Her experience became the focus of countless essays, podcasts, and even a book by Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. But what these hot takes miss entirely is the fact that white women collectively wield a deadly power.
I was in my twenties when I realized that I was white and how that was connected to being a white woman. When I started graduate school in 1986, I still harbored the fantasy that my great-grandmother was Cherokee. Fortunately for me, a professor gave me a copy of Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins, and in reading his words, I saw the story my family told about the “inherited” beaded moccasins for what it was: a threadbare but comforting lie about who we were. Easier to believe that our ancestors had been on the Trail of Tears (as my father had told me) than to come to terms with the much uglier truth that our family had benefited from the theft of Indian land. During my childhood, I believed the lies about our racial heritage, and I’d only come to recognize my own whiteness relatively late in life. At least, because of the slowness of this realization, I hadn’t invested a lot of years or emotions into whiteness as an identity. That experience gave me the ability to see whiteness from a different angle, as if from outside it, even though I was inside it all along.
I also didn’t learn about the racial terrorism of lynching—and who the intended beneficiaries were—until I was in graduate school. In the public school system that I grew up in, the legislature mandated two years of Texas history and one year of US history—to reinforce the state’s sense of its own importance with schoolchildren—but there was nothing in the curriculum about lynching. I had some vague notion that lynching meant hanging, but in fact, it refers to any extralegal murder. Before a widespread court system, vigilante justice was commonplace, and one of the most common reasons for lynching was being a horse thief, which, according to one account, was how one of my ancestors met his end. Before the end of slavery, white people—mostly men—were lynched. But it was after slavery that lynching became a campaign of racial terrorism, and the targets of this form of violence became predominantly Black and Brown people. From approximately 1877 to 1950, thousands died from lynching. In Texas, where I grew up, hundreds of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were lynched. When lynching became racialized, it also became a thoroughly sadistic ritual in which Black men were often tortured, castrated, and dismembered before their bodies were hung for display. In total, some four thousand all across the United States were murdered this way. What lingered in my mind as I read these historical accounts is that these lynchings had so often been carried out in defense of white womanhood. In graduate school, I was a student who wanted to know why, and how, we got here.
Beginning in the 1600s and through to the mid-nineteenth century, white women in the United States were witnesses to, beneficiaries of, and active participants in the practice of enslaving human beings. The women’s history I’d been taught as a student at a small state college in East Texas reassured me that white women had a minimal role in slavery and were possibly even “allies” to enslaved people. But historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers sets this record straight in her book They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. In it, she documents women’s economic investments in slavery. At a time when white women generally did not own property, they were more likely to inherit enslaved people than land. I was taught in an early women’s studies class about women making progress in being able to own property, but in fact this “progress” came through changes to the law that enabled white women to own slaves. This form of inherited wealth gave white women a kind of provisional power: it enabled them to attract wealthier potential husbands and, once married, gave them more power in their marriages. As one reviewer of Jones-Rogers’s book noted, “If their husbands proved unsatisfactory slave owners in their eyes, the women might petition for the right to manage their ‘property’ themselves, which they did, with imaginative sadism.” And it is the “imaginative sadism” that comes through in historical accounts of white women as slave masters.
Even the very intimate familial caretaking that we now tend to think of in glossy, soft-focus terms like “maternal instincts” was routinized in brutal and violent ways under slavery. White women expected enslaved women to serve as wet nurses, that is, to breastfeed their infants for them. Although earlier historical accounts insisted this happened rarely, the practice was actually widespread. In Jones-Rogers’s book, she tells the story of one woman whose enslaved mother always gave birth at the same time as her mistress so she would be available to nurse the white baby. Being forced to lactate for the convenience of white women, and all that implies—captivity, rape, being used for “breeding”—was but one part of the elaborate cruelty of slavery. This is what I mean by a world that is cocreated: within this system, enslaved women were regularly brutalized by white men for their sadistic pleasure, and for the convenience of white women, which is its own form of sadism.
What white people built and benefited from in the system of slavery lingers today. Scholar Joy DeGruy has documented the Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS) of Black Americans who are descendants of enslaved people. She traces how the trauma of that brutal institution gets passed on intergenerationally, like any other family trait. And what is it that the white slave-owning mistress handed down to white women today through this intergenerational process of transmission? The sadism that summons death by dialing 911, the callous disregard for suffering, and the bounty of white wealth. Slavery remains with us in the here and now.
