What does the recent arrest of two black men traveling with a young white woman say about where we are as a country? Khadijah Costley White weighs in.
Very early on Sunday morning, two young dance instructors on a field trip with a teenaged student pulled over at a gas station to get directions. Immediately, they were swarmed by police officers who pulled them out of their car, handcuffed all three with no explanation, and threw them into the back of police vehicles.
Were they fugitives? Nope. Doing something illegal? Nah.
They were just two black guys with a white teenage girl.
Despite the instructors’ protests and proof that they were legitimately accompanying the child, the police refused to listen. Alone and frightened by her police abduction, the girl ended up in Child Protective Services almost 500 miles from home.
Now, some folks will jump to defend the officers’ actions. The girl could’ve been a sex worker, too young to give consent. She could’ve been kidnapped. She could’ve been running away from home. She could’ve been a thousand things that make her a victim and explain why she was with two young black guys on a late night. According to the police department, the officers “in an abundance of caution, did their utmost to ensure her safety.” My fictive police defender might say, “See! This incident was really about protecting the girl and not at all about race.”
Sure, only as much as it’s completely about race (and gender, too).
Just by being together, the unlikely trio were defying an unwritten taboo that still permeates American culture and social relations—the bonding of black men and white women. Throughout American history, black men have been painted as the predator of white women and girls. For example, look at the stereotypes in Birth of a Nation and King Kong—black men were portrayed as little more than strong, feral animals prone to violence and unable to control their lust-filled desires. White women were painted as the helpless victims, delicate, frail, fragile, and always under threat.
For the white men running America for much of the country’s short history, such images of weak white women and wild black men were sort of a double-win—they legitimized the exclusion of both groups from equal rights, trapping white women at home and justifying the systematic violence used against black males. Alleged impropriety between black males and white females is the reason we lost Rubin Stacy, Emmett Till, the Scottsboro boys, and countless others, known and unknown.
Today, these racial codes continue to be enforced. In Houston, when police officers contacted the girl’s mother from the scene, she recalls this exchange:
“[They asked] are you aware that your daughter is with two black men? And when I said ‘yes, I am aware of that,‘ he started calling into question our parenting.”
There’s so much that could be tackled here. The still-prevailing myth of black perpetrators as natural predators of white victims is one issue (especially since blacks are actually much more likely to be murdered by whites and interracial crime rarely ever occurs). There’s also the ass-backwards idea that most sexual assault victims don’t look like their predators (even though most kids are related to their abusers). Moreover, many of the children raped or molested in America are neither girls nor white. And, of course, transracial adoption in this country is legal—related people who don’t look like alike should not provoke the full force of the law.
But here’s what really gets me about this story. The officers in their typical, unimaginative, small-minded way looked at two black men with a white girl and could not imagine anything that was not evil. There was no room in their minds for seeing a black man as being capable of a legitimate, healthy relationship with a white child.
That’s the kind of society we live in.
We’re trained to see ugliness and threats in people who are not like us—and we use these differences to validate our actions against them. Even when we know that the greatest threats to our safety and well-being come from the people we know and trust, we fear the stranger and use well-worn biases to justify them.
And so we continue to live in a world where a white girl with two black guys just doesn’t fit. More than that, they’re seen as a threat. How do we escape it? How do we learn to love each other better? And what would that even look like?
Many scholars and philosophers could offer insight, but they would all likely agree that when it comes to imagining a society without oppression, we’re all a bit out of our depth. In her book All About Love, bell hooks asserts that love is not an emotion based on instinct but rather an intentional act that requires commitment. “To truly love,” she writes, “we must learn to mix various ingredients—care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”
Through love we build community, obtain justice, and learn to rely less on prejudices and more on character.
So what does it mean to practice love? I’m not sure. Probably none of us are. But I’m guessing it doesn’t involve calling the police because three people who look different are spending time together. It doesn’t involve caring only about people who happen to look similar to ourselves. It means stretching, pushing, making connections across age, race, gender, sexual and national boundaries. It means being with people who make us less comfortable but more thoughtful.
It means less convenience and more work.
If all that sounds like a lot, it is. But if more centuries filled with segregation, suspicion, paranoia, and violence is what we face, it seems like the only path to take.
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.