A Historical Look at White Women and the Demonization of the Black Family

by Jenn M. Jackson

White women simply aren’t checking for Black women, children or the Black Family, a sad but true historical fact we have to face as Black people in the United States today.

It is well known that, during the Victorian Era – which lasted from 1837 to 1901, “high class” culture blossomed in Europe. However, this era also coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the abolishment of legalized slavery around the globe. This combination of events meant that, as the bourgeois White middle class grew, the numbers of poor and impoverished Whites, and urbanized people of color increased. In this period of imperialism, these conditions were shipped out wholesale to colonies around the world.

Because the newly-created White middle class sought to establish itself in the colonies, the exclusion of “others” from citizenry was a primary concern. Anne McClintock explains in her book Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest that even household items like soap were used to establish a firm boundary between Black and indigenous bodies and the pure, clean White people of the Anglo-Saxon race. The obsession with Black women’s physical bodies (like Saartjie Baartman in 1810) and the desire to valorize White women in order to hold the White Family in the highest esteem perpetuated the myth that Black womanhood was different by definition. Therefore, the Black Family was the categorical opposite of what “family” really meant.

Frankly, even though these attitudes were born over two centuries ago, they have yet to be eradicated in the mainstream American psyche today.

This reality was readily apparent in a recent issue of police brutality at a community pool in McKinney, Texas. The issue began when two White women got into a physical fight with a teenaged Black girl. While most were focused on the acts of a rogue police officer who arrived on the scene and violently body slammed the Black girl involved, Black Twitter successfully mobilized to locate the White woman believed to have instigated the altercation from the beginning. In a matter of days, their efforts resulted in the suspension of Tracey Carver-Allbritton from her position at CoreLogic, Inc., a vendor company for Bank of America.

For many Black folks, this action seemed like a victory amidst a moment of chaos and lack of control. However, very few mainstream news outlets have condemned Carver-Allbritton for her involvement in the initial altercation. In fact, she later gave an interview with her Black friend and lawyer, Gloria Allred, claiming her actions were not racially motivated. Though, the optics imply otherwise.

While many Whites have resoundingly denigrated the Black girl who was abused by police, very few (if any) found the White woman, who was seen on footage hitting and screaming at the teen, guilty of anything at all.

Eerily enough, this same phenomenon was present in the recent revelations regarding Rachel Dolezal, a White woman posing as a Black woman so that she could infiltrate the NAACP and other predominantly Black social circles. While many Black women expressed vehement frustration with this woman’s commitment to caricaturing, and stereotyping Black women, many others (including and especially Black men) defended her. While I don’t want to spend too much time discussing this woman, I think it is important to note that some folks who have opined on this issue have implied that Dolezal’s pretend Black womanhood is somehow better than Black women’s actual Black womanhood. This narrative suggests that in a moment where a White woman chose to not even be White, she is protected because she is seen as a better woman than any Black woman could ever be.

I often experience this infiltration from White women in my personal life. As a mother of three Black children under the age of seven, I have had many people comment about my family and how we present ourselves in public spaces. Strikingly though, on at least four occasions I have had White people insert themselves in my public family life. They usually express how impressed they are, how “nice it is to see such well-behaved children out in public.” Whenever I receive this feedback, I look around to see if there are any other “well-behaved” kids around. Usually there are, just not any Black ones. What I also notice in those instances is that every time a White person approaches me about my Black Family, it’s a White woman.

The truth is: there is some unwritten, colonial era rule in mainstream American society that White women have dominion over womanhood and family. They have historically inserted themselves into Black families since this country's inception. This is not out of mere civic duty and concern for human welfare. Rather, it is the result of generations of White women being set forth as the example of “proper” womanhood to the detriment of all “other” women in existence.

Well-meaning or not, White women have been at the forefront of the demonization and exclusion of Black mothers and families. By setting themselves up as the point of reference to be emulated, they diminish Black communities and perpetuate systems of oppression against them.

As long as we fail to see the Tracey Carver-Allbrittons, Rachel Dolezals, and well-meaning White women at the local grocery store as all a part of this larger, historical narrative, we are going to continue to lose ground in creating space for Black womanhood. Dismantling White heteropatriarchy means naming it, clearly, wherever it lies. And, White women have always been on the frontlines for this particular enemy.

Photo: Shutterstock

Jenn M. Jackson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is also the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Water Cooler Convos, a politics, news, and culture webmag for bourgie Black nerds. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.

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