Wednesday, July 30, 2008

White Woman Privilege as Revealed Through A Color Purple

I don't consider myself a radical activist by any stretch of the imagination. I do consider myself free, at 44, to be able to share my observations about the world. I am also less concerned about what people think, after all, a few decades ago, I would be considered middle-aged. It is with this disclaimer in mind that I share some thoughts that occurred to me this afternoon as I watched a particular scene from Steven Spielberg's production of Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

It was a rare Wednesday that I had a few moments to actually watch TV One. I was doing my daughter's hair and the channel was running an all-things Whoopi Goldberg afternoon. The movie was keeping her quiet while I untangled her curly hair.

The scene with Miss Millie and Sophia in the town square really bothered me. I've seen it possibly a dozen times through all the years. I even traveled to Chicago to see the live production of this acclaimed production. Today, I saw this scene through the eyes of a mentor, a teacher, a community participant, observer, and a writer.

In the movie, Miss Millie, is the Mayor's wife. The period was the late 1920s. It was in the town square. Miss Millie walked over to Sophia's children and stole a kiss from one of her three little ones. She did the usual ooooh and aaaah that sometimes happens to black mothers and black children. Then she did something she shouldn't.

She was still ooohing over the child and said to Sophia, "you're children are so clean, do you want to come work for me, be my maid." I wish this blog had voice-activation so you could hear the condescending tone of her Southern-bell voice. Sophia reacted with a resounding, "HELL NO." Sophia was not the docile, timid, battered wife Celie. Sophia was strong-willed and spoke up for herself.

"What did she say?" The white citizens standing across the street exchanged glances at each other as the dialogue between Miss Millie and Sophia continued. Miss Millie asked her the same question and Sophia responded with her same answer. Well, Miss Millie was insult and you just can't insult the white wife of the mayor in a late 1920s Southern town.

Sophia must have known the mob gathering around her meant her no good because she screamed, "get my children outta here!" One of her male family members grabbed up the children and took them out-of-harm's way. He was the same family member that had screamed from across the street, "Miss Sophia NO!" As she balled up her fist to hit Miss Millie in response to her slapping Sophia across the face. Her other male family member was sitting in the family car, holding the baby, while the white attendant was pumping gas. Sophia was not a domestic and she was from a wealthy, land-owning black family. I'm sure Miss Millie knew exactly who she was when she asked the question.

Sophia immediately found herself surrounded by white men and white women yelling at her. She was screaming, "someone help me," but no one black could and no one white would. She was alone, finally succumbed to a full-face punch that sent her big-boned frame to the grown, her dress fluttering up, revealing her panties. No one covered her womanhood.

What bothered me throughout this whole scene were the white women. They were whispering, nudging their husbands, gasping that one of their own were so insulted. This struck me because of the enduring legacy of racism at the hands of white men to protect the flower of white womanhood. Flashes of the many black men lynched because a white woman (often falsely) accused him of raping her. I thought of the many black women, post Emancipation, who were domestics, even those with educations.

Sophia was hauled off to jail, likely beaten and possibly raped by her white jailers for close to ten years. What was her crime? Refusing to be Miss Millie's maid and defending herself from a physical assault. When she was released, she was a shell of her former self, gray-haired, limping, swollen face, puffed eyes, lowered voice, whispered tones.

Sophia was known as a strong women. Prior scenes in the movie included her marching her pregnant self off to marry Harpo, fighting him back when he tried Mister's tactics of physical abuse, and sending Squeak flying across the room in the juke joint. The men were even afraid of Sophia, brilliantly played by Oprah Winfrey. It was known that she came from a line of strong women who were taught to stand up for themselves. She was no maid. Miss Millie and the townspeople knew this.

After her illegal incarceration, separated from her three children, she was released on parole old, broken, and Miss Millie's domestic. This time it was the early 1930s and Miss Millie had a car. Sophia tried her best to hobble behind her as she shopped in the store and tried to whisper encouragement as Miss Millie drove her new car, a toy purchased by her husband, still the Mayor.

The old white woman got what she wanted. Sophia's freedom was lost because of white woman privilege. She was vindicated in her eyes.

Alice Walker's story touched on so many themes, this was the first time I fully realized the white woman privilege of Miss Millie. Even when she had a moment of mercy, while driving her car, she proudly proclaimed that she, herself, was going to drive Sophia to see her children. She offered this as if she was the holder of all things good and was in the Christmas mood to be benevolent. She told her that she could have "ALL day," on Christmas.

Her promise was kept, she drove out to the vast land owned by Sophia's family. Multiple generations were waiting inside to greet her, Celie and Sophia's three children where on the front porch waiting her arrival. Sophia hobbled from the car, timidly greeted by her youngest child, brought inside by the other two. She was warmly hugged and honored and greeted by the family she hadn't seen in almost a decade. Inside was a beautiful scene, outside was chaos.

