In her book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers details through exhaustive research the role white women played in the slave trade of the American South. In this intricately detailed book she displays how white women were empowered by being slave owners, and used this power consciously and intentionally to abuse, exploit and often engage in the commerce of black bodies and lives—separating the enslaved from their loved ones—to leverage their position in society and financially advance themselves.
In contrast to previously promoted depictions that white women in the American South were shielded from the reality of slavery by southern patriarchs, did not participate in the trade or sale of the enslaved and stayed away from the slave markets which would insult their gentile natures, Jones-Rogers demonstrates that white women in the south were not passive bystanders to the atrocity of slave ownership. They were also not innocent victims of the institution of slavery. They were learned and active in their role as slave owners. This truth must be recognized by white women as a privilege that is still informing their behavior and actions with black women.
The option of slave ownership gave southern women access to wealth, property and control of their finances in a way they had been previously denied. Many of them used this to their advantage at the expense of black lives. Many of the women slave owners were cruel, engaged in torture and other harsh and inhumane punitive tactics.
“The slaveholding household was a place of coerced production and reproduction, racial and sexual exploitation, and physical and psychological violence. It was a place where white southern women grew accustomed to the violence of slavery, contemplated the sale and purchase of slaves, and used the bodies of the enslaved people they owned in ways that reinforced their pecuniary value. The household became an extension of the slave market, and white women capitalized upon their access to both. They not only ‘did the thinking about slave buying,’ taking stock of their labor needs and the kinds of workers who could meet them, they orchestrated the sale, purchase, and exchange of slaves in these domestic spaces. When they were ready to finalize their decisions, they summoned slave traders to their homes to transact their business. The argument that white southern women were alienated from slave markets and immune to the machinations of the trade seems far-fetched in the face of the ubiquity of slave traders and speculators and their business in urban and rural landscapes, as well as in private homes. White slave-owning women frequently did not need to go to the slave market because the slave market came to them”(Jones-Rogers 83).
It’s troubling to see how, once one class of disempowered people (white women) gained power, they chose to use it to further disempower others: black Africans. The white women did not view the power given them as a chance to free their sisters and brothers. Rather, they took it as a chance to treat them as less than human for their own monetary and societal gain. This is a terrible chapter in the relationship between white women and black women and men. And the women can only be called out for the racists that they were.
But it is also important to ask ourselves, if we are white, how is institutionalized and condoned racism, which empowers white people and treats black people as subhuman still happening in America and what can we do to stop it? First, there is the issue of accountability. White women today need to acknowledge and look at the role of white women in the slave trade and this part of American history straight on, not justify these women’s behavior. White women of the present also need not delude ourselves into thinking that we would have behaved any differently than white women of the past. Any one of us may have acted the same way and any one of us can act the same way today in situations with similar dynamics: places in the culture and our daily lives where we have more power than our black compatriots because of our privilege, learned beliefs and the enduring legacy of racism.
The enslavement of Africans in North America preceded the formation of the United States of America by centuries and persisted as an integral part of the nation’s identity for centuries to come. White women in America, looking through the lens of this persistent and noxious legacy, came to view blacks as servants and slaves to use and do work they did not want to do, to put a dollar value on black lives and black women’s reproductive abilities. White women came to see themselves as superior and worth being waited on and served to. White women came to believe that certain work is below them, they came to view blacks as non-human.
Even in the so called more progressive north in the period before the Civil War, where many states had abolished slavery, jobs as servants to whites were often the only ones available to freed blacks, and so this continued the ubiquitous visual promotion of the learned belief that black Americans were meant to wait on and serve the white ones. This template is burned deeply into all white Americans’ psyches and it informs their behavior toward their fellow black citizens in extremely cruel ways.
These beliefs and this paradigm are still alive in American culture today. White folks are comfortable seeing blacks in positions viewed as subservient but surprised, rude and even disrespectful when blacks hold jobs or roles higher up on the social scale, and even positions of authority over them.
If they befriend black Americans, they often tokenize them and parade them around in front of their other white friends to prove their progressiveness and enlightenment.
Jones-Rogers details stories of individual white women slave owners as told through the voices of their slaves who witnessed their behavior first hand. One chapter focuses on the legal rights that southern women slave owners defended and fought for in courts of law if their “property” was threatened by divorce or theft. Jones-Rogers allows us to see the agency the white southern women had and how they powerfully advocated for themselves to make sure they got what they felt was their due: the black lives they owned and the value those gave them monetarily. These were no “wilting flowers” needing men to protect them and do their dirty work for them. In fact, it would be impressive, how much these women took up these authoritative roles, if they weren’t such heinous ones.
