A White woman takes on the problem of nice White ladies

Sociologist Jessie Daniels reckons with the dangerous implications of the person she was raised to be.

Sociologist Jessie Daniels was originally named Suzanne Harper. Suzanne means “white lily,” and she inherited the name Harper from a grandfather who was active in the Ku Klux Klan and an abuser of children.

When preparing to publish her first book, Harper could not stomach doing so under her current name—so she changed it. But she was no Rachel Doležal, who appropriated the West African name Nkechi Amare Diallo, or Jessica Krug, who took the Afro-Caribbean name Jess La Bombalera. Harper knew that a name change is about positionality, so as a White woman from Texas, she took the name of another White woman from Texas. She became Jessie Daniels, named after anti-lynching activist Jessie Daniel Ames.

I like to imagine that the compelling and vulnerable Nice White Ladies is a candid conversation between Suzanne, the white lily raised to be a nice White lady, and Jessie, the radical lesbian feminist who embraces Flavia Dzodan’s conviction that her “feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.” In this book, Daniels reckons not only with the cultural scripts of Whiteness that pervade everything from politics to property ownership to popular culture but also with what it means to be Suzanne. She connects what W. E. B. Du Bois called “the mental wage of whiteness” with her mother’s death by suicide. This book is in some ways Jessie refusing to be Suzanne, and it is also a refusal of her mother’s tragic fate. Reckoning with Whiteness is a matter of survival, a way to seek freedom from the intergenerational racism fed to her and so many others like poisoned milk.