Instant Messages: On White Womanhood, Fear of Black Men, and Changing Our Minds – The Feminist Wire

Instant Messages: On White Womanhood, Fear of Black Men, and Changing Our Minds

By Abe Louise Young

because as far as I can tell
less than a thousand children playing
in the garden of a thousand flowers
means the broken neck
of birds

–June Jordan

A person I went to school with instant messages me with frustrated comments about the grief people are airing about the murder of Trayvon Martin and all that’s spiraled forth from it. She thinks it’s overblown.

I want to delete and block her words, but I also want to slow down to think about them, and about how to respond. Her feelings are real to her. Part of her wants to understand, because she is writing to me. I want to understand her too, though I am challenged not to respond with volatility. If I flare, there’s no bridge. If I shut her down, I can’t learn.

She writes, “I’m not sneering at the death of Trayvon. But with so many cruel and even more heartless killings taking place daily in the US, committed by people of every race, I do wonder, Why this case! Why does it take the jackpot of attention? I resent that a bit.”

Jackpot. As if Trayvon’s death is somehow gold, jewels, cherries, and stars in the slot machine of public attention. It displaces something, something she feels is overlooked, “even more heartless.”

I ask, “What do you see? Why do you think the case is captivating so much attention?”

She replies, “I see the tragedy of a man who never wanted to be a murderer ending up as one; and also the escalation of fear on both their parts to that tragic ending.”

True, fear and tragedy were there. With a depoliticized view that does not take racism or disproportionality into account, I understand why the furor over this situation baffles her.

But the victims are reversed. In her mind, the tragedy is George Zimmerman’s—the man in the position she is most familiar with (owner of car and gun, psychic owner of streets and law enforcement license.)

This reversal of victimhood needs to be spelled out like math, because it is a clear and engineered system of social equations.

Black girls and boys and men and women are the most vulnerable citizens in America, with black gay, lesbian, and transgender folk at the top of that list. If the Stand Your Ground defense was applied equally across races, they could be spraying bullets left and right in response to real or perceived threats all day long.

By what sleight of mental hand do those who get the mother-lode of bullshit, the most exiled, suspected, and hunted, with the most cumulative trauma—get recast as the most dangerous of people in the minds of strangers and the public?

And how do we unhinge those terrible associations?

I ask, “What about racism? Do you see the racism in the criminal justice system? The racism in Zimmerman following Martin though police told him to stop?”

She replies, “I see fear. I see the same fear I had when my white girlfriends were raped at gunpoint during high school.”

Fear is visible to her, in place of racism. She is afraid. She is afraid of rape, and hurt by it—well, I am too. I’ve never met a woman who isn’t. But it is implicit in her statement that the rapists were black men.

Women who (realistically) live in fear of rape need feminism. How did racism come to stand in place of feminism?

If black men are the rapists, in a white woman’s (sub)conscious mind, she doesn’t have to confront the reality that white men commit violent assault as well. Consciously or subconsciously, the fear of the black rapist is associated in my friend’s mind with the justification for killing Trayvon Martin. This is an example of the “wringing as much bias out of myself as I can” question needing to be wholeheartedly addressed—and the reason why George Zimmerman’s defense team formed a jury with as many white women as possible.

It is too simple to ask who taught them to fear black men. I was taught the same. The collective culture of white male power teaches white women that black men are, likely, their rapists. This culture is wily and ubiquitous. I resist it outside in the world, and inside my mind.

I start to wonder if my friend has not been exposed to ideas, or is lacking information. Maybe she’s never heard Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit” or read a poem by Audre Lorde, never had a chance to take in Native Son or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Somewhat curtly, I ask, “Have you spent time, effort, and intention on learning about your white privilege? Or about historical racism in our country?”

She fires back, “Yes, and I think it is a farce.”

I’m at risk of cutting the relationship off and saying we have nothing further to discuss. I type some angry words then delete them. How to keep going one more step? I try to see through her eyes. She’s saying that suffering exists—her white girlfriends suffer. Maybe she needs someone to hear her suffering, and that’s where she’s stuck, blocked from empathy for others.

I say, “It is true that everyone suffers in their own ways, yes. I’m thinking less about individual suffering than about the suffering caused by systems like law, and government, and education that do not function equally. They distribute rewards and punishment differently based upon skin color, gender, and other factors. That is what needs to be changed—that’s the part we can change. We can’t change suffering, it is one of the essential conditions of being alive. But I’m sorry your friends were hurt.”

I say, “We have very different perspectives.”

She says, “I know. That’s why I wanted to put a word in.”

There’s a long silence. It’s time for quiet.

I write, “I appreciate you sharing your perspective.”

She writes, “Me too. I respect your POV but mine is different.”

White women friends, do you (voluntarily or involuntarily) see black men as your personal potential rapists?

Or as potential poets? Potential teachers? Potential gentle, subtle geniuses? Precious, necessary friends?


There was an Irish bloke I met when I was 18. We were on a date and making out in a car, and I got dissociated. I said, I can’t go any further. I’m having memories of when I was assaulted and that happens sometimes. Sometimes it happens randomly and sometimes it happens when some part of me is telling myself I want to stop doing what I’m doing.

What color was he? This man asked.


He wanted me to say, BLACK, of course! BLACK black black black black!

That would have justified my not wanting to have sex that night. The bloke could have turned lust into rage then, and felt a man still. It would have been righteous whites against the black man, and that would have not made him the odd man out (of my vagina) that night.

I knew this then and so I said I didn’t want to say.


How do we snap that flawed and fatal inversion, the belief that violence perpetrated against people of color is justifiable based on the potential danger they pose to white people?

How do we defuse the mix of sexism and punishment that incarcerates an abused woman for firing a warning shot while her abuser walks free?

