Via the redoubtable Tressie McMillan Cottom, I came across this phenomenal piece by Robert Reece at Still Furious and Brave. It’s called Shared Victimhood and Redemption Through Racism and is about the similarities between Shellie Zimmerman, the soon-to-be ex-wife of the killer of Trayvon Martin, and Carolyn Bryant, the wife of one of the murderers of Emmett Till.
Like Bryant, who stood by her husband during his trial, Shellie Zimmerman aided her husband in his — to the point of committing perjury. Also like Bryant, who went on to divorce her husband, Shellie Zimmerman is now seeking separation from hers. And in her bid to divorce him – and presumably also to gain some media exposure – Shellie Zimmerman is invoking his killing of Martin much in the same way as Carolyn Bryant did her husband’s killing of Till: as evidence of her abusive partner’s capacity for violence.
In other words, both represent cases of (white) women leveraging their husband’s killing of black children — outrages that went shamefully unredressed by the criminal justice system — in bids to claim victim status and exert their own right to vindication and compensation in a court of law. As Reece devastatingly puts it: “Zimmerman and Bryant opportunistically use the boys’ murders as proof of their husbands’ capacity for abuse when they benefit from shared victimhood, but they uphold their husbands in court through their testimony when they seek to defend white supremacy.”
Reece’s piece is absolutely on-point and raises a ton of deeply complicated, nuanced questions. Without gainsaying the legitimacy of Bryant and Zimmerman’s status as victims of domestic violence, Reece forces us to confront not just the irreducibility of different experiences of suffering modes of white patriarchal oppression — violence against women versus violence against non-whites and blacks in particular — but also the ways in which the former exists in relation to the latter. What are we to make of a situation wherein white women — who are undeniably victims of violence and oppression themselves — can capitalize on the undeniable, unavenged victimization (murder!) of black children as a means of liberating themselves from the immediate violence of white patriarchy in their households — while simultaneously doubling-down on and reinforcing its injustice?
The women themselves seem quite aware that this situation is a delicate one. Their tarrying with white patriarchal violence requires what Reece calls a “colorblind abuse picture” – both Zimmerman and Bryant “openly wonder about the details of each event, but they stop short of saying that the murders were racially motivated or that their husbands should have gone to prison.” They must do this not just because the analogies between themselves and the boys their husband killed is deeply faulty — they are alive and advocating for themselves in the court of law, not dead and failed by the justice system — but also because, on a much deeper level, the narrative of the potential victimization of white women is constantly marshaled as a pretext for violence against black males. As Reece puts it, “If they [Zimmerman and Bryant] chose to acknowledge the racialized elements of their husbands’ actions they would be forced to come to terms with the fact that they are responsible as white men’s violent outbursts against people of color are often patriarchal attempts to protect white women.”
I think this is totally right. The narrative of white women qua potential victims of black male violence — a fantasized, imaginary, paranoid fear that says more about the white men who cultivate and are dominated by it than it does about actual day-to-day reality — is indeed deeply ingrained in American history (as Reece himself has chronicled). Moreover, and here’s where my own research interests come into play – this narrative is also, I think, pervasive in much of contemporary American gun culture.*
It is a manifest but frequently under-appreciated fact that the dominant contemporary “Second Amendment advocacy” / firearms industry lobbying group – the National Rifle Association – owes its current, aggressively far-right incarnation to an organizational transformation in the late 1970s that was driven in large part by a rise in crime rates and white fear of nonwhites and of urban blacks in particular. Moreover, the man who more or less singlehandedly engineered that transformation – Former NRA President Harlon Carter – was himself responsible for shooting and killing a 15-year old Latino boy.
By the same token, much of contemporary gun advertising trades heavily in themes of patriarchal masculinity. Gun ownership is a sign of virility, a way to “Get Your Man Card Back.” The paradigmatic exercise of this virility is for a man to protect “his” womenfolk – wives, girlfriends, daughters – and this represents a constant trope in the burgeoning internet boards devoted to “Defensive Gun Use” stories. Guns are pitched to men as devices for protecting women — from whatever or whomever it is those men fear, rationally or otherwise.
If, in the general American imagination, one of the primary things guns are for is for men to protect women, then it also entirely makes sense that nowadays women can and are encouraged to use them to protect themselves. Guns are ever more frequently marketed to women directly, fashion accessorized and all. And when it came to the (successful) pushback against a possible renewed Assault Weapons Ban only a month after Sandy Hook, it was a female lawyer and activist, Gayle Trotter, who took to the Senate floor to conjure an entirely fabricated scenario wherein a totally hypothetical woman would need a tricked-out, “scary looking” combat rifle to fend off no less than five “hardened criminal” attackers all at once.
In light of this, I have a question or two. First, some caveats. I am in no way challenging a woman’s right to carry a weapon to protect herself or others. Nor am I denying the existence of entirely reasonable, totally understandable circumstances and experiences that could lead her to make that choice – and righteously so.** Nor still am I challenging the right of anyone – men included – to choose to own a gun to protect themselves or those who need protection. That right is and remains law ratified by the Supreme Court.
But I must ask: When white American men (and, increasingly women) buy guns to protect themselves, what color is the attacker that they fear? What faces do they give the imaginary home invaders when they hear the white Gayle Trotter’s ludicrous story – are they the ruddy Cornish farmhands from Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or are they are something several shades darker?
I fear that we already know what far too many of the answers would be. For my part, much of the hate-mail I’ve received from my writing about my personal experiences with firearms – testosterone-fueled, vitriolic tirades that are not just sexist and homophobic but also thoroughly racist – has left me with little illusion on that score.
And I’ll ask something else, even though I’m eager to be proven wrong: Why aren’t there any glossy ads for handguns featuring a black woman – even her hand? And I fear we know the answer to this too: because when a black woman even threatens to exercise the right we so ghoulishly bestow on George Zimmerman, she doesn’t even get the chance of becoming Shellie Zimmerman. She becomes Marissa Alexander.
Here’s the upshot, what I’m driving at, and what I’ve been thinking about since reading Robert Reece’s provocative and brilliant piece. We live in a country where both the claim to victim status and the right to legally threaten and exercise violence are all too often the prerogatives of white supremacy, and are appropriated from inflicted and upon black folks. Denying or ignoring this state of affairs only reaffirms it – and capitalizing on it, as I think Shellie Zimmerman is doing, and also as, in their way, the NRA and many gun manufacturers do – only makes the suffering, and, yes, the violence, worse.
*I realize that this term is somewhat of a generalization and that “gun cultures” might be more apt. If there’s interest, I can elaborate on this later on.
**I do, though, feel obligated to reference the complex and troubling data on the relationship between the presence of guns in homes where domestic violence has occurred and the likelihood that women will be killed by their partners. See here and here for some information on that subject.
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