A s the late Tupac Shakur once rapped, “Cops give a damn about a Negro. Pull the trigger kill a nigga’ he’s a hero.”
On Thursday, September 6th, a Dallas police officer named Amber Guyger shot and killed an unarmed Black man named Botham Shem Jean in his apartment. Media reports indicated that Guyger, who is a White woman, entered the wrong apartment, thought her home was being burglarized, and opened fire, delivering a fatal blow to Jean when she struck him in the torso. It was only after the shooting that Guyger reportedly turned on the lights — she said the interior was nearly completely dark — and realized she was in the wrong home.
Since then, there has been much debate over Guyger’s account of the incident, as well as how she managed to enter and mistake Jean’s apartment for her own. Some have said race factored into the shooting, which, if true, would mean the continuation of an American trend in which unarmed Black individuals (especially Black males) are killed by police officers. However, it should be noted that the Dallas shooting also sheds light on another issue — that is the complex relationship between Black men and White women.
Beauty and The Beast
“Whenever an unarmed Black person is killed by the police, they never just kill that person. They have to kill their reputation. They have to kill the positive idea of them,” uttered actor, comedian, and radio host D.L. Hughley during the D.L. Hughley Show on Wednesday, September 12th. As he predicted, soon after the shooting media reports began circulating the story that Guyger drew her handgun on Jean and gave verbal commands that he ignored. This narrative makes it appear that Jean was responsible for his own death. Adding to this, a police affidavit was released indicating that officers found marijuana in his apartment after conducting a search, and some reports furthermore said Guyger might have made noise complaints against Jean — she lived one level below his floor.
Each of the abovementioned claims paint Jean in a bad light. However, they do not have any connection with nor justify the shooting. On his same Wednesday show, Hughley asserted, “Well as far as I know, if you walked into the wrong apartment and you didn’t do it under the color of authority you were just a home invasion person. You were somebody breaking into somebody else’s home.” This statement more accurately describes the incident, especially since Guyger, by her own admission, was not attacked, coerced, or harmed by Jean. Given this understanding, one must ask why news media is sullying the character of the deceased while seemingly empathizing with the killer? A possible answer rests with how society views Black men and White women individually.
It is no secret that Black males are considered threats to society. Though Black men have continued to make strides in the US, through community activism, celebrity achievements, and even politics, black skin color is still associated with danger, poverty, and distrust, mostly regarding anonymous young males (Brooms & Perry, 2016). Such associations have led to discriminatory and oftentimes deadly outcomes. According to Dines (1998) the constant representation of Black masculinity as deviant continues to legitimize oppression and brutality faced by Black males. The negative stereotypes towards this demographic are the result of numerous factors, one of which is mainstream media. Examples of this can be found in hip-hop music, where Black men are portrayed as too aggressive, violent, and angry. Belle (2014) stated that this stereotype is often exploited, “playing into the gaze of the White mainstream imagination” (p. 290).
Arguably, most stereotypes associated with Black men are the opposite of those attributed to White women. Though they are considered an oppressed population, White women are valued more than other marginalized groups in the US. For example, this demographic has a higher likelihood of benefitting from affirmative action — though some might feel otherwise due to false propaganda. Additionally, White women who are kidnapped or go missing are more likely to receive media attention than women of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Scholars refer to this as “missing White woman syndrome,” which is the belief that White women tend to receive a disproportionately higher amount of news coverage (Sommers, 2016). One last example can be seen in a piece on Medium written by Venkayla Haynes entitled “Black Women Who Are Raped Don’t Matter.” Haynes (2018) stated that White women have controlled the narrative of the #MeToo Movement, which aims to stop sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual violence, and become the focal point though its creator Tarana Burke began the movement to help young Black and Brown girls.
Much has been done to preserve the innocence, or virtue, of White women throughout history. An example of this is seen with America’s first drug laws. During the 1930s, founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger began an anti-drugs crusade which was motivated, in part, by a desire to ensure the safety of White women (Daniels, Netherland, and Lyons, 2018). It should be noted that the desire to protect this demographic has often resulted in negative ramifications for others, especially Black men.
