Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, 19 year old Freedom Rider, arrested in 1961
I posted this photograph on Tumblr once a long time ago, struck by the expression on Joan’s face but not knowing much about her personal history. I saw it crop up around the internet from time to time, on places like ffffound and weheartit, always without commentary. Most recently, I saw it posted on Threadbared, a blog that I can’t say enough good things about, with the following text:
Originally published in the photo collection Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freed Riders, this archival police photograph of then 19 year-old Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland has been making the rounds. There is much debate about what troubling discourses of race and beauty might be operating in its reception right now, as there should be — the manifold dangers in conflating beauty with truth, or in attributing to whiteness a special heroism, are real and run deep.
The bolded bit is the part that has really stuck with me. As a white person, I have a tendency to identify with images of white people engaged in what is typically presented as “special heroism.” I think part of this comes from a deep wanting to see images of white people working against injustice instead of sitting around and benefiting from it, however intentionally or unintentionally. I’m working on recognizing the ways in which that’s sort of messed up. While it’s not wrong to want to see people like myself engaging in social action, it is wrong for me to (by consciously or subconsciously searching out their images) prize and elevate their work above others simply because we share the experience of being white. An image like this is powerful to me due in some part to its safety and the ways in which it mirrors (some of ) my own identities — a white woman who does not look particularly distressed is comforting, it says nothing about the danger, the brutality, the tension that often comes with direct action. It says to me, you can do powerful work and still be protected. Which is problematic, because in my case, what protects me is the privilege I benefit from as a young, well-educated, white woman who presents her gender in a “conventional” way.
But back to whiteness and special heroism: I think there’s this common misconception (held largely by white people) of it being both more noble and more difficult for white people to work for social change. This is something I see in my white students very frequently — they want to be congratulated, acknowledged, made to feel special for doing community building/social justice work in predominantly black communities, whether their work is voluntary or mandated by a service learning course or grant obligation. When I talk about their service experiences with them they like to note the absence of other white people at their service sites, “I’m the only white person there,” they say, as though that makes them extra-special.
Some of my white students seem to feel that it’s a sacrifice for white people to engage in social justice work because part of that work often involves examining, acknowledging, and working to dismantle the systemic injustices that allow them to continue benefiting from white privilege. They say, “I have nothing to gain from this, I’m not doing it for my own benefit. I’m doing it to help others.” Some of them point out the “losses” they will experience when we are all “equal” and white people are no longer “special,” I’ve been working hard on trying to articulate the ways in which this is a messed up way for them to be thinking. It’s not easy.
This idea of whiteness and special heroism as it exists in conjunction with the Freedom Riders is especially interesting to me. My undergraduate institution, Miami University, acquired the Western College for Women, where training for 1964’s Freedom Summer were held. In the time that I was at Miami, there was a heavy campaign to absorb the Western College for Women’s history regarding Freedom Summer into the mythology of Miami University, erecting a Freedom Summer memorial, working with the theater department to put together an interactive Freedom Summer tour, designed to approximate the experience that volunteers went through during their training process. Miami is eager to claim the political and ideological history that Freedom Summer represents. To bring a “special heroism” to a school that is by and large very, very white and very, very wealthy. Miami’s claiming of Freedom Summer as its own saddened me in ways that I have trouble explaining
This post is fast-becoming a jumbled mess. I’m not really sure what to say, just that this image brought up a lot of thoughts that I am trying to sort through. I hope this goes without saying, but just in case it doesn’t, by exploring the ways in which I relate to these images and narratives of white people engaged in social action, I in no way intend to devalue the work of people like Joan, who have a demonstrated history of social justice work. I’m just trying to sort through my own stuff.