White Women and Racial Complicity

How do we face being precariously power-adjacent?

WHEN WATCHING a creative imagining of what feels like your own demise, the last thing you want is for an audience to cheer. But for white women watching Get Out, the record-breaking horror flick from comedy writer Jordan Peele, that’s more or less what happened. It was a revealing moment, to say the least.

Get Out follows black photojournalist Chris, whose white girlfriend Rose invites him home for a weekend. To his terror, Chris slowly realizes that her nice, white, liberal family is masking a deep, violent racism. (“I would have voted for Obama for a third term” is a catchphrase played first as proof of the family’s “colorblindness” and later revealed to be a cover for their fetishization of black bodies.) Rose—a seemingly “woke” white woman, who yells at cops for unfairly profiling her black boyfriend—is, without giving too much away, a less-than-ideal ally.

The film was released one month after Trump’s inauguration, and it was easy to cheer for Chris as he took ownership of his fate and sought vengeance on his captors. In the last year, we’d seen unabashed patriarchal white supremacy pulling the levers in our politics and our churches. But then 52 percent of white women—many of them white Christian women—voted for Trump, and the role of white women in building and perpetuating damaging policies, narratives, and theologies was made more clear. For me, and other white women who raced to see the film, Get Out felt like a chance to atone. White women have too often skated by in larger battles over identity and justice, inside and outside the church, by pointing to others as the problem—let us now give our money to the telling of truth.

To be a white woman in America is to be precariously power-adjacent: Because of our skin, we carry unquestioned privilege in power systems. Because of our gender, that security has a shelf life—we are included only as long as we are able or willing to perform according to those who control the levers.

It’s a dangerous charade, one so deeply internalized it often goes unexamined. Our history indicates that when white women want agency, we often go to white men—even when they are the source of our exclusion, or even if we have to sell out others along the way. In the wake of the 15th Amendment granting black men the right to vote, suffragists including Carrie Chapman Catt, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Laura Clay made their case for the white woman vote by appealing to white supremacy. In January, a new book revealed that Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who accused Emmett Till of touching her in 1955, had lied.

Director Peele sketched the character of Rose in early 2016, with an assumption the film would play to audiences under President Hillary Clinton. And had Clinton won, after a long and ugly election, I’m not sure I would have bothered to see a film with a blistering indictment of polite progressive racism. I would have thought, “But a liberal woman who (now) says nice things about dismantling racism is president—can we just celebrate that?”

See how easy it is?

White women in America face a deficit of trust uniquely of our own making. As we continue to learn and confront our own histories of white supremacy, consider watching Get Out and paying attention to the comeuppance you assume is coming for Rose. Listen to your own response to Chris and Rose’s final confrontation. Consider what it says about your own relationship with whiteness.

There is liberation in allowing ourselves to look directly for the first time at our own complicity.

Catherine Woodiwiss (@chwoodiwiss) is Deputy Web Editor at Sojourners.

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