When Worlds Collide
According to Dines (1998), mainstream White representations of Black men throughout history have reaffirmed the racist myth that if Black masculinity is not contained it will destroy “the economic and social fabric of White society” (p. 296). More specifically, there has been a longstanding belief that White women could potentially be harmed by Black males. This viewpoint is largely the product of slavery and emancipation. During that time, White Americans, mostly in the South, believed Black men had a strong desire to rape White women (Patton & Snyder-Yuly, 2007). Elements of the Black male rapist myth eventually worked their way into media, with depictions of it seen in films such as The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915. Moreover, Black film critics of the King Kong movie and its sequels have long argued that it contributed to the sexual demonization of Black masculinity since the ape — symbolic of Black men — was shown as being out of White control, which resulted in a White woman being stalked and captured.
Fear of Black male interactions with White women have also led to negative outcomes on a societal level. To date, Black men face racial disparities in sexual assault convictions, mostly due to White women mistakenly identifying Black assailants. In many cases, stereotypes about the sexual deviancy of Black men have been used by White women to target and harm them. One of the most famous cases is that of Emmett Till, a Black teen who was brutally murdered in 1955 after being accused of sexual harassment by a White woman. The woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham, later admitted in 2007 that she lied about this encounter with Till. Donham was never punished nor jailed for this crime. Other examples of false rape allegations include the Scottsboro Boys, Nikki Yovino of Sacred Heart University, and Mary Zolkowski of Delta College.
Connecting the Dots
With Guyger’s shooting of Jean, history repeats itself in the form of news media attempting to preserve the positive image of a White woman while denigrating the image of a Black man. This narrative is the result of imagery circulated throughout the years positioning the two as opposites. Furthermore, it can be argued that Guyger’s decision to kill Jean might be loosely connected to the Black male rapist myth. The negative stereotypes about Black men and their interactions with White women might impact the latter to the extent that they will harm an innocent Black male to escape an adverse fate — even within law enforcement. Guyger’s thought to shoot Jean in the dark might have been caused by an unconscious bias that he — though moving as a silhouetted figure — was a Black male robber capable of harming and potentially raping her. One could also argue that White women and White men differ in how they perceive the threat of Black males, though both often succumb to negative stereotypes. That is to say, a White male police officer would not attack fearing sexual assault.
The purpose of this discussion is not to better the image of Black men at the expense of White women. Nor is there an agenda to thwart any potential or current, unions, whether platonic or romantic, between the two demographics. Rather, this discussion has two aims, both centered on altering commonly held viewpoints in American society. First, White women are not above reproach. As was seen in the examples mentioned earlier, there is a tendency in news media to portray White women as innocent, even when they are in the wrong. No human is beyond critique. Second, most Black men are not criminals nor sexual deviants. It is unfair to demonize an entire group based on unfounded claims and negative, oftentimes deadly, stereotypes.
Jean’s untimely murder at the hands of a White woman is reminiscent of Till’s death and the many false rape accusations made against Black men throughout the years. In each case a Black male was negatively judged due to fear that they would harm a White woman. This train of thought is based on years of brainwashing, via racism, ignorance, and media messaging. That train must come to a halt.
Belle, C. (2014). From jay-z to dead prez: Examining representations of black masculinity in mainstream versus underground hip-hop music. Journal of Black Studies, 45(4), 287–300.
Brooms, D. R., & Perry, A. R. (2016). “It’s simply because we’re black men” black men’s experiences and responses to the killing of black men. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 24(2), 166–184.
Daniels, J., Netherland, J. C., & Lyons, A. P. (2018). White women, us popular culture, and narratives of addiction. Contemporary Drug Problems, 0091450918766914.
Dines, G. (1998). King Kong and the white woman: Hustler magazine and the demonization of black masculinity. Violence Against Women, 4(3), 291–307.
Haynes, V. (2018, June 13). Black women who are raped don’t matter — Venkayla haynes — Medium. Retrieved September 15, 2018, from https://medium.com/@VenkaylaHaynes/black-women-who-are-raped-dont-matter-b5fc0791a642
Patton, T. O., & Snyder-Yuly, J. (2007). Any four black men will do: Rape, race, and the ultimate scapegoat. Journal of Black Studies, 37(6), 859–895.
Sommers, Z. (2016). Missing white woman syndrome: An empirical analysis of race and gender disparities in online news coverage of missing persons. J. Crim. L. & Criminology, 106, 275.