How do we erase the absurd equations that frame LGBTQ people as sex offenders and child molesters, rather than people seeking civil rights?

How do we stop believing that those who have less protection are, by virtue of that fact, aggressors?


When I’m under stress, my mind generates fears and judgments before it gives me words. I see a brown man riding a kid’s bicycle at six in the morning and I wonder what bridge he slept under, and feel a little guilty for being in my car. I don’t think, he’s on his way to work just as I am. I don’t think, he’s getting some exercise. I imagine his poverty first before his resources. And I notice that choice, and step in to counter the thought. Then I think, perhaps he is getting breakfast tacos for his beloved.

None of this affects him, but it affects the mental landscape I live in, which creates the world I see and how I behave.

I live in a mixed-race, low-income neighborhood where many people dwell in houses built by their parents or grandparents. I love the sense of community, deep roots, and local self-sufficiency. People walk through and eat food from the trees. School-kids passing my house know they are welcome to grab a fruit or two from the branches in the yard—loquats, wild plums—and when they do, I’m happy to see it. The action connects us and the earth on a love level.

I’ve been living here for a decade, long before other white folks would even drive through with their doors locked. Once my sister was visiting from New Orleans. In a weird altruistic reverse racial profiling moment, police pulled over the minivan she was driving with her four blonde children in the back because they assumed she was lost and scared, and they wanted her to know how to get back to the West [white] side of town. Now the area has been discovered, property values have tripled, and the original residents are being pushed out. A white couple bought a house near mine last year and installed security cameras. During pecan season, the statuesque tree in their yard was prodigious. This couple began posting onto the new neighborhood listserv photos they’d captured of people “stealing” nuts from their yard, picking them up and putting them in their pockets. One day, they called the cops.

The humble elder Hispanic man they called the cops on for trespassing and stealing? His father planted the tree.


My day job is in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and these are tricky topics that touch everyone. In order to prevent violence, we ask communities to identify why gendered violence is happening there in the first place.

To some folks, it happens because women won’t keep their damn mouths shut and God is punishing them through his intermediary, their husband. To some folks, it happens because we’re trained from infancy in sexist ways of how to relate—and that can be unlearned. To others, it’s a cycle that moves through generations, inevitable. Others, sadly, see it as just a part of dating and marriage.

When there’s a contentious community, or one so religiously conservative that even the domestic violence shelter workers are viewed as radical feminists who encourage women to leave their marriages, we try to guide groups to find one first point they can agree on as a baseline.

Even if we don’t agree that gender is important to this situation or that women should be treated as equals to men, can we agree that no one deserves to be murdered?

Folks nod. We have our first point of agreement—but get derailed in talk of self-defense and gun rights.

If we can agree that no one deserves to be murdered, can we agree that no one deserves to be raped?

Folks aren’t sure. This might be feminism edging in. Don’t women claim rape when they want to get back at a guy? And what is marital rape anyway? They’re unconvinced and not unanimous.

Okay, that seems like one step too far. How about this–can we agree that no children in our community should ever be raped or sexually assaulted?

Head nodding. Definitely.

Yes—a place to start. A place that people can get energized about, make changes from, and continue conversation over.

We facilitate this process because communities have to work together, and without some point of agreement they’re not going anywhere.

In conversations with friends, family, and coworkers in America who think George Zimmerman is a stand-up dude and race was not a factor in this case, I’m not sure what we agree on. But I want to keep looking and asking questions to find some place to start.


Last night my [masculine, white] friend and I went stargazing on a remote little sandbar in an Austin city park. The Colorado River was rushing and cool and we waded up to knee-level. She told me about how the stars all have planets orbiting around them, and I kind of disbelieved her. They look really solitary, I said. I always thought the stars were just by themselves. No, she said, they’re each like our sun, with planets orbiting around them. I wondered if she was pulling my leg to see if I was gullible. I couldn’t see the planets. I didn’t believe they were there. But I could suspend my disbelief and take it as fact for a minute because I trusted her.

On the way back to the car, we were blinded by flashlights. The park curfew was 10:00 and it was 10:10. This [white] police officer wanted to express his authority and wanted us to apologize for being in the park. But even more, he wanted to tell us about all the women who had “gotten raped and had their bodies dumped” in the park. He wanted us to feel bad for being in the park ten minutes after curfew by letting us know we should have never been there in the first place if we didn’t want to get raped by [black] men.” He said, “this park is full of transients.”

After we thanked him numerous times and called him Sir and promised to never do it again, he let us go.

I felt bad for showing her that place and being so enthusiastic about how hidden and awesome it was. I said, “Sorry for taking you on a Danger Date.”

She said, “I have no respect for men telling a woman where she should and shouldn’t go in public space because she ‘might get raped.’ In fact I have complete contempt for men who do that.”

I was proud of her. She’s also the white mother of a black daughter—we didn’t need to talk about how the encounter would have gone differently if we were other than white, because it was alive in both of our minds.

This morning I woke up and remembered that I’d left my shoes as an offering in the park, well-worn Mary Janes that wouldn’t stay solid on my feet for the hike in the sand. When I took them off, I’d asked my friend, “Is it creepy to leave my shoes here on the beach? Will people think someone committed suicide?” No, she said—“They’re pointed walking away from the water, not toward it.”

I texted her when I woke up. “How crazy do you think it made those police officers to find my shoes on the beach?” She texted back a smile.

When you see a sweet pair of women’s shoes left on a beach, do you see a black man committing rape? A person stepping lightly? A piece of found art?

What can we agree on, when can we start?


headshot outdoors abe louise youngAbe Louise Young was raised in New Orleans and lives in Texas. Her most recent memoir piece was published this month in Narrative Magazine, and recent poems appear in Trivia: Voices of Feminism and The Ilanot Review