White Safety

When white people tell each other to “be safe” during an uprising

This may appear to be a small point in the grand scheme of the conversations sparked by the Baltimore uprising but the number of times I have seen this on Facebook over the past few days (and time and time again before that) is too many to count. 

I lived in Maryland growing up so I have a good number of friends on social media who live somewhere in that state. And as a result, my Facebook feed is littered with statuses by wealthy, non-Black folks who live nowhere close to West Baltimore telling me that they “got home fine” and comments by their friends urging them to “be safe.” It reminds me of WashU parents and its administration telling students to be “safe and secure” during the protests in Ferguson. It reminds me of expat Americans posting about their “safety” every time protests break out in Tahrir. And it reveals a lot about what we mean by “safety” and whose and what kinds of safety take priority.

I recognize that when friends and family check in, they do so out of genuine concern for loved ones living in a city all over the news cycle — as well as a lack of knowledge about a city’s geography. They may not know that WashU is ten miles away from Ferguson. That Americans abroad often live in expat neighborhoods, heavily policed and inaccessible to local populations. They certainly don’t know that Howard County is not Baltimore City. And the overwhelming number of “stay safe” posts directed at women seems to be an almost understandable form of hyper-protectionism based on the knowledge that being a woman makes you particularly vulnerable in any city.

But responding to this concern by just saying “I’m okay!” erases the real disparities in who is and who is not victim to police violence. It seems to be a disturbing way of suggesting that you had a chance of being hurt by this form of violence in the first place. It claims you survived, even when you were never under attack. Talking about how we, as non-Black people, are “safe” strangely centers ourselves in stories of violence that specifically targets Black people. It continues to claim the status of our safety as relevant and a priority in a conversation where it shouldn’t be.

So let’s be a bit more responsible and comprehensive in how we respond to white concern for safety instead of just saying, “I’m safe.” Convey to friends and family that if their concern is driven by fear of violent “thugs” rioting, it is heavily shaped by biased news or racism or a combination of the two. Provide them with alternate sources that actually convey what is happening in Baltimore (or Ferguson or elsewhere). If their concern is driven by you being a woman, share with them the history of the threat of “dangerous” brown and Black men being used to justify centuries of race-based oppression. Share sources that highlight those Black female organizers that have been at the forefront of each and every one of these protests — contrary to popular portrayals.

Above all, convey to them that their concern is misplaced, because the protests are not the systemic threat — the police are. And explain to them that police violence is discriminate and affects neighborhoods and communities that our race and class remove us from. Convey to them that not only is it Black people in Baltimore City whose safety is threatened right now but that this is nothing new — that the whole point of these uprisings is that their safety always has been and continues to be at risk. There is no option for “staying safe” from the police for Black people in America by just steering clear of the protests.

Convey to them the ways in which we have long guaranteed all forms of white safety. From the police. Economically. By the gated doors to our communities. By the way we’ve been taught to value broken windows over broken spines. Explain to them that the protection accorded to white safety is so powerful that placing white bodies between Black protesters and the police is seen by many as a method to deter police violence against protesters. Read with them bell hooks’, whose writing on the many more ways in which whiteness is protected was widely circulated after the killing of Trayvon Martin: 

The person who is really the threat here is the [white male] home owner who has been so well socialized by the thinking of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy that he can no longer respond rationally.

White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor. Viewers are encouraged to feel sympathy for the white male home owner who made a mistake. The fact that this mistake led to the violent death of an innocent young man does not register; the narrative is worded in a manner that encourages viewers to identify with the one who made the mistake by doing what we are led to feel we might all do to “protect our property at all costs from any sense of perceived threat.” This is what the worship of death looks like.

Don’t just tell them you’re okay; explain to them that white safety is and always has been nothing but.

Header Image: Slate

Mahroh is a community organizer and law student who believes in building a world where black and brown women and our communities are able to live free of violence. Prior to law school, Mahroh was the Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization empowering students to end gender violence and a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research addresses the ways militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally.

Mahroh is currently at Harvard Law School, organizing against state and gender-based violence.

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