Sometimes, very rarely, I have moments where I completely agree with a White woman on a gender issue. It usually occurs when some White man has performed his White masculinity as expected, displaying the entitled, self-aggrandizing arrogance virtually patented for and by them. In those times, I have a common adversary with White women, and as such, any discussions of power and privilege are eased, predicated on the unspoken understanding that White men represent the apex of both.
Those are blue moon occasions, though. On a regular day, I am plagued by the rancid taste of the cocktail of fragility, perpetual perceived innocence and self-centering that overcasts and prefaces any discourse I could potentially have with White women about the proportionate privilege that makes them complicit in systemic oppression. Usually, I don’t care to discuss privilege with White women any more than I do their male counterparts.
This week was typical, since against my better judgment after reading the headlines, I watched the video of Terence Crutcher’s death at the hands of Betty Shelby, a White officer with the Tusla Police Department. In this latest installment in a seemingly never-ending series of snuff films starring Black people in various stages of surrender and police in a consistent state of unjustified fear for their lives, Crutcher, a 40-year-old Black father of four who was tending to his stalled car, is seen walking away from Officer Shelby, who had her gun aimed at Crutcher, with his back turned and his hands up. Shelby had responded to a call about Crutcher’s car blocking traffic and called for backup because she was “not having cooperation” with the stranded motorist.
As two officers, one of whom is reportedly Officer Shelby’s husband, narrate the scene from a helicopter, backup arrived. One of the officers in the helicopter is heard saying, “That looks like a bad dude, too.” Seconds later, Shelby fired and Crutcher fell to the ground.
Watching this White woman—authorized by the state, however unofficially, to kill at her discretion—shoot a Black man in full surrender, I was reminded of the time nearly a century ago in the same city when a white woman’s baseless fear and freedom from accountability resulted in the loss of Black life: the Tulsa race riots of 1921.
A weekend of ground and airstrikes carried out by White Tulsa residents against Black Tulsa residents and their property claimed dozens of Black lives and decimated the flourishing neighborhood of Greenwood, nicknamed Black Wall Street, where Black people owned and operated nearly every kind of business required for a community to sustain itself. In a story for the Chicago Tribune 20 years ago, an historian recalled the match that sparked the fire:
“On May 30, 1921, a 19-year-old black shoeshine man named Dick Rowland entered the Drexel building downtown to use the segregated restroom. While approaching the elevator, which apparently hadn’t stopped evenly with the floor, Rowland tripped and fell on the operator, a 17-year-old white girl named Sarah Page. The girl screamed, drawing the attention of onlookers who yelled rape.”
Rowland was jailed and a local newspaper subsequently ran a story with the headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator.” What happened after is a familiar story. White mobs descended on the Black section of town to exact revenge for the alleged violation of a White woman and her mythical irresistibility.
Whether Sarah Page genuinely believed that a Black man was trying to rape her or not, and whether Officer Shelby genuinely feared for her life despite Terence Crutcher being both unarmed and in the universal position of surrender, their actions caused, indirectly or directly, the murders of Black bodies. Whatever indoctrination subtly but constantly fed to White women that grooms them to believe that a Black man is always a threat does not excuse nor forgive the consequences of their actions resulting from said indoctrination. In either instance, whether their orchestration of harm and destruction of Black lives is honest or treacherous, the outcome is the same.
And even if Shelby believed that Crutcher “may have been under the influence of PCP,” the fact remains that at the time she fired the shot that killed him, he was no threat. The fact remains that if she truly believed she were in imminent danger, she had four other officers by her side to control this unarmed man with his back to her and his hands up. The fact remains that a man is dead despite his compliance with her orders. Her fear, actual or contrived, had immediate, irrevocable and fatal consequences.
In general, police officers are granted autonomy with the lives of citizens, but because of the nature of the position, there is an unusual shift in the hierarchy of racial and gender dynamics. Whereas all of the vitally systems in this country benefit White men most then trickle down to all others in a complicated and imprecise schedule that factors in intersections of race and gender, the oft touted danger of police work would seem to shift the power of impunity to White women even above white men. White female officers have the power of their race shielding them, disproportionately if not totally, from the consequences of acting on their irrational fear coupled with the benefit of being perceived as both fragile and in need of protection, thus always justified in acting on that fear, and brave for having the guts to protect themselves.
It is examples such as this, where the collision of White women’s racial and gender identities create a win-win scenario that must be discussed and dissected in discourse about equality. I cannot afford to view White women, despite whatever similar struggles of our shared gender, as unwitting and unwilling players in this system. I cannot pretend that absent footage of Officer Shelby shooting Terence Crutcher, her word would have been taken as gospel, and she would have been heralded as a hero, not just by cop lovers obsessed with the delusion of the incontestable integrity of police officers, but by white feminists eager to exalt White women as heroines for engaging in the same callous, instinctual violence they loathe in White men.
Yeah, today is business as usual. No, this is not one of those rare times where we have pre-established common ground. Today I’m not interested in White women’s unctuous attempts at condolences absent any acknowledgement of the unique privilege they hold in maintaining the narrative that the very existence of Black men represents a credible threat to their person.