Several of the men had emerged from the house, whistle clean in their suits, watching Miss Millie. Miss Millie couldn't get the car out of reverse. She was jerking and pushing her feet on the pedals, bravely telling herself she could do it. It is likely that she was scared, the car was careening around with dirt flying up, she even ran into the car owned by the black family. The black men ran down the steps, running near, a few made it to the car, trying to coax Miss Millie to let them help her. Her years of conditioning to be afraid of black men kicked into high gear and she was screaming and hollering.

Inside, Sophia could hear the ruckus and as Celie was taking her coat off, Sophia knowingly pulled it back on.

When she came outside and found a frantic Miss Millie hugging a tree, she must have known her visit would be short-lived. Sophia offered to have one of the men drive her home so she could spend more time with her children. "I don't know him," was Miss Millie's tight-lipped reply. "Well, my sister Odessa can squeeze in." "I don't know her either." Miss Millie won again and Sophia's visit was cut short.

We don't see Sophia again until toward the end of the movie, but this particular scene really struck a cord with me today.

I have been involved in the racial healing and understanding in my little piece of St. Louis. Today, while watching this movie, I thought that this could easily have happened in some of the hundred-year-old estates of "historic Kirkwood." There was a poor, black side that served as domestics and nannies to some of the storied families of this near-West County suburb.

White women, here, and throughout America, have had the benefit of white privilege and racism. They have often stood by in compliant silence or loud accusations as black men and women where lynched, when little Ruby Bridges was going to kindergarten, when the Little Rock Nine was integrating Central High School in Little Rock, when Bull Connor was turning water hoses and dogs on black civil rights marchers.

Black women have cleaned the homes of white women and raised their children while these same women were having tea and planning Daughters of the American Revolution events. Throughout history there has been a precarious relationship of the gentler sex. Sojourner Truth proclaimed, "ain't I a woman" after witnessing a white man drop his coat so a white woman could cross the wet road without getting her delicate shoes wet. This question is the same question black women are asking of the white feminists.

Today, standing on the cusp of a black woman as first lady, I'm mindful of the loud silence of the white women Democrats. Cindy McCain is a documented adulteress, husband-stealer, prescription pill addict, embezzler, lover of plastic surgery, heiress, multimillionaire. The press is ever-so-kind to her while ripping Michelle Obama to shreds for everything. Black women are not afforded the same courtesies as white women. If a black woman is educated and well-spoken, she is called "angry" "bossy" "loud." If a white woman who is educated and well-spoken speaks, she is called self-confident and assured of herself, a proud member of feminist America.

White woman privilege gave birth to the suburbs as a result of their white flight from urban centers. White mothers didn't want Sally growing up next door to Roosevelt. The suburbs became exurbs and gated communities as blacks entered the middle class and affluent classes. The exclusive neighborhoods, redlining, and covenant clauses kept black people out of certain neighborhoods.

The fairer class has benefited the most from affirmative action and equal employment opportunities, despite the myth that the black people are taking all the spots in college and business. White women have been the primary beneficiary and while they still make less than white males, they make more than black males and black females, thus increasing the overall financial status of white families. Their entry into the workforce in the 1970s changed the landscape as their need for childcare and todays worklife-balance programs. Black women have always been "working mothers" relying on extended family to take care of their children while they cared for white children.

For years since slavery, white women have been complicit and complacent when it comes to the ill-treatment of black people, black women. This viewing of A Color Purple reminded me that even in 2008, there are white women who think it is an honor for a black or brown woman to work for them, to tend to their children, to clean their homes. It is these women that worry me the most for they are the ones that cried "rape" or "attack" at the site of a group of black men and "insult" at the audacity of a black woman to stand up for herself and let her know that she was one sista that couldn't be insulted, bullied, or forced.

It is 2008, close to 80 years since the period of American history depicted in the film. Sadly, as things have progressed, they have remained the same. White women still have exclusive clubs and look funny at me and other black stay-at-home moms who dare to venture to the park, library, bookstores, or playgroups for designated mommy & me time. The very ones who are gaining admission to the halls of corporate America are holding the purses of advancement so tightly, black women have turned their backs and opened their own businesses.

Yet, it is 2008 and there is the possibility of change. I know a group of progressive white women who are at least giving more than lip service to trying to understand white privilege. These women have attended community meetings, book clubs, group discussions, and impromptu ice cream trips to try to understand their fellow citizens who have been gently kissed by the sun.

My hope is that the Miss Millie's of the world will stop the next time they think about being rude or discourteous to a black or brown woman. My hope is that they disrobe of the unflattering garment of prejudice and hypocrisy and don the robe of peace, justice, and humanity.

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