A handful of white women did resist the institution of slavery and advocated for social justice, such as the Grimké sisters, but history tells us that white women who fought against white supremacy were exceedingly rare. More typical of the history of nice white ladies is the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
White women, explains historian Elizabeth McRae, “did all… kind[s] of work to sustain the ideology and politics of white supremacy” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although white men may be recognized as official “spokespeople,” it is white women who have always done the “daily, mundane work” of ensuring that “the public history of the nation… privileged white experiences and white leaders.” A key organization in the work of maintaining the ideology of white supremacy after the end of the Civil War was the National Association of the Daughters of the Confederacy. It was founded in 1894 by Caroline Meriwether Goodlett and Anna Davenport Raines to “tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.” The organization, which eventually became known as the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), was concerned with raising money for the construction of statues and other public memorials to the Confederate dead as a way to keep the cause of white supremacy vibrantly alive. As the Civil War faded from memory, white women took it upon themselves to ensure the Confederacy and its cause never faded from public consciousness.
According to historian Karen Cox, it is critical to recognize that the women of the UDC went beyond this goal of memorialization and became active agents in the politics of vindication, a goal that focused their attention on the education of the next generation of Americans in both the North and the South. They pressured textbook committees to spotlight narratives that either minimized the brutality of slavery, diminished the role slavery played in the founding of the United States, or worked to erase the presence of Black people from US history altogether. The UDC held essay contests on the importance of referring to the Civil War as the “War Between the States” and on why it was an extended “battle for states’ rights” and not a conflict over slavery. And the nice white ladies of the UDC hosted teacher trainings and speaker series at universities to reinforce this skewed pedagogy.
In interviews, Bryan Stevenson, the attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has said, “The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war.” He says it’s part of why we, in the United States, have never really come to grips with white supremacy. I agree with Stevenson. And, I would add, if we’re going to tell the truth about white supremacy in this country, we have to lay a good deal of responsibility at the doorstep of the nice white ladies in the Daughters of the Confederacy. Today, there are more than fifteen hundred public monuments and statues to the Confederacy that fought to uphold slavery, and those all exist because white women raised money for them, oversaw their construction and the stories they told, and organized the fanfare of an unveiling ceremony for each one. The UDC is still active, and as of 2015, had over nineteen thousand members, and on its website claims to be merely a “women’s organization,” a turn that was already happening at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1912, just eighteen years after its founding, the UDC claimed that it was an ally of other women’s organizations, especially those within the growing peace movement. As the women of the UDC focused their political energy on vindicating the South, other white women were focused on voting rights.
In 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, white suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), an organization dedicated to the goal of suffrage for “all regardless of gender or race,” and two years later, started their newspaper called The Revolution. But it became clear pretty quickly that their idea of a revolution was one that benefited white women. That same year, 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to everyone “born or naturalized in the United States,” which meant that formerly enslaved people were now citizens. Then debate ensued about the Fifteenth Amendment, and white women saw their rights as pitted against Black men’s rights. At a pivotal convention in May 1869, abolitionist Frederick Douglass argued that the AERA should support the amendment, written to protect against discrimination based on race, color, or “previous condition of servitude,” while continuing to fight for women’s suffrage. Stanton not only disagreed with Douglass but also stood to give an address filled with racist stereotypes: “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws.… [The amendment] creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.” Expressing her opposition to the amendment, Susan B. Anthony said, “I would cut off my right arm before I would ever work or demand the ballot for the negro.”
In 1894, the same year the UDC was founded, Ida B. Wells, an investigative journalist, suffragist, and civil rights activist, was invited to speak about her anti-lynching campaign in Great Britain by Lady Henry Somerset, head of the British temperance movement. Lady Somerset also invited Frances E. Willard, national president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, to share the stage with Wells. Wells knew she had to persuade the white liberals of the day to understand her cause, and she used the occasion to do just that. Willard, who came from an abolitionist family and who was an advocate for women’s suffrage, was typical of white liberals at the time who believed in the inherent inferiority of Black people. Wells wanted to expose this. When Lady Somerset asked Wells what she thought of Willard, Wells read an interview Willard had given to the New York Voice in which Willard had said, “‘Better whiskey and more of it’ is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs. The [local tavern] is the Negro’s center of power… [and] colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt. The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities.” Lady Somerset was so angry about Wells’s disclosure of this information that she sent a telegram to abolitionist Frederick Douglass demanding that he publicly reprimand Wells, which he did not do. Lady Somerset and Frances Willard were the nice white ladies whose positions were emblematic of that era, as was their opposition to early Black feminists like Wells.
Regarding the period in the United States from 1848 to 1920, one historian, Louise Newman, refers to the rise of a “white woman movement” that affirmed white women’s racial similarity to white men while at the same time asserting their gender difference from those men because they believed white heterosexuality, and all the binary differences it suggests, formed the bedrock of white civilization. When the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920, giving white women the right to vote, Black women, Indigenous women, and many Latinx women in the Southwest were still barred from voting because of racist voting restrictions. When those women reached out to the main suffrage organizations of the time, they were ignored, according to historian Lisa Tetrault. “They say basically, ‘Help us, we still can’t vote,’ and those organizations basically say, ‘That’s a race question, it doesn’t concern us,’” Tetrault explains.
