Chera Sherman-Breland’s parents kicked her out when she was 18 because she fell in love with a black man. Photograph: Imani Khayyam/The Guardian
“I love you,” Chera Sherman’s mother told her before driving away in her Jeep Cherokee, leaving her daughter, then 19, bawling fat tears in front of her boyfriend’s home in Laurel, Mississippi.
It was 1994, and Sherman had made the life-altering mistake of falling in love with Jerry Breland, a lanky, black 19-year-old she’d met through a friend back when she worked at Kmart.
Her mother had finally told her stepfather about their six-month relationship earlier that day after a local cop pulled Breland over while he was driving his girlfriend’s yellow Sunbird. When her stepfather heard she was violating his code against race-mixing, he drove to her job to tell her she had to move out.
“White men aren’t going to want you,” her father told her.
They allowed her to collect only what she could carry. The teenager couldn’t take her bedding or her jewelry – she even had to leave her car. “I love ya, but I just can’t have this,” her stepfather said as she grabbed random items.
In the car, the teen was hysterical the whole way; she was crazy about her boyfriend, but she didn’t want to be an orphan. She loved her family, too. “You made this decision,” her mother said, adding that she didn’t agree with her husband but had no control over it: he was the man of the house. And with that, she drove off.
Racism was the required way of life in Sherman’s mostly segregated community. When she was four, she had called a black man the N-word in public because that’s what she believed black people were called. The man was mortified, and her family members had laughed.
Inside, her boyfriend’s father told her she could sleep on the couch until the couple could get an apartment. They found one, but the owner kicked them out after a month when he realized Breland was black. They then landed a rental house where the landlord only cared about the color green.
Although she’d made good grades and planned to enroll at a community college that fall, higher education never happened for Sherman due to the obligations the couple took on to be together. He now works offshore on an oil rig; she takes care of their two boys.
‘Gaslighting is an art form perfected by conservatives’
Still happily married after 25 years, Sherman-Breland now believes many women pay the price – through abuse, rejection or public humiliation – for rejecting America’s rat’s nest of conservatism and racism that has exploded into full relief in Trump’s America.
“I can’t tell you the countless number of times younger Caucasian girls who are going through the same exact thing have reached out to me for advice,” she says now.
The south isn’t alone in its paternalism and sexism, but it is still a high art form here. “It is absolutely taught,” Sherman-Breland says. “You understand as a young girl that your place is behind your man, not in front or beside him. You cannot have your own opinions. That’s the most prevalent way they keep you in check.”
Sherman-Breland gradually went against her family’s broader conservative political beliefs as she became concerned about the future of her biracial sons, but it took hearing people she knew calling President Obama “the devil”, and Donald Trump’s open bigotry and birtherism, to electrify her. She now calls herself a proud liberal.
Most conservative wedge issues trace back to racism and sexism, she argues, adding that those poison beliefs take many shapes: abortion and immigration might make white people the minority; affirmative action gives the supposedly inferior an equal shot at jobs and education; public assistance benefits “freeloaders” of color.
White women continue to embrace such prevalent mores. “We’re helping you be a better woman. You’ll be stronger as a submissive Christian,” she says, mocking local white conservatives.
Sherman-Breland used to be anti-abortion herself, and while she doubts conservative men would actually overturn Roe v Wade – abortion is useful to them if they get the wrong women pregnant – she says they instead use it to get religious women to vote against their best interests. Abortion, she says, is what keeps many women she knows from quietly pulling a more progressive voting lever, especially after hearing Trump or Roy Moore next door in Alabama seem to justify sexual assault.
“Gaslighting is an art form perfected by conservatives in the south,” she says, wrinkling her nose.
The hypocrisy kills her. College wasn’t an option for her parents, either, who worked at garment factories. “We relied on social programs to eat,” she says, her smirk dripping with irony. “Not that they were lazy.”
No free pass for white women
White supremacy and all its destructive deep-seated beliefs are, like other forms of barbarism, usually ascribed to men. But historian Elizabeth Gillespie McRae warns that it is a mistake to give white women a pass while ignoring their role in America’s systemic racism.
“What’s wrong with white women?” – a common question after the 2016 election – is due to an amnesia, according to McRae, a history professor at Western Carolina University. McRae’s 2018 book, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy, illuminates powerful grassroots alliances of women across the country that worked to keep segregation alive in the 20th century.
