May 25, 2024

Lucy Letby’s white privilege helped her commit murders in plain sight

It’s almost impossible not to be struck by the horrific details of the Lucy Letby case. The sheer callousness of her crimes. The total vulnerability of her victims and their already harrowed families. The fact she got away with it for so long in plain sight – despite colleagues having logged their suspicions of her years before.

But while the medical profession learns its lessons to ensure nothing like this can ever happen again, it’s time as a society we did some introspecting of our own. If the media coverage surrounding Lucy Letby tells us one thing, it’s that she seemed about as far away from a serial killer as is physically imaginable. The smiling, blonde-haired woman who slept with cuddly toys and was nicknamed the “innocent one” by her friends is not, we are constantly being told, what a serial killer is like. But let’s stop for a moment and consider: why not?

Why do we not imagine someone capable of multiple murders to be a university-educated professional? Why do we not imagine them to have friends who think they are kind or doting parents who gave them an idyllic childhood? Why – most of all – do we not imagine them to be a young, blonde, white woman? And why is this presumption so pervasive in our society that it feels like rather than focusing on her sickening crimes, every news publication is instead reeling from the sheer fact that someone who looks like Letby could be capable of such atrocities?

Of course, the unspoken subtext being perpetuated in every single article about the Letby case is that there are some people we can imagine perpetrating these crimes and some we just cannot.

Perhaps an immigrant nurse with subpar English and a foreign name could be a fitting figure for these unthinkable murders. We can imagine impoverished murderers, black murderers, Muslim murderers because that’s the narrative told to us by every tabloid paper going. A Muslim murderer would have their actions linked to terrorism somehow; a black criminal would show how barbaric the non-white are at heart. Those people are capable of violence. But not an English rose in nurse’s scrubs. Not someone with a “sing-song name”, as one BBC journalist put it.

Lucy Letby's white privilege helped her commit murders in plain sight and yes she's still benefiting from it

Any woman of colour knows how pervasive the victimhood of white women is in society at large, and especially in the microcosm of the workplace. We know that the tears of a white woman are so sacred that we can find ourselves penalised for reporting a colleague’s racism because their pain is worth more than ours – even if they did call us a terrorist in the staffroom. We know that where white women are shrouded in a veneer of fragility that protects them even when they are in the wrong, we experience the opposite – we are presumed to be aggressive or violent or hypersensitive instead.

Dig deeper into the timeline of events in the Letby case, and we see this in action. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to conclude that her status as a white woman allowed her to hide in plain sight for so long.

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