In April, when a white woman called the police on two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks, the video of the event went viral. The men were accused of not making a purchase and therefore trespassing. They did not damage property or assault anyone, but their lingering was enough to cause them to be ejected from the store. Most significantly, there was never a confrontation between these men and the woman who called the police.
In the following weeks, a white woman called the cops on a group of black people barbecuing in an Oakland park. Not long after, another white woman called the cops on a black girl selling water on the sidewalk in San Francisco. Because we were able to see these white women’s faces, their identities have been turned into memes and they’ve been given nicknames – BBQBecky and PermitPatty, respectively. The accused were not violent, but apparently they were seen as disturbing the peace, whether it was through conducting business, enjoying themselves or simply being present.
When questioned, the women argued that the matter had nothing to do with race. Yet, their insistence upon police intervention in minor affairs amounts to more than a simple case of tattle-taling – it’s putting black lives at risk. White women have weaponized their fear and discomfort in otherwise peaceful situations for centuries. An examination of their role in enforcing racial segregation and the lies some women spin to maintain innocence while controlling black movement has become increasingly urgent.
One of the most famous instances of a threatened white woman leading to a black person’s death is Carolyn Bryant. Bryant lived in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 when she accused a 14-year-old boy of following her behind the counter of the store she co-owned, grabbing her waist and bragging that he had been with white women before. Later that evening, her husband and brother-in-law found this boy, forcefully took him from his relative’s home, lynched him and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. The men were never convicted and later confessed to the murder a year later. The boy’s name, of course, was Emmett Till, and his death galvanized the civil rights movement.
More than 50 years later, Bryant has admitted that she lied about her interaction with Till, but does not remember exactly what happened. Her confession, it was reported last week, has led to a re-opening of the case. She never did explain her motivations. Perhaps the forgetfulness can be due to her old age, but what does that matter? A child was lynched. His story overruled – his life ended – because of a white woman’s disdain for a black child being in her vicinity.
Although present-day experiences are thankfully not as deadly as Bryant’s, there are still white women lying about or exaggerating their fears, whether or not they understand their motivations for doing so. When Allison Ettel, or “PermitPatty,” called the police on a black girl for illegally selling water, she hid around a corner to avoid being on camera, then lied to say that she never called the police, though records refuted her claim. Linda Krakora, who called the cops on 12-year-old Reggie Fields for mowing a lawn, said, “We have always been told by the police if we feel threatened, ‘Don’t confront these people. Just tell us.’” More recently, another woman, nicknamed “NewportNancy,” called the police on a black woman smoking in a parking lot, threatening eviction for “smoking on the property.”
From slave masters to the Ku Klux Klan to presidents to Supreme Court justices, the power of white men has always been ubiquitous, and so the abuse of their power was easily seen. But white women and their fears represent a less public terror – their gender obscuring the lethality of their tactics. Lying is a minor concern as long as the social order between races is maintained.
Identifying as the victim allows the women in these scenarios to maintain both innocence and ignorance. Luckily, modern technology has revealed the insidiousness of this form of racism as well as the perpetrators’ consistent failure to grasp the severity of their behavior. With the assistance of camera phones, the public is forced to have a discussion about this perilous kind of supervision and what can be done about it. Brando Simeo Starkey of The Undefeated argued that shaming white people for calling the police on black people can actually be beneficial as a means to stop their harassment. On The View, Whoopi Goldberg said, “What’s brilliant is that a lot of people are saying, ‘This does not make sense to me. So, it’s [the videos] trending in a better way.”
It’s not just about a person of color feeling misjudged in a fleeting moment – these events have residual effects over time. Suicides among black children have risen 71 percent within the last decade. Although researchers do not unanimously agree on the causes, some suggest that those affected by racism, as well as poverty, are put at a greater risk. According to a study conducted by University of Minnesota researchers, when black children are aware of racism, they become less connected to their communities and less academically invested because of the disillusionment of their places in society. When black people are pushed out of neighborhoods due to redlining and gentrification, displacement trauma follows. The space is no longer theirs.
The knee-jerk reactions of the white women in these examples to meddle in the lives of these innocent black people demonstrate a reliance upon the power of the state to carry out that which they cannot – to effectively “control” people who are not like them. We need to realize that white feminine fear does not produce innocuous behavior, but a kind of harassment that often leads to racial trauma. If we are ever going to meaningfully address racial injustice in this country, we must unpack the power of this fear and understand how it is inextricably linked to discrimination, police brutality and other forms of racial terrorism. For it is through someone’s baseless apprehension that people like myself are only a phone call away from being exterminated.