“Hi, I have two gentlemen at my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave. I’m at the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce.”
That’s what the manager of the Philadelphia Starbucks told the dispatcher when she called 911. It was 4:37 p.m., two minutes after Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson had arrived. Most news reports described her as a “Starbucks employee” or as the store’s manager. Few noted that she is a white woman.
That she is a white woman matters to the story as much as the fact that Nelson and Robinson are African-American ― because white women’s bodies, when turned against black and brown bodies, can become weapons.
The bodies we inhabit shape the kind of vulnerability we experience in the world, and the kind of power. Black and brown bodies are more vulnerable to police violence, and femme/female bodies are more vulnerable to sexual assault. For Black women, this means both/and: Their bodies are vulnerable to both police violence and sexual assault at the same time.
White women have our own both/and: as a white, queer/femme woman, I inhabit a body that I am told is vulnerable to attack. Yet, I know that my body can so easily become a missile. One gesture of my white lady finger at someone darker, a request to speak to the manager, a phone call to 911, and my body is an assault weapon.
There is a history to white women’s pointed fingers as lethal. The journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett first identified this pattern in The Red Record, her 1895 documentation of what she called “the old threadbare lie” that white Southerners used to justify lynching: that innocent white women needed to be protected from mythically dangerous black men.
Half a century later, Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year-old Mississippi woman, pointed her finger at 14-year-old Emmett Till and said he had whistled at her. That accusation ended with a bullet in Till’s head and cotton gin fan weighing down his body in the Tallahatchie River. Bryant is still alive and now admits she lied: Till never made any advances toward her.
The legacy of the threadbare lie casts a shadow over our present, in which some black men still, quite reasonably, fear white women. Conscious of that legacy, I am always aware of my body as a white woman, of how conspicuous I am in certain places, like a Black Lives Matter protest ― and how easily I fit in at other places, like a Starbucks.
Starbucks cafes like the one in Philadelphia are white spaces. As sociologist Elijah Anderson explains, despite Civil Rights advances, there remain overwhelmingly white spaces ― neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, restaurants ― that Black people consider “off limits.” Both research and reporting confirm the way policing is used to increase surveillance of black and brown bodies in gentrifying neighborhoods.
But the police aren’t the only ones policing those spaces. White women, like the Starbucks manager, or the white woman who raises concerns about her children’s ”education and safety” when a Black child wants to attend the same school, often do the housekeeping of white supremacy. They claim these public spaces for white people, making them safe from the putative threat of Black people.
This practice, too, has deep historical roots. During the progressive era, at the turn of the 19th century, it was white women who led the “municipal housekeeping movement.” During that time, white women got involved in a host of progressive causes ― like temperance, suffrage and teaching immigrants how to assimilate ― because they saw cities as an extension of their homes. And, for them, these progressive causes were part of their civic duty to keep their cities safe and clean. “Safe and clean,” was and is a euphemism for “white.”
In 1964, Kitty Genovese, a white woman in Queens, was raped and stabbed to death outside an apartment by Winston Moseley, a married African-American man with a history of mental illness. When reports told a story (later refuted) that none of her 37 neighbors called police when they heard her being attacked, her death became the subject of social psychological research on the “bystander effect.” The Genovese case became one of the driving forces for the 911 emergency call system. A documentary film about Genovese’s murder described the 911 system as “one positive outcome” from the case.
So when the Starbucks manager in Philadelphia picked up the phone and dialed 911 two minutes after Nelson and Robinson arrived, she was not only enacting a centuries-old white supremacist trope or activating a key mechanism for keeping spaces white. She was deploying a technology that was designed to protect white women from men like Nelson and Robinson ― one that relies on the constant surveillance, threatened incarceration and oppression of black men.
“When the Starbucks manager picked up the phone and dialed 911, she was deploying a technology that was designed to protect white women from men like Nelson and Robinson.”
None of this was preordained: White women can do the right thing in a situation like the one at Starbucks. Melissa DePino, a white woman, started video-recording the arrest as soon as the police showed up, and has appeared on multiple cable news shows amplifying the wrong done to Nelson and Robinson. She’s also connected what happened to them to the ongoing injustices of police brutality and pointed out that ”this doesn’t happen to white people.”
DePino chose not to be one of those bystanders who does nothing when violence is happening in front of them. But her actions wouldn’t have been necessary if another white woman hadn’t called 911 in the first place.
The most common way people give up their power, Alice Walker famously said, is by thinking they don’t have any. White women like me, and the employee who dialed 911, need to recognize the power in our bodies. We must recognize how thoughtlessly, how easily, we can weaponize them in white spaces ― like a Starbucks, or America.
Jessie Daniels is a professor at The City University Of New York, and the author of the forthcoming book, Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.