I’m just finishing up reading They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers. There are so many amazing books being read and recommended about understanding white supremacy and white fragility, but this one in particular is crucial to understanding not just white people’s role in white supremacy, but white women’s role.
Karen-ing didn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve heard and been part of a lot of conversations lately about how white men calling the cops doesn’t seem to go viral, or—lately—how white male founders aren’t subject to digital walkouts and lose their jobs for neglecting to build anti-racist organizations.
Yep, there’s a gender double standard as with everything in our culture. But the unfairness when it comes to the treatment of white men and white women on this issue is deeply secondary to the overarching issue of race here. Put another way: The problem is not the standard white women are being held to. It’s that all white people aren’t being held to a higher standard.
If you find yourself falling into the position of “feeling bad” for the white women, grab this book. It will reframe your thinking. It does the best job of anything I’ve read so far in detailing the ugly history of white women in America and race.
We know that Black people were frequently lynched in the name of the purity and sanctity of white women. But this book takes us back a step further: To the women who were actually enslavers.
Want to know how deep the denial of white women’s role in the nitty gritty of white supremacy goes? Historians for generations refused to face that women were slave owners in their own right.
But the evidence to the contrary was always there. For hundreds of pages, Jones-Rogers gives us example after example, citing document after document of women who were slave owners. They participated in slave auctions. They deeply understood the economics of the system, participated in it, and benefited from it. Through painstaking research, she details what I’ve come to believe is the very first pervasive example of problematic American white feminism that actively hurts Black women in order to get ahead.
Owning Black people—in particular Black women—was one of the few means for white women to escape the laws of coverture and own property and build net worth on their own, aside from the various patriarchs in their lives. Owning Black people, in particular Black women, allowed white women to get their own toe-hold of freedom against men. White women gained freedom by enslaving Black women. It was an early example of the woman who goes along with an unfair system saying things like, “Look, I have to play this game and advocate for myself first…” What some would consider “Lean In feminism.”
This is hard to sit with. I have participated and benefitted from “cool girl” white feminism, too. I know, like all white feminists, I have been complicit in this. I am probably making mistakes in how I am talking about this now, and will make more mistakes in the future as I try to do better. But we have to try. And in order to do better now, we need to open our eyes to this deep historical pattern in this country first: That white women have frequently gained power by exploiting others, not by linking arms with other underrepresented groups and lifting everyone up.
Particularly horrifying are the explanations of why white women preferred female slaves. They essentially turned Black reproduction into an appreciating asset. White women were able to use and rent Black women out as wet nurses to other white women for profit while keeping ownership of them.
If that isn’t disturbing enough, there are two other wrinkles to this that white women were complicit in or even the architects of: These women were frequently separated from nursing their own children in order to nurse other white babies for profit, and they were getting pregnant repeatedly in many cases because of sexual assault or forced copulation to maximize their “value.” Black women were also valued because of their children. Those children would grow into slaves, allowing white women to add to their wealth without having to buy slaves on the markets.
It’s a staggering denial of Black women’s humanity. A heartbreaking systemic example of one group of mothers cruelly exploiting another group of mothers for their own economic gain.
Women were not bystanders to slavery, as so many historians have maintained. They understood and exploited this economy for their own gain against men. I’m also working my way through Layla Saad’s White Supremacy and Me right now, and she talks about her motivation to become “a better ancestor” in doing this work. Sadly, white women have a low bar. (Want to take the next steps on your own journey to become anti-racist? Join our Chairman Mom events this week.)
Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom:
- Are you doing summer vacations?
- What are you doing on #Whiteoutwednesday this week?
- How much time do I give my employer to right a compensation wrong?
- How do I stop downplaying my achievements?