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In the scene from “Roots” I most remember, Missy Anne informs Kizzy that she is to become her property.
Missy Anne (the name itself is black shorthand for a white woman, a forerunner of “Becky”) and Kizzy have grown up together. Missy Anne has even secretly taught Kizzy to write and read. She is delighted at the prospect of becoming the legal owner of her friend.
Kizzy is less so: Among other things, she doesn’t want to leave her family. But she knows enough not to voice her displeasure; she feints and feigns until Missy Anne demands an answer.
“Kizzy, don’t you want to be my slave?” the white woman pouts. “Aren’t you my friend?”
Generally speaking, it’s not that I dislike white women. Generally speaking, it’s that I do not trust them. Generally speaking, most black women don’t.
That’s a big statement, impossible to either prove or disprove. I make it based upon a lifetime of observation and study, and also a highly unscientific survey of friends and friends of friends, ranging in age from 20 to “well over 60.”
Among the findings: This distrust — or, more precisely, this absence of trust — seems to hold true whether or not the black woman has lived and worked mostly in predominantly white environments, whether or not she has any white female friends, whether or not she feels this absence as a loss.
When I ask black women why they have so few white female friends their answers range — “Too much trouble,” “They don’t see me,” “Seems like something about us just sticks in their craw” — but seem to cluster around two major themes: power and invisibility.
Put simply, white women have power they will not share and to which they mostly will not admit, even when wielding it. Think about all the white women calling the police on black women and men for capital crimes such as grilling near a lake, driving through a neighborhood, bumping a leg on an overcrowded plane.
White women sit at the right hand of power, leaning in, not down. There have been 41 white female governors (and two Latina and one South Asian governors) but not a single black female one. In fact, black women represent 4.5 percent of all female statewide elected officials. Twenty-one of the 25 female U.S. senators are white, as are the vast majority of female members of Congress.
White women hold 4.4 percent of CEO positions, but black women hold 0.2 percent. Every “Equal Pay Day,” white feminists decry that women average 80 percent of a man’s salary but rarely mention that the figure applies mostly to white women: Latinas average 54 cents for every dollar, black women average 68 cents, American Indian and Alaskan Native women make 58 cents.
Far more concerning is the wealth gap: The wealth of white women swamps that of black women — regardless of age, marital status or education level.
Yet rarely do white feminists take up the greater cause of black female inequity. White women are among the most vocal and vociferous opponents of affirmative action, despite being equal, if not greater, beneficiaries.
This is what black women know:
That white women do not want to relinquish their spot on the second rung is to be expected. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” wrote Frederick Douglass. “Never has, never will.”
It’s the pretense that’s maddening.
Every fall, I teach a survey class in African American literature, an undertaking I consider one of the chief honors of my life. One of my favorite books to teach in this class is Harriet Jacobs’s seminal slave narrative, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”
Authenticated as the first book-length slave narrative written by a woman, “Incidents” is a powerful and compelling examination of slavery’s impact on black women and the black family.
“Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women,” she writes in the narrative’s most famous line. The students nod. They’re with Jacobs as she details the physical, psychological and sexual terrorism of slavery. They’re with her as she asserts the resilience and importance of black kinship. They’re definitely with her as she critiques the hypocritical Christianity of the South.
But when Jacobs gets around to criticizing white women — both Southern white women who turn a blind eye to, or actively enable, their husbands’ rape and debasement of enslaved women and their Northern counterparts who, enraptured by the romantic myth of the wealthy Southern gentleman, do the same — some students begin to balk. Without fail, at least one young white woman will raise her hand, eyes determined, chin quivering: “Yes, but all women were property back then.” Or: “Gender discrimination has always been a bigger problem than racism.” Or: “Well, white women didn’t have it much better than slaves.” Which is simply untrue.
I find these moments revealing, the student’s face both intense and needy as she mounts her defense of white women past.
If this student, who is young but neither thoughtless nor ill-informed, insists on believing that white women in 1850 were as oppressed as enslaved people, if she cannot and will not acknowledge the power differentials that existed within a system of legal, racialized slavery, how can she grapple honestly with the power imbalances of today?
And if she won’t, how can she and her black classmate possibly be friends?
Audre Lorde asked, “If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of Color? What is the theory behind racist feminism?”
Aristotle defined friendship as “reciprocated goodwill.” What distinguishes friendships, he wrote, is the source of this goodwill.
In friendships of pleasure or utility, the bond extends from the benefits we receive from the relationship: either pleasure or usefulness. But Aristotle considered friendships of virtue — in which each person values the other person for her own sake and supplies goodwill toward that person, even above her own interests — the only perfect form of friendship. Friendships based on personhood endure as long as the person endures.
The catch here is that to love someone simply because of who she is, one must first see that person. Not a stereotype or a fantasy, neither a charity case nor an abstract threat. Just a human being.
At the core of love is vulnerability; so, too, friendship. To be vulnerable is to be human and to be human is to be vulnerable, whether we like it or not. But the brutal truth is that many white women, like much of white America in general, do not consider black women vulnerable. Which means they do not consider us to be fully human.
To confirm this takes only a passing glance at pop-cultural depictions of black women, at the ugly, debasing vitriol directed at Michelle Obama, at the ways in which black mothers mourning for their slain sons at the hands of police officers are dismissed and demeaned.
Friendship is not possible between a human being and one who doubts her humanity — whether that doubt is framed in terms of the Angry Black Woman or, just as damaging, the Black Superwoman.
At the last high school reunion I bothered to attend, I had a conversation with a classmate, a woman I had known but not well. She began the ritual remembrance of intimidating teachers and painful heartbreaks, blistering self-consciousness and bewildering adolescence, intensified by being at one of the nation’s top boarding schools. I said something along the lines of, “Yeah, we were all pretty much scared s---less,” and she said, “Not you! You were always so strong and confident!”
This would have been laughable if it weren’t also revealing and sad. I was a poor black girl who had been plucked from the bunch at my Memphis public school and shipped unwilling and terrified off to New Hampshire to diversify the prep school, or at least put on a good front. I was overwhelmed, terrified and alone.
But this chick saw me as “strong and confident.” Which would be forgivable except for the fact that 25 years later, when I tried to correct her impression, she still refused to hear.
“For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive,” Lorde wrote, “and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.”
Adapted from “Womanish: A Grown Black Woman Speaks on Love and Life,” by Kim McLarin, published in January by Ig Publishing.