This is an essay about something I have been thinking about for a while: how protection of white women is often weaponised against minorities and especially foreign men. And about the strangely contradictory forces this sets up. It was inspired by a talk I attended a few weeks ago. The talk was by Duncan Campbell, about the role of the press in driving public attitudes to drugs. It was held at the Museum of Drug Policy, during a residency in Tower Bridge for the drugs charity Release’s 50th birthday. All of the quotes from the press below come from Duncan Campbell’s book We’ll all be murdered in our beds! The shocking history of crime reporting in Britain.
Throughout the 20th century drug policy has been shaped by ideas about race and gender. In particular, by concerns about immigration and the need to protect white women from the corrupting influence of foreign men.
During the First World War the front page of The Times was taken up with an advert for ‘Fear Banishers’, thin tabs of fabric impregnated with heroin or cocaine that readers could purchase to send to troops in the trenches. They were freely available from a pharmacist.
But ambivalent attitudes to opium in particular hardened once it became associated with Chinese immigration to Britain. The press picked up on the figure of the Chinese opium seller as an explicit threat to white women. In particular they picked up on the figure of “The Brilliant Chang” (real name Chan Nan) a Chinese migrant who in the 1920’s became a folk devil renowned for corrupting young English women, after his trial in 1924. Chan was reported to have an almost hypnotic ability to induce white women to try cocaine. He was said to be obsessed with English women, and would often demand sexual favours in return for supplying drugs. The Daily Mail assumed “that he did so explicitly as a member of the yellow race to degrade white women”. It was also said that “disgusting orgies” took place at opium dens. The Daily Mail declared “Men do not, as a rule, take to drugs unless there is some hereditary influence, but women are more temperamentally attracted”.
In 1918 the Daily Express informed readers “You will find the dope fiend, in Chelsea, in Mayfair and Maida Vale” before outlining an archetypal morality play about a woman brought low:
“A young and attractive girl deeply interested in social conditions and political economy made the acquaintance of another woman through a mutual friend. Within months she had become a confirmed haunter of a certain notorious cafe. She had lost her looks and health. Before she closed her miserable existence a bare nine months later she had introduced four other decent girls to her practice of vice”
The yellow peril was intent on corrupting white femininity in order to undermine the fabric of the nation, and it was up to white masculinity to protect both.
In the 1950’s the threat to white womanhood came from Caribbean migrants bringing jazz music and cannabis. The same press that raised fears over Chinese opium peddlers now raised the spectre of the hyper-masculine Caribbean male. In 1957 the Times expressed alarm at the idea that “White girls who become friendly with West Indians are from time to time enticed to hemp smoking”. The combination of jazz music and “hemp” was said to elicit a frenzy, particularly among impressionable young women. One man reported that he had to call of his engagement because his fiancee had been ruined by attending “hemp cigarette” parties. It apparently took her months to recover.
During this period, Sapper – the pen name of H.C. McNeile, author of the popular (and highly jingoistic) Bulldog Drummond adventures, inspired a group of young vigilantes who “disgusted by the degenerate parasites of the west end, against whom the police were powerless” would patrol the streets intent on rounding up “dope peddlers” and beating them until they agreed to change their ways.
Visible in these moral panics is a conflation of the drug itself, with the migrant who apparently pushes it, and the character of white women with the moral status of the nation. Immigration introduces these tempting but degrading forces into the nation. The means of entry is the section of the community considered to be most vulnerable – both as individuals and as a collectivity – white women. The process parallels the manner in which the prohibited substance enters the body of individual women eliciting dangerous passions and most importantly the risk of racially inappropriate sexual liaisons. Lurking in the background to all of this is threatened, white masculinity.
Folk panics about drug consumption fuel antagonism against migrants by playing on white British masculinity. But they do so in an interestingly contradictory manner. It is the duty of white men to defend white women (individual women, and white womanhood as a concept) from the predation of drug-pushing, foreign men. White men are therefore both empowered and emasculated. Empowered by the authority vest in them to protect (and by implication police) white women, and to inflict violence (either legal or extra-judicial) upon foreign men. Foreign men, are portrayed as both an irresistible and alarming threat, but also weak and feeble. Unable to physically challenge white men they must rely on underhand tactics and target white women / womanhood. But conversely white men are emasculated, if white women are at such a risk, surely that is a sign that white men have been failing to protect them? Surely if white manhood was sufficiently potent either white women would not need to seek out strange thrills on strange substances with strangers from abroad? Or at least they would not be able to, because white men would have kept the foreign menace at bay.
White women conversely are both belittled, and deified. On the one hand, they are feeble-minded dupes (dopes), unable to resist the blandishments and exotic substances of swarthy foreigners. But on the other, they are pinnacles of femininity; further evidence of white supremacy, they are so irresistible to men of other races that they inspire these outlandish and nefarious schemes.
I think that it is this contradictory dynamic that makes appeals to protect white femininity such a powerful drug for political mobilisation. The ego is continually built up at the same time that it is threatened with humiliation. Being unable to resolve this tension it is, in effective addictive, a drug.