Reflections on Charleston, White Supremacy, Misogyny

Photo from

Photo from

Last night, a white twenty-one-year old named Dylann Roof opened fire on worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The details of the incident are still in the process of being verified and released to the public, but we know this: nine people were murdered because they were Black. Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of victim Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was told by one of the survivors that Roof informed his victims: “I have to do it… You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Dylann Roof, I have white skin but I am not your woman. It sickens me to my core than if I were in that church when you injured and murdered my African American brothers and sisters you might have decided to spare my life as a result of your viciously twisted view of who should live and who should die. You would not take me for a member of the human family to which the nine souls you killed also belong.

Dylann Roof, I hate that you said you killed for my sake. I hate that in your mind you are my protector. I hate the misogyny at the heart of your wretched white supremacist beliefs, for it is the same seed of hatred from which the poisonous roots of organized bigotry sprang forth.

Many people have and will and continue to refuse to acknowledge this shooting as a hate crime. They might say it’s the actions of a person who is mentally ill and attribute the evidence of Roof’s white supremacist views as nothing more than an expression of being “crazy.” Such a dismissal would be acceptable if such murders were the first of their kind—and nothing could be further from the truth.

I do not pray and I am not a Christian. But I offer my words as a way of witnessing that I do not stand and will never stand in solidarity with respect to my skin color insofar as the social privileges its affords are made possible by the suffering of others. The tragedy of Dylann Roof does not only belong to Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., DePayne Middleton, Susie Jackson, and their loved ones. It is the tragedy of all of us who mourn, and especially of those who believe in the legitimacy of white supremacy, which is another way of saying the tragedy of believing that being white exists.

In times of such perennial violence, I often turn to the words of James Baldwin to hold me up. The following excerpt is taken from his 1984 essay, “On ‘Being White’ and Other Lies…”:

“America became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation. No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie. White men—from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians—became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women.

This moral erosion has made it quite impossible for those who think of themselves as white in this country to have any moral authority at all—privately, or publicly. The multitudinous bulk of them sit, stunned, before their TV sets, swallowing garbage that they know to be garbage, and—in a profound and unconscious effort to justify this torpor that disguises a profound and bitter panic pay a vast amount of attention to athletics: even though they know that the football player (the Son of the Republic, their sons!) is merely another aspect of the money-making scheme. They are either relieved or embittered by the presence of the Black boy on the team. I do not know if they remember how long and hard they fought to keep him off it. I know that they do not dare have any notion of the price Black people (mothers and fathers) paid and pay. They do not want to know the meaning, or face the shame, of what they compelled—out of what they took as the necessity of being white—Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson or Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) to pay I know that they, themselves, would not have liked to pay it.”

In sadness, hope, anger, but never despair.




Forgotten Women in Ireland

In 2002, my mother and I went to see a film called The Magdalene Sisters, which told a fictionalized story of a dirty little secret of Irish history: for over 200 years, young women and girls on the social and economic margins of society were sent to work from dawn til dusk in asylums under the supervision of Catholic nuns. These institutions were known as Magdalene laundries, as the bulk of their labor was just that, as well as other domestic work. Based on the 2002 film, and the narratives in the 1998 documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, those confined in laundries ranged from being prostitutes to unwed mothers  to mentally retarded to “too pretty.” Their penance for any and all of the above was to work deep into and well past the point of physical exhaustion and to be regularly castigated for the sins they had (yet) to commit. Silence and obedience was strictly enforced, often through corporal punishment and psychological abuse. And, all you have to do is layer that onto the deeply entrenched misogyny of the Catholic church hierarchy, and so, sexual abuse and sustained protection of the abusers inevitably followed.

When I saw these two films, I was outraged and deeply disturbed. Anyone would be. But my feelings came out of the awareness that if my great-great grandparents had not left Ireland in the late nineteenth century, there’s no reason to think I wouldn’t have been rounded up alongside other poor, unsuspecting, and hopelessly trusting young women. I say “trusting” because it’s likely that when they were shepherded into the laundries by the nuns, they saw these women as ambassadors of God, who would ultimately protect them (provided they asked forgiveness). It’s likely their families felt the same.  I would have believed in their good intentions, and I, too,  would have been devastated upon realizing I was confined to a prison without the knowledge I had even committed a crime. When I think of these women, I think of the absurdity of human existence, of my existence in this time and place. There’s no good reason I am here expressing my thoughts and there’s no good reason they lived, worked, and died having suffered such injustice.

So, when I turned on the radio yesterday I was surprised and grateful to hear about the report of the findings of the Inter-Departmental Committee Investigating State Involvement with the Magdalene Laundries, thanks in large part to the efforts of Justice for Magdalenes. Unsurprisingly, the report found that the Irish State was directly involved in maintaining the Magdalene Laundries–the last of which was shut down in 1996. I’m very interested to see how this unfolds, and I expect to be appropriately haunted as more light shines on this dark truth.