Most historical accounts of the campaign for suffrage whitewash the overt racism, or minimize it as an understandable by-product of that historical period, rather than address it head-on as a cornerstone of white women’s political organizing. In the 2014 documentary by Ken Burns and Paul Barnes, Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, race is barely mentioned. The 2015 film Suffragette reproduces this history and sanitizes it through an all-white-women cast and a script that doesn’t give voice to the stories of women of color. Instead, we get this version of history in which white women’s racism is reimagined as a noble struggle for justice rather than the intense campaign for white women’s voting rights ahead of Black men’s and Black women’s voting rights. When some white feminists wanted to put a statue of Susan B. Anthony and Cady Stanton in Central Park, Brent Staples, an editorial writer for the New York Times, criticized the planned sculpture for presenting a “lily-white version of history.” Many people organized to have the statue changed, and when it was installed in the summer of 2020, it had been amended to include Sojourner Truth, the early Black feminist who was often at odds with the nice white ladies of the suffrage movement.
In the 1920s, after white women had won the vote, people began to talk about the modern era and the rise of the “new woman.” This referred to the emergence of flapper girls, when fashion favored bobbed hairdos and shorter dresses with more skin revealed, a change that many women experienced as liberating. At the same time, the appearance of the automobile dramatically changed social relationships and made a new kind of dating possible so that courtship could take place away from home and the gaze of chaperones. The 1920s is also the decade in the United States when white women were doing another type of organizing, with the Ku Klux Klan. In 1924, thousands donned all white and marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital in support of a white nation. At the time, there were millions of white women in the Klan.
This is also the time period of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the southern states, pulled northward to the Upper Midwest and to California and the Pacific Northwest by the promise of a brighter future for their children. The way this story is commonly told today is by reporting that African Americans were seeking economic opportunity in the North, and though that’s partially true, this mass relocation of people takes on another dimension when you see it in the context of the terrorist campaign of lynching across the South in which white women played a role.
In 1917, as part of what later became known as the East St. Louis Massacre, a group of white women beat a group of Black women with “fists, stones, and sticks” as the latter begged “for mercy” while the white women “laughed.” The events in East St. Louis launched an intense, widespread campaign of racial terror throughout the United States from 1917 to 1923, a movement often fueled by white-owned newspapers reporting fabricated instances of Black men assaulting white women. During the Red Summer of 1919, at least ninety-seven lynchings were recorded, thousands of Black people were killed, and thousands of Black-owned homes and businesses were burned to the ground in three dozen cities across the United States. One of the first people killed in violence in Washington, DC, in 1919 was a twenty-two-year-old Black World War I veteran named Randall Neal. In May 1921, the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a prosperous Black urban area, was bombed and completely destroyed after a young Black man named Dick Rowland happened to get in the same elevator as a white woman. The elevator ride was retold among the white community as an “assault,” and then white people grabbed their torches. In the first week of January 1923, Black people were massacred and the town of Rosewood, Florida, was destroyed after a twenty-two-year-old white woman said a Black man had assaulted her.
The Great Migration, then, becomes clearer when we recognize that time and again Black people were forced to run for their lives, often chased by white mobs sometimes composed of white women with “fists, sticks, and stones,” and more often made up of white men who would publish, believe, and defend the false narrative of white women’s innocence.
One of the worst economic depressions in the United States stretched from the 1930s through 1945, when entering World War II served as a catalyst to jump-start the economy. During this time, people of color were hit harder with economic troubles than white Americans. And yet, when you look at the representations of the Great Depression, it is a photo of a white woman that has become the iconic image that represents that era.
The popular culture of the 1930s is one that reifies this kind of angelic innocence fantasy of white women and white girls. Two examples illustrate this: Snow White and Shirley Temple. These artifacts live on beyond the time for which they were created and resonate in other eras even to today. In large part, the popular culture of the 1930s promoted tropes of purity, innocence, and wholesomeness as defining features of white femaleness. People bought into these fantasies in droves, and the legacies of these roles persist dangerously today. At the same time, an economic depression and an ongoing campaign of racial terrorism against African Americans were occurring, yet white maidenhood became the story that we were telling ourselves about who we were in the United States.
The period following World War II gave rise to the suburbs and dramatic changes in the way many Americans lived. This was also a time of racist deed restrictions. In suburbs like Levittown on Long Island, houses were sold only to white families. These societal shifts also produced another persistent trope of white womanhood: the newly reimagined ideal of the housewife, whose role in this period ballooned—as illustrated, as one example, by the increasing complexity of recipes and cookbooks, which seem almost designed to fill the time of women who were no longer working outside the home.
- On Sale
- Oct 12, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Seal Press