In the summer of 2008 I got to be in a movie. I was 17 and an aspiring actress, so I was over the moon at the possibility of my 'big break'. Blood Done Sign My Name (dir. Jeb Stuart, 2010) was an adaptation of Timothy Tyson's memoir of the same title. Tyson, a local scholar with appointments at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, also happened to be my friend's father. So, like the opportunistic young ingenue I was, I found myself, that summer, in Shelby, North Carolina trying to squeeze into the background of every possible shot. In the final cut, my 'big break' ended up being less than five seconds of me walking away from the camera, just as four pre-teen boys round the corner to begin the scene.
Tyson's book details a period of his life, growing up in Oxford, NC, when two white men murdered Henry Marrow and were subsequently acquitted of the crime. Marrow was a Black man in his early twenties who had recently completed his military service at Fort Bragg and moved back to Oxford to be with his wife, Willa May Sidney. The couple had two daughters and a baby on the way when Marrow was murdered.
Marrow was on his way to the convenience store to buy a coke (that's Southern for "anything cold that ain't beer or sweet tea") when he encountered the owner's son and daughter-in-law in the parking lot. It's important to mention that the shop owner Robert Teel, his son Larry, and his daughter-in-law Judy were all white. Larry took offense to Marrow speaking to his wife (although Marrow attested that he was speaking to two of his female friends standing nearby) and Judy maintained that Marrow had made some rude comment to her. It's at this point where the story begins to look familiar to anyone who grew up with Civil Rights in their Social Studies curriculum. Robert, Larry, and his step-brother Roger Oakley each shot Marrow multiple times before beating him to death.
This incident bears resemblance to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi. I'd wager it bears a resemblance to more than a few other murders around the country, some more contemporary than white folks are comfortable with. The 14-year-old boy was brutally lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in a grocery store.
I remember filming the scene in front of the convenience store. My direction was to head down the sidewalk (away from the camera), and pass two Black women (also background actors) heading in the opposite direction. The camera failed to capture the width of the sidewalk; it was too narrow to accommodate three people standing side-by-side. This practicality did not escape me, and as I approached the two women I began to wonder whether or not I should move aside. My initial reaction was to do so, but in that moment recalled an oft-paraphrased aphorism of Stanislavski's (1936) quoted in drama classes: "consider the given circumstances.". The Given Circumstances are the set of contextual parameters that influence you behavior in a scene. Stanislavski's approach considers that actors are only able to play themselves. The setting, soundscape, and relationships may change to serve the story, but you make choices from a place of your identity (rather than an adopted one). My given circumstances in the scene were: 1) it was 1973, 2) the town was primarily segregated, 2) I was a white teenager, 3) They were Black women. I stayed on the sidewalk while they shifted off the curb into the road.
I think about this moment when I am locating my white femme identity in the context of systemic racism and my work in social justice. I wonder how many other white women—Southern and non, Boomers or Millenials—had similar moments of cognition where they can locate the act of choice-making between what is right and what is expected. I didn't move out of the women's way because that was the expected relationship between the three of us. The given circumstances (you can think of them as systems, structures, or institutions) guided my choices in that scene, just as they've done my whole life. Although I may not intentionally engage in racist behaviour, I certainly do benefit (as a white person) from the same systems which subjugate racialized folks, thus demonstrating my complicity with those systems.
All this has led me to meditate on the word "move."
I was moved to write about my experience because it is not dissimilar from that of many liberal white folks who balk at the notion that they are racist. "Not us, we voted for Obama! Twice!" Yes, you. Particularly white women. We've heard the statistic: 47% of white women voters threw in their lot with Trump. But it wasn't you, so that's not your problem. It should be. You should be moved to enact radical change because neutrality (or complicity) in times of injustice solely works to benefit the oppressor (paraphrased from Elie Wiesel, Desmond Tutu, and Dante Aligheri)
White women must also move out of the way. You can wait. Rachel Cargle wrote a fabulous article for Harper's Bazaar on toxic white feminism that highlights the problems when white "activists" don't re-move their ego from a cause. As white people, we do not get to decide what is or is not harmful to BIPOC folks. So when approached with feedback or criticism from someone who is of a racialized identity, make sure you've removed your ego and listen with an open heart.
This is not a revolutionary idea; Black thinkers and activists have been saying these things for decades (see reading list at the end of this post).
I realize the hypocrisy in writing a blog about how white women need to take up less space. However, I also am firmly of the mind that it should not be the job of Black, Indigenous, or People of Colour to educate white folks on racism, justice, or intersectionality. They owe us no emotional labour. It's also important to point out that white folks never achieve "non-racist" status, rather it is a continuous (and rightfully laborious) practice of anti-racist behaviors. The one I'm trying to adopt in all areas of my life is "move." Move out of the way and let marginalized folks go ahead. Be moved to take direct action against injustice. Move yourself and guide other white folks to support—WITH YOUR MONEY AND ATTENTION—the incredible activism undertaken by BIPOC folks (Rachel Cargle, Layla Saad, and Shan Boodram are just a few). Here I endeavour to share the knowledge gained from racialized folks (a majority of whom were Black women) who went out of their way to educate me when I was ignorant, who didn’t write me off when they had every reason to, who taught me about justice, inequality, and intersectional activism. I reflect on my own experiences of participating in systems of white supremacy in order to demystify, for other white people, the idea of what racism looks like.
A Reading List:
Cargle, R. (2019, January 9). When White People Are Uncomfortable, Black People Are Silenced. Harper's Bazaar.
–Hill Collins, P. (1998). Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for Justice. University of Minnesota Press.
–hooks, bell. (2000). Feminism is for Everybody.
–Kanu, H. M. (2019, August 20). ‘Have you noticed white people never move out of your way?’ The politics of the pavement. gal-dem.com.
–Lorde, A. (2007). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (1984). In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (pp. 110–114). Crossing Press.
–Stanislavki, K. (1936). An actor prepares. New York: Routledge.
–Tyson, T. B. (2004). Blood done sign my name: a true story. New York: Crown Publishers.