White lies, black bodies: Emmett Till’s accuser exposes ugly truths

In Luvvie Ajayi’s book I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual, she notes “[a]t the intersection of racism and sexism is white women’s privilege, and while some feel like they’re dismantling one system, they’re often upholding another.”

The history of white women’s lies proves just how true this statement is for black people everywhere. That’s no alternative fact.

White lies have caused the death of many black people, especially boys and men. Historically, black boys and men have been accused of sexual assault by the same white women who want to escape persecution by their white friends for engaging in consensual sex with a non-white person. This has caused many to not believe survivors, even when we know real physical force (or threat of physical force) has occurred. And at times, it’s hard for me to blame people for their uncomfortable tension with this reality.

The 1923 Rosewood Massacre in Rosewood, Florida, Rosewood (1997) was the first example where as a young adult, I vividly remember the exact impact that white lies had on black bodies.

In Rosewood, a white woman (“Fanny”) committed adultery with another white man, who caused physical injuries after an altercation ensued between the two. Because she didn’t want to be truthful to her husband (“James Taylor”) about the cause of those injuries, she lied and said she was abused and later raped by a black man. The black residents then became the target of white supremacy and violence, as members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other white men from out of state terrorized them.  

Today, it’s clear that white women like Carolyn Bryant Donhan, the woman who admitted decades later that Emmett Till — the 14-year-old boy who was lynched by a mob of Mississippi white men in 1955 — did not physically harm or threaten her, are more common than many of us would like to believe.

To be clear, white women like Donham are those who lie on innocent black boys and get them beaten and lynched by a mob of white supremacists, causing lifeless bodies to be on public display. White women who claim to not want to do harm to black people but decide to cause it. White women that know how to play damsel in distress extremely well because they have been given space to perfect it since birth. White women who claim to want the best for everyone but only fight for gender equality while remaining silent about violence against black people. White women who lie on black boys and men to receive attention and cause conflict.

In essence, white women like Donham are the 53 percent that voted for President Trump who now want America to feel bad for what was obviously a wretched decision. Except in this case, Donham’s lies caused someone to lose a life.

During the summer of 1955, Till, a teenage boy from Chicago was visiting with relatives in Money, a small town in the Mississippi Delta region. That summer, Donham (then Bryant) accused Till of whistling at her and saying “bye, baby” — an act now perceived as street harassment, but when done to a white woman in Jim Crow South in the 1950s, resulted in death.

After six decades of remaining silent, Donham came forward, in an interview with historian Timothy B. Tyson, revealing that her accusations that Till grabbed her, threatened her and was sexually crude toward her were not true. Let’s not forget that the men accused of killing Till — Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam — were later acquitted after being tried by an all-white, all-male jury.

There is a sickness to Donham lying about Till’s advances, about the white men killing Till in cold blood, and about a justice system that allows for both to occur without consequence. But there is another sickness not being discussed: Donham and white women like her are the very reason why many people who’ve actually experienced violence don’t come forward.

I didn’t reveal the truth of my own sexual assault until nearly 20 years later in an op-ed, “Reclaiming My Body During My Rapists Birth Month.” Growing up, masculinity was tested in uniquely different ways, which eventually led to the realization that my body was no longer mine — a body that a man twenty years my senior attempted to claim as his personal property.

Given how commonly rapists are believed over their accusers, it is no shock that survivors would remain silent for so long. Even in my own experience of abuse, I still recognized that the white woman’s word would be taken as truth, far more quickly than my own — particularly as a black, young, privately queer boy. Whether you are a victim or the accused, when you’re black or “other,” you quickly learn the harsh reality that White Word is bond.

Throughout the innumerable lies that white women have spread on black men — often rooted in their secret attraction to the black genitalia and not being able to admit it — it doesn’t escape me that many use these lies as excuses to not believe survivors’ stories. What’s worse, many survivors of assault, sexual harassment, and other forms of violence—including black, white, and Latina women—would never come forward because misogynists will use the lies of Donham, and countless others, to deny that American society was always designed to tear down the black man.

And, we must discuss that.   

The truth is: the economic, political, social, and judicial systems are not designed for black people, especially black men, to survive, let alone thrive. But while these systems and lies have cost the lives of black boys and men, misogyny and rape culture have similarly resulted in the deaths of countless black women. The actual victims of sexual assault and violence, unlike Donham, are not afforded the privilege of such lies.

I blame white women like Donham and I also place blame on [heterosexual] black men who, too, lie. Heterosexual black men are often guilty of both dismissing the stories of survivors and preserving the lies of their abusers — and often using such tactics to argue the innocence of their follow brethren. 

Bill Cosby and Nate Parker, for example, understand the positive messaging behind the way in which many will, whether true or not, defend perpetrators of violence when claims are backed up by the white woman.

Part of me can somewhat — even if infinitesimally — understand a rush to defend those who are often victims of oppressive systems, especially considering the history of white women and black men. However, the other part of me (that part that wins) can’t exist in a world where we would ever believe perpetrators over survivors, like myself. Survivors are disproportionately black and brown women and are also victims of the same systems.

So, what’s next?

Considering the fact that many African-Americans are so quick to believe “white lies” — even when it’s black women accusing a person of assault and other forms of individual or systemic violence — it particularly frustrates me in the context of sexual assault and rape culture.

As a survivor and advocate, and as someone who believes survivors, I know the history of white women and their lies — and it’s a history we all must heed. This leaves an uncomfortable tension. A tension where I hope we can be nuanced about our lives, including the history that came before it.

Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor with The Root and theGrio and has written for the Atlantic, OUT Magazine, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, Hello Beautiful, and Think Progress. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.

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