“Segregation’s constant gardeners,” as McRae calls those women, distributed myth-filled textbooks and created student essay contests justifying white supremacy in public schools. They also enforced “racial integrity laws” used to kick someone who had “non-white” blood out of school, or have their marriage license refused.
Many of them were educated – some suffragists and newspaperwomen or even union advocates – and they purposefully helped create the twisted race politics that Sherman-Breland describes.
As the civil rights movement gained power, southern segregationists knew they were going to lose, McRae says, and they joined forces with conservatives nationally who coded their own racism. “Outside of the south, they needed to minimize overt racial language and instead talk about ‘constitutional government’,” McRae says. “Campaigning against social welfare and the safety net served their segregation purposes, too.”
Segregationist women used black-inferiority myths to bolster explosive anti-busing protests in Boston in the 1970s, McRae adds. “It’s not to say that all conservatives are white supremacists, but that white supremacists and segregationist politics animated and shaped the new right,” McRae says. “Folks advocating various forms of segregation were all over the nation.”
And they still are. White women, she says, are still often the loudest voices in these battles to keep children of color and/or poverty from “tainting” schools.
‘I wasn’t taught real history’
Lynne Schneider, 49, grew up in Lawrence county, Mississippi. Schneider’s early views were shaped in the Southern Baptist church, but saying the N-word was frowned upon by then, and her working-class parents didn’t allow it.
But in her public school, which was about two-thirds white, black kids sat on their own side of the cafeteria, and white children like Schneider went to a “private” pool that didn’t allow African Americans.
Young Schneider believed her elders when they said everything was equal between races, or that the south fought the civil war for honorable reasons and not over slavery. “I wasn’t exactly an examining person. I wasn’t taught real history,” she says, adding that her textbooks were filled with romantic myths about the Old South.
That wasn’t by accident, historian McRae says. Starting in the early 20th century, a well-funded group of women descended from Confederate soldiers, were desperate to rewrite the reasons why their fathers and grandfathers fought in the civil war. Daughters of the Confederacy leadersworked diligently to ensure that textbooks pushed “happy slave” lies and pride in European colonialism. They even worked with new teachers’ unions to pass on revisionist books to black public schools.
As an adult, Schneider emulated women around her, voting Republican when she was 18. She married a conservative man and became a teacher. By the time she came to Murrah high school in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2001, the formerly all-white school was majority-black. Today at 95% black, it is, astonishingly, the whitest public school in the capital city.
There she met an English teacher, a white woman, who challenged her to think deeper on issues such as abortion and gay rights. Later, her black students helped change her “small government” conservative beliefs which, she realized, keep schools underfunded and subject to constant attacks.
The students also pushed back when she messed up.
One day, Schneider told a class to “stop acting like BeBe kids,” a term used in the black community to reference misbehaving kids.
“You’re calling us ratchet ghetto kids,” they charged.
Schneider apologized for hurting them. “I still make mistakes,” she told them.
To “step out of the ignorance and blinders” of her upbringing, Schneider attended race dialogues and trainings such as Teaching for Change, but she warns other whites not to get high-and-mighty. “When a white person decides they’re so ‘woke’, they can be a little too quick to know more about black people than black people. No matter how clued in you are, you’re still white,” she warns.
She knows plenty of white women who are scared to reject their conservative upbringing, even if their beliefs have morphed, too. “They don’t want to fall out of favor, not be accepted,” she says. “Mississippi is like a football game. People want to be on the winning team. If you’re not conservative here, you have to get used to your side losing.”
‘I had $100, a suitcase and a child’
Anna McNeill’s first husband punched her in the hip one day, leaving a bruise the size of a grapefruit. He told her later she must have run into a piece of furniture.
He soon made it clear she had to mirror his beliefs. That included voting the same. Both were religious conservatives – he had attended seminary – so the compliance did not immediately seem onerous. But she soon learned what complete control felt like.
“As long as he didn’t cheat on me, beat me or spend all of our money on gambling or whatever, he said I should count myself lucky,” McNeill, now 39, says. He told her he was the only one who would put up with her, and quoted the Bible to ensure that she was fully submissive to him and isolated from friends and family.
“The gaslighting was the main thing, right?” she says. “I doubted myself.”
She finally left him. “I had $100, a suitcase and a child. I didn’t have resources.”
