A couple of weeks ago, Questlove wrote a piece about his feelings in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. It was mostly focused on the pain he’s felt as a person who, in being black and big, is constantly thought by white people to be a physical threat. He tells one particular story to illustrate the point: in an elevator in his high-end, high-security Manhattan apartment building, he was alone with a white woman, and she wouldn’t tell him what button to push for her floor—because, he realized as he stepped out of the elevator, she was likely afraid of him. In the context of his piece, it was a powerful and moving story.
A few days ago, Kim Foster wrote a post challenging the gender dynamics in Questlove’s story. Her piece was grounded in racist thinking (which she doesn’t seem to have recognized when she wrote it). To her credit, after a number of people called her out, most notably Jamilah Lemieux of Ebony, Foster updated her post with a recant. I would have liked to see Foster explore her own thinking a little more. But admitting public mistakes is hard, and I appreciate that she did it quickly and graciously.
Before we put this episode behind us, I want to revisit the argument Foster was making, because I think it bears examination. I’m also going suggest another way we can look at the elevator story.
Fear Will Not Protect Us
Part of Foster’s point was that women need to protect themselves from sexual assault and must be able to do so unapologetically:
I imagine a young woman reading the exchange that happened between Questlove and the woman in the elevator, taking it in and, not wanting to be racist, shifting how she reacts to men in public. Maybe she smiles more, acts less freaked out when alone in an elevator with a strange man, maybe she walks down that dark isolated street and doesn’t worry that someone is walking behind her, or lets down her guard and tries to let the man know she isn’t intimidated, that she doesn’t find him scary. Maybe she lets concern for others — offending that stranger, appearing racist, or sexist — over-ride her instincts to take care of herself.
Later she adds: “It is dangerous for us to teach our children not to protect themselves…or ignore someone.”
I agree to my core that women should not have to justify our unsmiling silence in public places. And I believe we have to speak out about it continually if we are to ever hope for peace on the streets. But we cannot conflate fear and unfriendliness with protection from sexual violence. Indeed, the way women act won’t protect us at all. Not what we wear, not what we drink, not whether we refuse to smile. We are no less likely to be raped if we don’t smile at a man in an elevator than if we do. Put another way: smiling is not asking for it, and it will not make us less safe. Fear is not a shield.
We need other ways of protecting ourselves.
Oppression Olympics vs Empathy Olympics
As others have explained in response to Foster, white women’s safety, purity and rights have for centuries been used to justify brutality against men of color. Emmett Till is an archetype, not an anomaly. George Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury that was 5/6ths white women in part because the defense took a number of steps to demonstrate that Zimmerman was a defender of the neighborhood’s white women against black intruders. While Zimmerman’s attorneys were able to successfully argue that his record of abusing female partners was irrelevant, our national narratives about the need to protect white women against black men are so ingrained in our culture, they were barely noticed as an admissible underpinning of the case.
When you engage in Oppression Olympics and pit one group’s travails against another’s, you not only diminish the very real experiences of other people who are suffering, but you also miss the chance to make connections between the bigger forces that oppress us: Zimmerman operates in a world that lets him—even encourages him to—assault women and kill black boys.
What if, instead of medaling in Oppression Olympics, we tried to become contenders in Empathy Olympics? What if we put some true effort into trying to understand the validity of each other's emotions? On the elevator with the black man and the white woman, how does the ride go differently? In responding to Foster’s piece, @deluxvixens tweeted, “what @KimFosterNYC said about having to ‘be nice, placate, share’ is stuff that Black women have to do to be safe around many white women.” What if white women used our basic human empathy (to say nothing of our trained-as-women empathy) to feel the weight of that observation, recognize our roles in it and work to change the dynamic?
Jamelle Bouie wrote earlier this year about the time he sold a used tv to a friend who lived three blocks away. He’s black, and because he was afraid that cops might automatically assume he was a criminal if he was walking down the street carrying a large, late-model tv at night, he asked the white, female buyer to walk with him. He tells the story to point out that were he a white guy, it would probably never have had to occur to him to have that fear. Not to appropriate for my own purposes the story, which he shared as a counter-example of privilege, but it’s worth noting that it also serves as a point of familiarity for untold women of all colors who also feel unsafe walking three blocks alone in their own neighborhoods.
That parallel experience of threat is not coincidental, and the millions harmed by the dynamic of fear are nearly all women and people of color. If we can see the connections between our experiences, we can gain greater empathy for each other, which might help us work together to understand who is served by a system of pervasive fear, how we each perpetuate it, and how we can combat it. We can be effective in creating social change only when our approaches are intersectional.
Empathy After the Zimmerman Verdict
Foster’s piece would have been problematic at any moment in history to date. After all, there really never is a good time to: make white women’s experiences the center of discussion while all but ignoring the experiences of women of color; pit white women against black men; and co-opt people of color’s pain to advance a white person’s agenda. But those actions are especially hurtful coming right after a white man who killed a black child was found not-guilty by a jury that was 5/6ths white. Not to mention that that verdict came just after the Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Right Act, which will make it appreciably harder to vote for millions of people of color in this country. Oh, and by the way, jury pools are drawn from the rolls of registered voters.
If you’re white and you’ve been have paying close attention since the Zimmerman verdict--not just to Questlove, but to a torrent of stories and tweets and and tv segments and videos and press conferences—it’s stunningly clear that people of color are feeling an intense, personal pain right now that we white folks can’t quite experience. It’s awing, really.
I appreciate that submissions to sites like WeAreNotTrayvonMartin help white people recognize our privilege. But this outpouring of pain calls for more; it calls for new depths of empathy and serious inquiry into where that can take us together.
Fear will not protect us. Indeed empathy that lets us work together for change may be the only thing that ultimately does.
PS. White folks, if you’re wondering how to improve your empathy for people of color starting right this minute, check out this post.
Thanks to Johanna Foster (no relation to Kim) for talking through many of these issues—and more—together this week.
A note on comments: I’m interested in a good conversation on this topic, and I welcome opinionated comments on this post. Seeing, however, as the internet tends to draw vile comments on sex and race, I should mention that I will edit or delete hateful and phobic comments, personal attacks on me or other commenters, off-topic threads (including assholic comments on this comments policy) and things that strike me as trolling. If you dislike that approach, comment on any of the 80 billion other sites that welcome diversity of obnoxiousness.