Juror B37 was a test. For all of us. And I’m not sure I passed.
Because during my miseducation, I was taught to be afraid of white women. All ‘–isms’ are fears and I was afraid to die. Growing up I was “taught” (through the TV shows, tall tales, and “nuh-uh!” stories that piece together to form childhood) that messing with a “white girl” would get you killed. As a young man only beginning to understand the complexities of race, that was the lesson I took from Emmett Till’s abduction and murder. He had whistled at a white girl – a capital offense. Just like walking home at night. Growing up and beginning to date, that whistle still echoed in my ears. I was already fending off accusations of “acting white.” A white girlfriend would’ve been a mea culpa. And anyway, dating white women was for athletes.
But I’m slowly beginning to understand my childhood and teenage fears that allowed these ‘isms’ to take root. As a younger man, I was vaguely aware of the dual racism and sexism of the trophy white girlfriend. The sexism of reducing a woman into a status symbol and the self-hating racism of exoticizing her whiteness as “pure” or “unique.” I looked down at my black peers who bought into that. Didn’t they know that white women helped kill Emmett Till? I’m reminded of the late comic Patrice O’Neal, himself charged in the assault of a white woman, joking: “White women make me nervous. Like at night when they by they self…walkin towards me… [thinking] “I hope he doesn’t grab me” and I’m thinking the same thing like, “I hope nobody kills this white woman ‘cause I’mma get blamed for it.”
There’s truth there, though my miseducators and teenaged self were incorrect to lay the blame at the feet of white women. The wicked, temptress white woman is a construction of the white imagination meant to justify the brutality of white male vigilantism. Not only did they imagine the black man as a monster whose terror necessitates vigilantism, the white woman is the frail, virginal damsel that must be protected at all costs. The cost usually being the death of black men. These constructions both serve the same purpose: easily recognizable racial tropes meant to justify and indemnify American disregard for black, male life.
Certainly, we have every reason to derogate the thoroughly corrupted, and insultingly named, “justice” system, but misogyny must always be rooted out. In white culture, white women are damsels that must be protected from black men. In black culture, white women entrap black men, ultimately leading to their death or imprisonment. These narratives revolve around the ugly American history of racist vigilantism. Black myths of white womanhood are used to warn black men of the racist justice system and white myths are used to give white men impunity when they choose to kill black men. What I’m emphasizing here is how white women have no agency, as seductress or otherwise. They are pawns in a system of narratives used to remove white male culpability in the genocide of young black men.
As a teenager, I only saw “white girls” at the center of a complicated history between black people and white people. Rather than the system itself, I bought into the misogyny in the culture, which blamed these women as the arbiters of racism. I ignored the greater truth: that white women were only appropriated into these narratives, with the ultimate goal of strengthening the white male right to violence. Years later, I knew that my fear of white women came from myths which used misogyny for legibility to warn me against the system of violent, white oppression. That’s what killed Emmett Till. That’s what killed Trayvon Martin. And that’s what scared me away from white women.
It with this mindset that I watched Juror B37. She told the story as well as any of us could have. A White Knight with his “heart in the right place,” justified in killing (but not murdering) a Black man. Shrouded in darkness, Juror B37 recounted the tired narrative of racial and sexual anxiety and criminality that condemned Emmett, Trayvon and countless other young, black men to death. And that’s when I failed my test. The English language has a remarkably large number of ways to say “do harm to a woman.” That night it seemed I knew them all. My mind was a vengeful blaze of punishments for this hateful woman. I hated her. I hated her and I forgot.
I had forgotten every page I’d ever read about uplifting women. About empathizing with people regardless of their race. It was all I could do not to hop onto the #jurorb37 hash-tag with “this white bitch right here…” And then I remembered. If someone can make you “forget” that you respect women, you don’t respect women. I had to hold myself accountable. I was the one that let myself fall into that trap, not some siren-temptress white woman. Erykah Badu says it best: “i will not pop 4u or break 4u or hate for u or even hate u” My hate was displaced. However unwittingly, Juror B-37 was co-signing a series of myths that let white men shoot and kill black boys with impunity. These myths turn into murders. Hating this woman only fuels the stereotype of the criminal black man threatening white women. Juror B-37 was the test of my empathy and my commitment to breaking these racist and sexist systems of myth, murder and misogyny. I need to break the myth, not the women who believe in it. I won’t hate these women or judge them or let their fears make me. I have a renewed commitment to fighting the myths and the misogyny: I will not reflect my racist or sexist anxieties onto them as though they were strangers walking alongside me in the night.