Saturday, March 19, 2011

On Black People Being Held To A Special Standard Of Goodness: A Message To White People

This video has been making the rounds online:

A white woman takes it upon herself to sneer at a younger black woman who is eating on the subway. She calls her an "animal". She says that she will be "going to jail". Apparently, the white woman - and countless others who have commented on this video - expected the black woman to just take being dehumanized by a stranger as she was going about her daily business. Apparently - to countless people who have commented on this video - the fact that the black woman did not just take it, but instead confronted the white woman, and did not let her get away with how she was treating her, and the white woman continued to antagonize the black woman until the confrontation became physical, "proves" something about the "aggressive nature" of black people.

As a white person myself, I would like to address that white woman, those internet commenters, and all white people who might watch this video: If you feel anything other than sympathy for the black woman in this video, and perhaps concern that the white woman will try to get her into trouble, then you are being racist.

If you think that black people should accept being antagonized, and dehumanized, and having their very personhood challenged; if you think black people should abstain from challenging the people who treat them that way, from asserting that they are people who deserve respect; if you think black people should just take that kind of treatment and let it wear away at their sense of self until they die - then you are being racist.

If you think the fact that a young black woman let herself go and became physically violent after being prodded, and prodded, and prodded, "proves" anything other than the probability that she puts up with a lot of shit in her life - then you are being racist.

If you think that any black person who is not perfect confirms the negative stereotypes about them - then you are being racist.

If you think that a white person should feel comfortable hurling insults at a random black person, secure in the knowledge that they will not be confronted for their actions - then you are being racist.

If you think this is simply a case of "bad manners", or being "disrespectful of elders", or "lacking self-control", and that race has nothing to do with it - then not only are you being racist, you're embarrassing yourself. This is a white woman using stereotypes about black people to bully a black woman. It's obviously about race. Sit down and stop being an idiot.

I'd like you to imagine that everyday, you put up with bullying, with major and minor slurs and insulting assumptions, not only from people you encounter day to day, but also from media, and embedded in the cultural narratives of the society in which you live. Do you imagine that, when confronted with an individual who interrupts your day to let you know that they consider you less than human, that you would always suffer in silence, that you would always take the high road, that you would always meet the requirement of being the bigger person?

Personally, I know that I've reacted to bullying in very much the same way as the young black woman in the video - standing in front of the bullies and not letting them pass, getting "in their face", and grabbing one by the shoulder when she tried to pass by me. Things might have gotten more physical had I not realized that we were standing across the hall from the principal's office.

So, yeah, I think the way the black woman in the video acted is entirely understandable. Of course, the difference between the two of us is that I'm white. The way I was being bullied did not fit into a pattern of discrimination that I had faced, and had watched my friends and family face, my entire life. I was in high school and knew that I would encounter bullies, I wasn't going about my daily business when I was shocked by some stranger interfering in my life. And, were someone else to witness the altercation that I was involved in, it would not occur to them to compare my behaviour to that of a predatory animal; they would not use my behaviour as "proof" of the aggressive tendencies of white girls. The observer might even support me and cheer me on, like people have supported this kid:

The two incidents are not directly analogous. The simple point I want to make is that when we see a white kid standing up to a bully, he gets a facebook page supporting him. When we see a young black woman standing up to racist bullying, she's pathologized.

If you're not disgusted by the white woman's behaviour, then you're siding with privilege over human decency.  If you can't find in yourself the ability to empathize with the black woman she's harassing, you're letting racial difference get in the way of how you relate to people. If your first reaction is to judge the black woman, instead of the white woman who instigated the conflict, then you're being racist.



  1. I've have eaten on the MTA many times while white. I have never seen anyone so much as glance critically in my direction, let alone harass me. If white women can eat on the subway in peace and black women can't, then how is anything BUT racism the explanation? The mind boggles.

  2. So true. I discussed this with my ex a few days ago. It is funny that people will swear the white woman was not racist because she does not use what white people consider racist language (if you don't call someone the N word, you are not really being racist, or so people's thinking goes)

    As soon as I saw this, my first thought was... that woman is racist. The only time a white person MIGHT be called out for eating in public is if they are a fat person, and even that is not a definite.

    Sadly, at certain sites I heard BLACK people saying that the young woman was disrespectful and gave Black people "a bad name". WTF?? She was clearly pushed and poked and prodded by the white womam both verbally AND physically.

  3. Bravo! Thank you for your post and stance on the situation. At first I was thinking blacks and white were going to have to agree to disagree on this one...



  5. Hi Marissa,

    I saw this post linked on WhatTamiSaid last week and came back today to see your other stuff, and I just realized I'm on your blog list. (I still get confused with linking followers back to their blogs.)

    This is a great post (and I will most definitely add you), and I think you pretty much nailed everything that was wrong with the White lady's behavior. One thing I note (in general) is that White people bullying Black people is often seen as layman policing, and if a random White person should expect to have power over the behavior of a random Black person, and thus the bullying that would be condemned if it were coming from someone else is just a White person trying to maintain order. The main reason that situation works is because of tacit approval from other White people who cheer on "putting that _________ in her place".

  6. Thank you very much for this post.

    My children and I watched this video very carefully. It is not against the law for someone to eat on the train. I normally don't approve but what if this girl hadn't eaten all day? What if she had to eat because of a medical condition? Brooklyn is a huge borough and what if she couldn't wait?

    If she had called me or my child an animal I would have cursed her out too and it might have led to punches thrown as well. The minute "animal" came out of her mouth whatever point she was trying to make was moot.

  7. Thank you for that interesting post,

    I do agree that I think the young women's reaction was most likely a reaction to this incident and the countless other minor cases of condescension and insults that they have had to put up with throughout their life.

    I guess the best way I can understand it is "death by a thousand pricks". Obviously no one died here in the literal sense. What did die however is the young women's composure and self-restraint and that is certainly understandable. Everyone has a tipping point to the amount of crap they can tolerate from people before finally reacting to it. I am sure if their social context was different and they were not always the object of disapproval and derision, then I am sure they may have been less extreme in their reaction.

    Having said that, the older white women was way out of line for what she said. She was unrestrained to and the last time I checked, it is not illegal to eat on the MTA trains in NYC (it is in DC where I live), so the young women were well within their rights to eat on the train and frankly, it was not any of the older lady's business.


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