White Women, Sarah, and Hagar

Dear white sisters,

We are long overdue in examining, confronting, and upsetting our significant role in the systemic racism of American culture.

The six women who acquitted George Zimmerman on Saturday (five of whom are reported to be white and the sixth Hispanic) demonstrated the patterns of behavior that we white women have exhibited across the span of U.S. history.

I don't know these six women, of course. I don't know their life stories or their prejudices, and until one of them secures a book deal, I don't know much about their experiences as jurors for George Zimmerman's trial. Still I assert that these six predictably followed the script of white women's response to racism in America, which reads like this:

1. Sympathize with the condition of racial "others," citing personal experiences of sexism or credentialing Black friendships. Demonstrate emotional impact -- especially by crying and/or doting upon an adorable child of color -- and reach out to the other to gain understanding.

2. Promptly reject the new understanding.

3. Cry again, this time in anger at the other for hurting our feelings.

I've seen this pattern unfold in classrooms and workplaces, on Twitter and blogs. I've repeated the pattern myself in relationships. The theological and political and academic movements of white feminism (seemingly inherently) display this pattern in their inconsistent commitments to women of color.

White women's habitual employment of the racialized bait-and-switch reminds me of the relationship between biblical women Sarai and Hagar, respectively the wife and the servant/second wife of father-of-the-faith Abram. Read Genesis 16 to watch Sarai (later renamed Sarah) demonstrate how a woman with limited systemic agency shifts her weight within that system to betray another woman with systemically less power:

1. First in sympathy to Hagar: "We are similarly disempowered women in this patriarchal system. I recognize that we can contribute to one another's well-being." (Genesis 16:1-3)

2. Then in rejection: "I gave you an inch of my privilege, but now you dare to infer that I'm the problem here?!" (Genesis 16:4-6)

3. Finally in injured pride: "The world is so unfair to me!" (Genesis 18:12)

Sarah's betrayal of Hagar. White women's betrayal of women of color. The use of sisterhood, and the use of power, to suit our needs.

Across American history and evident again in recent days, white women have been willing to see racism insofar as we choose to have the emotional energy to give and the social capital to spare. We join the protests for justice in memory of Trayvon. We "miss" the slight of a waiter/waitress or store clerk when we are out with friends of color. We preach that overcoming racism is as simple as being nice to our neighbors. We neglect to mention the systemic racism that hustles young Black men from schools into prisons.

We profess that Trayvon was everyone's son, but we do not confess that we white women are all Carolyn Bryant. We scorn the defense's use of Olivia Bertalan as a witness, but we tell ourselves that we are just being practical when we lock our car doors as a young Black man walks by.

When called on it, when confronted with our participation in personal and systemic racism, when forced to live up to our professed alliance with anti-racism, we notoriously dissolve into tears or anger. We resent the ones who challenge us. We cry offense and retreat, or, like Sarah, we cast out the "offender."

No doubt Sarah had her share of troubles: in addition to the normal stresses of travel and famine and burning cities, barrenness limited Sarah's usefulness within Abraham's patriarchy (Genesis 11:30), and she served as arm candy for local kings so that Abraham could increase his wealth (Genesis 12 and 20) while he enjoyed the social luxuries of concubines (Genesis 25:6). And still, these difficulties do not rationalize away her mistreatment of Hagar any more than white women's experiences of sexism absolve us of our unreliability in the face of racism.

Stressful though Sarah's troubles were, they were not the point. Sarah's troubles were not central to and they certainly did not trump Hagar's worries for basic survival. To support Hagar's survival with son Ishmael, Sarah would have had to take a step away from her power, regardless of the systemic limits of that power.

White women have to learn and relearn that we are not the point, difficult though that may be when sexism already insists, that we are not the point (but uses us as fair damsels in distress for its self-serving violence against persons of color). To support anti-racism, we must locate ourselves away from the center ... not to pretend that we lack racial privilege, not to imagine that we can simply "give up" that privilege, but to repent of our fickleness and our ignorance of race in America.

Perhaps the nearly-all-white female jury for George Zimmerman concurred with the defense's argument that a young Black man on the streets at night was cause for fear. Perhaps they sympathized with the problematic dynamics of race and prejudice but still concluded that the prosecution did not prove its case sufficiently. Perhaps they were unaware that they were set up to play the role of Sarah in a legal script, chosen to enact our systemic unfaithfulness to the other.

Regardless, in the jury panel of George Zimmerman's trial, in our personal and collective unfaithfulness to anti-racism, white women have failed communities of color yet again.