The weaponisation of white women’s tears has been a point of debate for quite some time among people of colour. We know what it means to raise a grievance at work, at school, in social settings, only to be silenced by the apparent distress of the very person responsible for the issue at hand. And, worse still, we are all too familiar with the repercussions of being branded the cause of those tears, responsible for the anguish of women who have the luxury of exploiting a sense of inherent vulnerability that our skin, and culture, does not afford us.
The phenomenon was discussed with renewed vigour this week, when Ruby Hamad’s opinion article for The Guardian, “How white women use strategic tears to avoid accountability”, was published. Immediately, it struck a new chord in the ongoing struggle for true intersectionality in feminist circles.
The piece referenced an incident relayed by Djed Press editor, Hella Ibrahim, at the recent Sydney writers’ festival. Ibrahim talked about an incident in which, at a panel on diversity, a member of the audience was said to have taken issue with belonging to a group that was referred to as part of the problem, when panellist Winnie Dunn answered a question about “harm caused by good intentions”. Hamad wrote that Dunn “had used the words ‘white people’ and ‘shit’ in the same sentence”, thus sparking “the ire of a self-identified white woman in the audience who interrogated the panelists as to ‘what they think they have to gain’ by insulting people who ‘want to read their stories’.”
After the event, Ibrahim wrote: “I walked out of that panel frustrated. Because yet again, a good convo was derailed, white people centred themselves, and a POC panel was told to police it’s [sic] tone to make their message palatable to a white audience”.
Unsurprisingly, responses and reactions to the article, which included anecdotes of women of colour who have had to deal with their fair share of white women’s tears, were in the tens of thousands. It was shared more than 43k times, quote tweeted with expressions of vindication, and, ironically, on the other side of the debate, victimisation.
Quillette Magazine editor, Claire Lehmann tweeted about her confusion over the concept of white women's tears:
While journalist Andy C Ngo said that "intersectionality" was to blame:
Like others who dismissed the concept of white womens’ often strategically timed tears as an unwarranted attack on people who had done nothing wrong, Lehmann and Ngo seemed to consider the wider issue at hand – that racial oppression manifests in a multitude of ways, beyond overt acts of physical violence – irrelevant. Instead, under a wave of wilful ignorance, they claimed that the real issue was the suggestion that white women shouldn’t cry at all. Except, no one argued for that in the first place. What people were drawing attention to was, as writer Luvvie Ajayi put it last month, the fact that “these tears are pouring out from the eyes of the one chosen to be the prototype of womanhood; the woman who has been painted as helpless against the whims of the world. The one who gets the most protection in a world that does a shitty job overall of cherishing women.”
As Novara Media’s senior editor, Ash Sarkar, explained with regards to the underlying issues of white women's strategic tears:
It’s always a hard pill to swallow when you’re informed, after years of blissful ignorance, that some of your learnt behaviours can seriously hurt others
A few months ago, the same issue cropped up when Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, frustrated with what appeared to be Mary Beard’s justification for the behaviour of charity workers in the wake of the Oxfam scandal, was confronted with a tearful selfie from Beard in response to the backlash she was experiencing. Immediately, what had been a necessary debate between two contemporaries – about the concepts of civilisation and colonialism – quickly descended into a war about whether or not Gopal had been too forceful, too brash, with her criticism of Beard.
I remember dealing with similar issues as a child. Being a black girl, and a tall, chubby, outspoken girl, at that, meant that it was rare for me to be seen as anything other than aggressive whenever I happened to find myself in a disagreement with another white person. I, like so many other women and non-binary people of colour, did not have the luxury of inherent, delicate femininity. I saw my parents practise the same level of restraint in everyday life; in customer-service environments, with teachers or with other parents who were undoubtedly in the wrong in a variety of circumstances, but rarely had to face up to their responsibilities. Through my lived experience, as young as the age of 10, I knew I couldn’t let my tears fall like waterfalls when I confronted other white girls, because they wouldn’t ever carry the same value. And my parents told me as such.
Similar experiences, echoed in the responses of people of colour like me, who had to confront the fact that their feelings were often considered secondary if a white woman chose to cry in response to them, were expressed as part of and following the release of The Guardian’s article.
“I wish the world stopped when I cried”, wrote the Feminist Griote on Twitter, who also said that “almost every” black woman she knew “has a story about a time in a professional setting in which she attempted to have a talk with a [white woman] about her behavior & it has ended with the [white woman] crying.”
It’s always a hard pill to swallow when you’re informed, after years of blissful ignorance, that some of your learnt behaviours – in this case, using your tears and monopoly on femininity to avoid accountability – can seriously hurt others. But it’s a pill worth taking, especially for anyone who truly believes in working towards truly inclusive and intersectional feminism.