Monday, January 27, 2014

A Black "Thug" Toddler Equals National Coverage. A White Woman Leaves Kids in Car to Die So She Can Have Sex? Near Silence

Where is a white version of Don Lemon when we need him? A brave white man to lecture white women about their bad parenting skills, out of control libidos, and the rampant "bad" culture among White Americans, more generally?

Alas, what shall we do with the white women?

Heather Jensen left her two children unattended in an automobile so that she could sneak off and have sex with a man who is not her live-in boyfriend. Heather Jensen's two children died from heat exposure while their mother rutted with her Lothario. The deaths of William and Tyler were directly caused by their mother's negligence and lack of impulse control.

Ennisha Devers's child was video recorded in her home while he cussed and acted like a "thug". The video recording was shared by a local police organization that is concerned with how "the black poor" are raising their children, and as an example of a broken culture which produces criminals, thugs, and hooligans. Apparently, black toddlers who use profanity when prompted by adults will be incarcerated later in life.

A story about black "thug" toddlers prompts a national conversation. By comparison, a story about a white woman whose irresponsible behavior results in the deaths of her two children is an outlier, and passes without much comment from the national media.

For many otherwise smart, well-intentioned, and decent white people (and some others) white supremacy's intersection with white privilege exists as an abstraction. This is the very nature of privilege: it blinds those who possess and enjoy it.

In all, the disparate reaction by the news media--and the public-- to Heather Jensen and Ennisha Dever is a glaring example of how white privilege operates as a system of social relationships and beliefs, beliefs that in turn impact how people interpret the world around them.

Ennisha Devers's bad parenting was greeted with tens of thousands of comments on websites, coverage on national TV and radio, and debated on social media. These responses ranged from gross and ugly racist screeds against both Ennisha Devers and her child, to the "polite" bigotry which operates from assumptions that link black and brown people together with long-held stereotypes about African-Americans as irresponsible citizens, and more recent Right-wing talking points about black women as "welfare queens" who are drains on (white) society.

Heather Jensen's lethal choice to abandon her children in a car while she had sex elsewhere has been greeted with a mix of concern, anger at the mother's poor decision-making, and sympathy for how such an impulsive choice led to a tragedy.

Unlike in the case of Ennisha Devers and her swearing child, there is no mass clarion call, moral panic, or effort to generalize from Heather Jensen to white women as a group. Heather Jensen's race is not the center of the story; it goes unmentioned because Heather Jensen's identity as a white woman is framed as being irrelevant to the death of her children.

Black women are stigmatized both because of their race and their gender in American society. Moreover, white racism holds black women in a particular and almost unique type of contempt while simultaneously being fascinated with black women's bodies and sexuality. Ennisha Devers is a natural villain, one who is easily reduced to her gender and race by the White Gaze.

White privilege deems Heather Jensen, as it does when white people commit crimes--or other undesirable or socially deviant acts--to be an individual. There, Whiteness asserts its power to make white people into the ultimate individuals: the ill deeds of a given person who happens to be white are presented by the mass media and other elites as telling us nothing about "white people" as a group. To even suggest such a question, however pressing and important, is impolitic and howled at with cries of "reverse" or "anti-white" racism.

Black and brown people are not afforded such a luxury. They are a collective who do not enjoy the luxury of living in a society that views them as individuals, where the failures of some in their community are not assumed to be reflections on the character of all.

Arab Americans are stigmatized as terrorists because of the actions of a few people.

Hispanics and Latinos are "illegal aliens" until proven otherwise.

Black men are racially profiled for "stop and frisk" campaigns because some other nebulously defined "black male suspect" may or may not have committed a crime.

Black women whose babies are recorded cussing and acting like "thugs" are stand-ins for a exaggerated and grotesque depiction of the urban poor.

A white woman's kids are dead because their mother is irresponsible and reckless. There is no need for a national conversation about white women and their parenting skills.

A black mother's kid is recorded cursing. There is now an imminent need for a national conversation about "the failed black family".

White privilege is real. There will be no public debate or hours of time spent on TV or radio discussing Heather Jensen's behavior, and what the death of her children reveals about being "white" and "female" in America. Whiteness and white privilege provide a comforting type of anonymity for its owners. Whiteness is also the freedom to act badly and not have it reflect on other members of one's racial group.

The mothers of black "thug" babies are pilloried as a menace to society. White mothers whose babies die while the former has sex in a nearby car are racially unmarked, the ultimate individual, who simply made a bad choice and should be empathized with because of their loss.

Whiteness and white privilege combine to (once again) create a theater for the absurd.


Michael Varian Daly said...

RE White Priv:

Myshkin the Idiot said...

White people don't identify with one another in a collectivist sort of way. That identity is not socialized (although there is an identity of whiteness that many white people do share though it usually goes unnamed). I think whiteness as it exists is in opposition to blackness, white folk identify as white by identifying people of color as not white (this is a difficult thought to get across, I hope I'm not muddling it).

Often white people don't really like working together as a group. In school, group work has not been very strong, in my workplace group work is not usually very strong. I think generally they like to follow the leader, they let someone who has done most of the work lead the group or take care of workplace responsibilities. I think the individualist mentality lets stories like this happen without a broader collective shaming of white people or a conversation of bad American society in general.

And white privilege allows the lowly irresponsible among us to stand as individuals compared to the responsible and respectable. White privilege even enables them to behave poorly through much of their life and become saved by suddenly becoming good without their bad behavior serving as a model of what it means to be white.

I looked up stories of this and checked the comments. Crickets... most people are saying she shouldn't have been arrested and should be allowed to grieve. I think if you leave your dogs in cars and they die people tend to be more outraged than they are with this woman's child.

chauncey devega said...

You wrote "Often white people don't really like working together as a group."

Don't they? And because it is invisible or seen just as normal behavior, i.e. pooling of group resources, policing social boundaries, having the state historically act to protect those resources and to ensure that they accrued by the group?

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I've thought about my comment, it's difficult to make such generalizations about white culture and people (I think that is part of white privilege, society makes generalizations about blackness, assumptions that don't always fit the preconceived notion, but in a majority white society you are less able to).

I think for those things you mentioned there is hierarchy, which is what I was referring to, letting the "natural leaders" assume responsibility. Traditional American culture is unspoken and therefore is not viewed under a lens, giving it some sort of invisibility (you wrote something about the invisibility of culture on your original post about the 'black thug' story, which I am thinking of).

White folk don't take notice of the lowest among us and feel some sense of group shame. We let people like this be individuals while taking care of ourselves. However, white folk like Bill O'Reilly would feel a need to shame black society for the 'thug baby' video because of [insert stereotypes here]. It's essentially unfair.