No, White Women, Betty Shelby’s Manslaughter Charge Is Not Unfair
By Syreeta Neal
Last Friday, Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old Black man and father of two, became one of our latest hashtags when he was killed by police for being Stranded While Black. After his car broke down in the middle of the road, a call was made to 911 and several officers were dispatched to the scene both on the ground and in helicopters. After a brief and nonviolent interaction, Crutcher was tased by Officer Tyler Turnbough and then fatally shot by Officer Betty Shelby as he walked toward his SUV with his hands up. Police in the helicopter above said he looked like a “bad dude.” So they killed him. He was unarmed.
When I finally mustered up the emotional fortitude to read this story on Monday morning, I braced myself for the inevitable chorus of “Maybe he had a weapon! Maybe the officer feared for her life! We don’t have all the facts! Being a cop is hard!” This mindless refrain has now become maddeningly familiar among a particular set of white folks. Predictably, as soon as the story of Terence Crutcher’s extrajudicial killing began to go viral, those comments began to appear in some of my friends’ Facebook posts. Thankfully, they were just as quickly shut down. None of this surprised me. I have a fairly carefully curated online space made up of mostly progressive, mostly feminist, mostly social justice-oriented, and mostly POC friends who are not afraid to call out the odd friend or family member when they randomly show up to spout this type of toxic rhetoric.
What I did not expect to see from my white so-called “intersectional feminist” friends was post after post about how messed up it was that “the first cop to be charged in such a case was a woman.”
First of all, let’s be crystal clear here: Betty Shelby is not the first police officer to be charged in the killing of an unarmed Black person. Nor will this be the first indictment of its kind, should it even come to that. And this is a really important (and easily Google-able!) fact, because when white women take this lie and use it as an example of sexism, what they are actually doing is making Betty Shelby into a victim, whether they intend to or not.
To do so is a straight-up act of violence against Black people, and it’s a narrative that is sure to be scooped up by her most fervent and violent supporters any minute now. Again, let me be really clear: Betty Shelby is not the victim here, not by any stretch.
The fact that a white woman who killed an unarmed man in cold blood is being held accountable for her actions is not sexist and it’s not oppressive. It’s fair. That’s literally all it is. And let’s be real here: The chances of these charges sticking are slim to none. According to ThinkProgess, 2015 saw the highest number of police officers charged with killing civilians (that number being 12). Keep in mind that approximately 1,200 civilians were killed by police last year. There were zero convictions in any of these cases. Also keep in mind that Betty Shelby (who has had two prior excessive force complaints filed against her) was free on bond a mere 20 minutes after being booked for felony manslaughter in the first degree. I’d say she’s doing pretty okay, all things considered.
I will be the first to admit that I have trust issues when it comes to befriending white women. I am extremely cautious with my friendships as a result, but even so, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been fooled yet again by women who so publicly and performatively claim to truly value intersectionality. It is beyond disheartening to know that upon receiving news that an officer will finally face some repercussions for killing our people, so many white women immediately jumped to the “unfairness” of it all. Is it really any wonder that there is such a huge disconnect between Black women and White Feminism when this is the knee-jerk “feminist” response?
Our men, women, and children are being killed are being killed at a dizzying rate and the primary (or even secondary) concern here is that the woman responsible for this latest state-sanctioned murder is a victim of scapegoating? It boggles my mind and breaks my heart.
This is all very reminiscent of the anti-Blackness that reared its ugly head after Officer Peter Liang was convicted of second degree manslaughter for killing Akai Gurley, and it is simply not okay.
For far too long, Black men have been harmed and, yes, killed in the name of protecting white women. One need look no further than the cases of Emmett Till, Susan Smith, Amanda Knox, and Bonnie Sweeten to see the pattern here, and it’s past time white feminists really start to do the tough work of owning up to that legacy. Yes, white women are oppressed by patriarchy and misogyny. Yes, they are oppressed by male-dominated power structures. But white women are also fully capable of oppressing Black Americans and have been doing so both consciously and unconsciously for centuries. In order to change that, one must first acknowledge it.
So, in that spirit, I now have some hard questions for the white women in my life that need answers.
Did Betty Shelby’s arrest make you uncomfortable?
Does my calling that reaction out for the violence it is also make you uncomfortable?
Do you feel attacked or wronged by my calling this thing by name?
Did you answer yes to any of the above?
Good. Sit with that. Really sit with it and think it through and ask yourself why it may be easier for you to see a white man charged for killing an innocent Black person than a white woman. Ask yourself whether or not it’s because on some level you actually see yourself in the women I’ve mentioned above.
When you look at violent cop Betty Shelby and unarmed citizen Terence Crutcher, who do you identify with? Maybe you’ve had moments of paralyzing fear at the mere sight of a Black man walking toward you on the street. Maybe you’ve grabbed your purse in an elevator or locked your doors when a Black man walks by, knowing you wouldn’t do the same if it was a white man. Maybe you’ve assumed a Black kid was a grown man and become terrified of him before realizing he was actually just a child. Perhaps you’ve even taken the easy way out by lying and claiming a Black person did something they didn’t actually do just to save your own hide.
If you have done any of these things, you’ve got to face that. You’ve got to get really honest and confront the uncomfortable truths in your own life before you can even attempt to effect change in the lives of others. It’s not fun and it rarely feels good — but hey, no one ever said being woke was easy.
Lead image: Paladin Justice