I am asking myself, and you, to consider what part being a specifically white female played in a terrible series of acts apparently perpetrated by a white female freshman against her black roommate at the University of Hartford.
Brianna Brochu, the white freshman, bragged on Instagram about how she “finally got rid of her roommate,” whom she referred to as “Jamaican Barbie,” through putting noxious substances, including bodily fluids, on items belonging to her. The roommate, Chennel Rowe, became ill and had to get medical treatment from being subject to these apparently toxic substances. Brochu has been arrested.
Hartford President Gregory S. Woodward issued a statement condemning these events and describing them as “bullying.” (He does also refer to racism later in the statement).
I do not think “bullying” is adequate to describe the behavior of Brianna Brochu, as important as it is to encourage more anti-bullying education as that effort is crucial for raising children to be decent young adults.
In a similar vein, parenting and education for compassion is crucial for raising children to be decent young adults.
But again, especially in thinking about what just happened at the University of Hartford, it is not enough.
I think it is important to deeply explore and address the question of how we can raise better young white women. By whiteness, in this case, I mean a virulent rejection of blackness. This is not peripheral, but central, to what has to change.
I have some experience of being a young, white woman and as I have tried, in my adult life, to think, strategize and act against racism, it has been important to think about how my whiteness was formed as part of my femaleness, and vice versa.
Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas once asked me, “When did you first know you were white?” This question caused me to ponder for a long time, and to, in fact, examine my own family immigrant history and why, as Hungarian immigrants, being white was so important to them in order to ‘become American’ and also enter the middle class, as I recently wrote in Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump.
Dr. Douglas’s question is gendered for me, as knowing I was a young, white woman was a central, not a peripheral part, of my growing up. I was a child model, and my mother put lemon juice on my skin, and didn’t let me go out in the sun, so that I would be as white as I could be. My blond hair was permed and I was made to look like Shirley Temple for as long as I modeled.
Here’s what that meant for me growing up, and for what our racist society has taught, at least I assume, Brianna Brochu and so many like her: you get rewarded just for being a young, white female, and the blond hair doesn’t hurt either.
The whiteness is absolutely central to this kind of female identity. This is the famous (or rather, infamous) 53% of white women who voted for Trump, a significant percentage of whom were middle class.
We can’t raise “better young white women,” and by “better” I do mean compassionate and embracing of all human diversity, unless we recognize that this kind of white identity requires denigrating and suppressing people of color, and especially females of color. That’s right, requires. A virulent white identity is established and maintained by this poisonous suppression of the non-white. And I mean “poisonous” literally as in the case of Rowe being poisoned.
But how to do this when it must be acknowledged that this nation was founded on, and continues to be operated with, the power transfer upward of white supremacy and white nationalism?
There are many fine girls mentoring programs that are designed to help girls who face enormous obstacles in their lives.
I am arguing that being raised a young white woman can be an obstacle to becoming a decent, compassionate human being when what is rewarded for you is the kind of white femaleness that systematically denigrates people of color.
What would happen if we started to see this kind of whiteness as something that deforms and destroys young lives, both the lives that are distorted in their growth into becoming decent human beings by white privilege, and the lives the white privileged hurt and harm?
What if we started to parent and educate young white Americans in that consciousness?
What if? And why not now?