“Is this the nigger right here?” My grandfather was in his 20’s but if that white woman said “yes” his life was over. “No, he’s too tall,” she answered the policeman. Having grown up in Mississippi grandpa knew that encounter could have been fatal. Indeed, he knew a long history of black men who were lynched based on the mere (false) allegation of a white woman–no criminal trial needed. U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe chose to take a knee Sunday during the National Anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick; now the 49ers quarterback is learning what my grandfather did years ago in Mississippi. White women have long possessed a unique value in mitigating black suffering and legitimizing black pain to a white world. America struggles to accept grievances from black people; it also struggles to dismiss them as easily when articulated by white women. Some have defended Kaepernick’s “right” to protest but few have actually engaged in the conversation the quarterback has called for. Rapinoe just submitted another request for that dialogue. That is the value of a white woman in this circumstance.
Much of the response to Kaepernick was ugly but no one came for Rapinoe. She took a knee and told the world that as a lesbian, she did not feel the country always stood up for her. No backlash came her way. Rapinoe’s critique was received much better than Kaepernick’s because she is a white woman. Period. Her privilege even allowed her to say that the way Kaepernick has been treated is “pretty disgusting.” She created a small shield for Kaepernick and no one blasted her. Rapinoe’s words and actions have changed the tone of the conversation and caused at least some to reconsider the matter. This is because in general, claims of black suffering from black people aren’t always taken seriously unless legitimized by white allies–male or female. While Kaepernick’s stance was easily dismissed, as a white lesbian Rapinoe’s words have landed very differently. This has long been the American way. Black people have carried the burden of suffering while being painfully aware that it would only be recognized if whites allies agreed that we were in fact suffering.
White women hold a curious position in this drama. As women they experience oppression in a male-dominated society. They were denied the vote, even after black men were (in theory) granted suffrage by the 15th Amendment. They know that their husbands face more jail time for selling a small amount of cocaine than for physically assaulting them. It is a man’s world. But they are still white and that has its privileges. When three civil rights workers in Mississippi were murdered in 1964, it was a white woman who appealed to the nation’s conscience when she said that if two of the slain workers “had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news.” Blacks had routinely said that but the nation rejected it. It took a white woman. Jane Elliott has created a national platform with her “Blue eyes-Brown eyes” exercise in racism while black race scholars are ignored. Sometimes it just takes a white woman. Although the presence of white allies is encouraging, their necessity is precisely the problem.
My grandpa could not assert his own innocence to the policeman that day. His words meant nothing. It was only because a white woman spoke on his behalf that he was regarded as credible. In many ways, black people exist in this purgatory daily, hoping that white allies will lend credence to our voices. That must stop. As a nation we cannot allow race to blind us such that an entire group of people must be validated by another. That is racism and it must be rejected. As black people, we cannot allow white approval to limit our activism. We must determine to be our own allies, acting in solidarity with one another. Kaepernick and others fighting for black progress must never stand alone. Many black people (including athletes) wanted to stand with Kaepernick but fear of white backlash silenced them. Having white allies is helpful but not necessary. With or without their strength, we must act together and shield each other, as black people. Celebrate Rapinoe but whether she kneels or stands, we must act in solidarity.