Therapy helped her question the family-values party line she and her husband followed. “I was conservative but starting to feel pretty disenfranchised by the Republican party,” she says.
McNeill soon remarried and had two more children with a second husband. He was ultra-conservative and his views on race disturbed her. “If I contested, I worried he would make my children suffer. Depression will suck all the fight out of you.”
She eventually left him, too. Now, she is happily alone with her children and involved in causes she believes in, trying to do domestic-violence advocacy work full time. “My interest in criminal justice reform came about because of my interest in domestic violence,” she says. “I started realizing a lot of these people that were incarcerated came from traumatic backgrounds.”
Still deeply religious, McNeill believes in “limited government” and says Trump proves how dangerous too much power can be in a bad leader’s hands. “I tend now to lean more toward libertarian, which is big enough for both liberals and conservatives,” she says, adding that the government should stay out of all marriage decisions, including same-sex.
McNeil is still anti-abortion. She says probably nine out of 10 white women she knows who voted for Trump in 2016 backed him only because of his stance on abortion, looking past his distasteful traits because the issue is “ a human rights issue” to them. “If you believe that is a person, then you have to protect that person,” she says.
Do anti-choice voters believe Trump really cares about abortion? “Oh, no,” McNeill says, laughing. “They thought he was more likely to appoint judges who would address that issue. Almost every single person says, ‘I will hold my nose. He’s in there four to eight years, but those judges are for life’.”
The fear of communism and socialism
In the late 1960s, Jan Levy Mattiace’s half-Jewish father and Methodist mother pulled her out of public school and enrolled her in a new segregation academy. Although her father was more progressive than most, many white parents then rejected public schools due to the red scare, during which white leaders, segregation academies and the Ku Klux Klan drummed up fear of the supposedly putrid mix of civil rights and communism.
“As children, we did not realize what was going on,” Mattiace says now, adding that she’s happy to see racial diversity in her alma mater today. The most recent US Department of Education numbers show Mississippi’s Canton Academy was 85% white, 12% black, 2% Hispanic and 1% Asian as of the 2015-16 school year. The town of Canton is 71% black.
In the 1980s, Mattiace became the political director of the Mississippi Republican party before, she says, the extreme-right took over the GOP. She recruited more black members even as national strategists like Lee Atwater helped perfect the bigoted “southern strategy” to draw racist voters from a shifting Democratic party to the GOP.
Today, at age 55, Mattiace is on the board of Dialogue Jackson, which hosts race conversations across political divides. She voted for the black Democrat Mike Espy against Cindy Hyde-Smith for Senate last November and now calls herself a “centrist” who may vote for a Democrat for governor this year.
“I land between Colin Powell and George Herbert Walker Bush,” she says. But, she adds, “I am not a feminist.” She is for equal rights, respect and opportunity for women, however, and is now married to a commercial developer who decidedly does not tell her how to vote.
Polarization between the left and right have long worried her, but Donald Trump concerns her more. Many of her friends may vote for him a second time in 2020. But for them it’s not about abortion, or following their husbands’ orders. “It was a vote against Hillary. Or against the Democratic agenda. They feel like that’s a danger,” Mattiace says. They find Trump better than the communist horrors many learned about at home and school.
“There’s a fear of moving into a socialist society,” Mattiace says. “They’re people that may have relatives in socialist countries … that are grasping for groceries and have to take a number to buy food. Trying to redistribute wealth fairly like that, it becomes chaotic, a war zone.”
Can people truly change?
People can change, as Sherman-Breland and her husband have learned. They stayed in the same county, marrying a decade after her mother dumped her in front of Breland’s house that day.
Over time, Sherman’s family fell in love with their grandchildren and with Breland – even her stepfather. “When he died in 2014, he was probably closer to Jerry than anyone else in his life,” she says of her stepdad.
Her husband never got nor expected an apology, however.
Sherman-Breland is concerned about Trump dragging old-school racism out of the hall closet. He is making people backslide into open hatefulness, dividing families like hers around the country, she says.
She worries especially about what Trumpism is doing to her own family’s loving detente. “When my family started supporting Trump and the ideals of all his rhetoric, it was literally like reliving all of that hurt again,” she says.
“I know they love us. But their support of this rise in white supremacy is devastating all over again. It has ripped my family apart. Again.”