Most disturbing is how white slave owning families bequeathed black humans to each other in their wills. For white families this was a way to give their female members status and property. Black humans were often given as gifts on special occasions. They were wedding, birthday and anniversary gifts.
“Slave owners occasionally gave their female family members human property in ritualized affairs that helped mold their young daughters’ development as slave owners from early on. The elders would join the hands of young heiresses together with those of the slaves they were receiving and tell them that the enslaved people in question were their property forever”(3).
“As they planned their daughters’ futures, some slave-owning parents preferred to give their daughters female slaves, and they began doing so when their children were only infants. In 1836, when Mary Fuller Knight was eight months old, her father executed a deed of gift that gave her an enslaved female named Rose as well as any children Rose might have in the future. When the slave owner and future abolitionist Sarah Grimké was a child, her parents gave her a “little girl,” whom they “bought out of a slave-ship”(3).
Reading this book is important and informative and clears up any misconceptions there may be about the role of white women in the slave-owning south. They were empowered by slavery and used that power to further disempower others. It reveals much about human nature and the nature of racism in America. But I could not write a post about this book alone because I was sure that many white women would read it and think, ”that’s not me because I am not a racist.” And I did not want to leave that option open.
Anyone who reads about these women and thinks they are better than them and would not do what those slave-owning white southern women did is wrong. But for the few exceptions like abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké, most of us who are white would have done what they did or behaved the same way. Angelina and Sarah are exceptions, not the norm. The truth is, very few of us are that exceptional.
We must understand what systemic racism makes of us. In the time when slavery was legal in the southern half of the United States brutal slave owners is the monsters it made of white women. But as Robin DiAngelo points out in her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism, racism evolves and looks different in each era. Therefore we have to keep evolving and growing in order to see its face in our current culture.
DiAngelo explains how white people are insulated from racism by a system that supports their privilege and superiority. White people have come to believe that if they are not out marching in the street wearing white hoods or being openly violent toward black Americans, they are not racists. In fact, this squeaky-clean self-image that white Americans have cultivated, especially progressive Americans, has made them righteous and superior toward those whom they view as racist and blinded them to their own racism.
“Race is an evolving social idea that was created to legitimize racial inequality and protect white advantage. The term “white” first appeared in colonial law in the late 1600s. By 1790 people were asked to claim their race on the census, and by 1825, the perceived degrees of blood determined who would be classified as Indian. From the late 1800s through the early twentieth century, as waves of immigrants entered the United States, the concept of a white race was solidified”(DiAngelo 26-27).
Instead of understanding and looking around at the system of racism this country was based on and continues to perpetrate and all the ways that they participate in it at the expense of black people, most white people become extremely defensive when called out for their everyday racism. This is white fragility. Even worse, black Americans have come to be expected to protect a white person when they express that fragility with guilt, crying or defensiveness. Whites are too fragile to meet their racism head on and this defensiveness and denial masking as fragility and pain is deterring any meaningful progress that can be made.
“White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result , we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage. Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial world views as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people”(DiAngelo 11).
Because most white people believe being a racist is bad, of course, they don’t want to be one. But if we are white we must all understand that we are racist because the system we are raised in creates that by constantly promoting whites as superior and more deserving.
When we started the Nasty Women Writers site, my sister Maria and I agreed, “We don’t want to be white feminists.” We have tried. However, working on and devoting time to cultivating this site has only revealed our white feminism to us more. We quickly noticed that the women we reached for when we started this site were mostly white. To consciously correct that, we reach in other directions. We continue to strive to be intersectional (inclusive of all the diverse realities of women’s lives)in our inclusions and choices. But there are the months where we look and see we have covered only white women.
I, Theresa, am learning so much from my commitment to and continued work on the Nasty Women Writers website. It’s forced me to look at this in myself and also forced me to take in experiences other than my own and understand how easy it is for me, a white woman, to not do that. There is so much I don’t know. I am ignorant for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is that I am white. I don’t need to know a lot of this stuff. But I want to know. I will continue to educate myself and reach into places my privilege allows me to ignore.
Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers and Robin DiAngelo are #NastyWomenWriters and activists.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. Boston: Beacon Press. 2018
Jones-Rogers, Stephanie, E. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.