WHITE WOMEN'S TEARS
But you are my sister, and I share your pain!
refers to all the ways, both literally and metaphorically, that white fragility manifests itself through white people's laments over how hard racism is on
In my work, I consistently encounter these tears in their various forms, and many writers have already provided excellent critiques.
Here, I want to address one manifestation of white tears: those shed by white women in cross-racial settings. The following example illustrates both the frustration that people of color feel with those tears and white women's sense of entitlement to freely shed them.
When another police shooting of an unarmed black man occurred, my workplace called for an informal lunch gathering of people who wanted to connect and find support. Just before the gathering, a woman of color pulled me aside and told me that she wanted to attend but she was “in no mood for white women's tears today.” I assured her that I would handle it. As the meeting started, I told my fellow white participants that if they felt moved to tears, they should please leave the room. I would go with them for support, but I asked that they not cry in the mixed group. After the discussion, I spent the next hour explaining to a very outraged white woman why she was asked not to cry in the presence of the people of color.
I understand that expressing our heartfelt emotionsâespecially as they relate to racial injusticesâis an important progressive value. To repress our feelings seems counterintuitive to being present, compassionate, and supportive. So why would my colleague of color make such a request? In short, white women's tears have a powerful impact in this setting, effectively reinscribing rather than ameliorating racism.
Many of us see emotions as naturally occurring. But emotions are political in two key ways. First, our emotions are shaped by our biases and beliefs, our cultural frameworks. For example, if I believeâconsciously or unconsciouslyâthat it is normal and appropriate for men to express anger but not women, I will have very different emotional responses to men's and women's expressions of anger. I might see a man who expresses anger as competent and in charge and may feel respect for him, while I see a woman who expresses anger as childish and out of control and may feel contempt for her. If I believe that only bad people are racist, I will feel hurt, offended, and shamed when an unaware racist assumption of mine is pointed out. If I instead believe that having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unaware racist assumption is pointed out; now I am aware of and can change that assumption. In this way, emotions are not natural; they are the result of the frameworks we are using to make sense of social relations. And of course, social relations are political. Our emotions are also political because they are often externalized; our emotions drive behaviors that impact other people.
White women's tears in cross-racial interactions are problematic for several reasons connected to how they impact others. For example, there is a long historical backdrop of black men being tortured and murdered because of a white woman's distress, and we white women bring these histories with us. Our tears trigger the terrorism of this history, particularly for African Americans. A cogent and devastating example is Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who reportedly flirted with a white womanâCarolyn Bryantâin a grocery store in Mississippi in 1955. She reported this alleged flirtation to her husband, Roy Bryant, and a few days later, Roy and his half-brother, J. W. Milam,
lynched Till, abducting him from his great-uncle's home. They beat him to death, mutilated his body, and sank him in the Tallahatchie River. An all-white jury acquitted the men, who later admitted to the murder. On her deathbed, in 2017, Carolyn Bryant recanted this story and admitted that she had lied. The murder of Emmett Till is just one example of the history that informs an oft-repeated warning from my African American colleagues: “When a white woman cries, a black man gets hurt.” Not knowing or being sensitive to this history is another example of white centrality, individualism, and lack of racial humility.
Because of its seeming innocence, well-meaning white women crying in cross-racial interactions is one of the more pernicious enactments of white fragility. The reasons we cry in these interactions vary. Perhaps we were given feedback on our racism. Not understanding that unaware white racism is inevitable, we hear the feedback as a moral judgment, and our feelings are hurt. A classic example occurred in a workshop I was co-leading. A black man who was struggling to express a point referred to himself as stupid. My co-facilitator, a black woman, gently countered that he was not stupid but that society would have him believe that he was. As she was explaining the power of internalized racism, a white woman interrupted with, “What he was trying to say was .Â .Â . ” When my co-facilitator pointed out that the white woman had reinforced the racist idea that she could best speak for a black man, the woman erupted in tears. The training came to a complete halt as most of the room rushed to comfort her and angrily accuse the black facilitator of unfairness. (Even though the participants were there to learn how racism works, how dare the facilitator point out an example of how racism works!) Meanwhile, the black man she had spoken for was left alone to watch her receive comfort.
A colleague of color shared an example in which a white womanânew to a racial justice organizationâwas offered a full-time position as the supervisor of the women of color who had worked there for years and had trained her. When the promotion was announced, the white woman tearfully requested support from the women of color as she embarked on her new learning curve. The new supervisor probably
saw her tears as an expression of humility about the limits of her racial knowledge and expected support to follow. The women of color had to deal with the injustice of the promotion, the invalidation of their abilities, and the lack of racial awareness of the white person now in charge of their livelihoods. While trying to manage their own emotional reactions, they were put on the spot; if they did not make some comforting gesture, they risked being viewed as angry and insensitive.
Whether intended or not, when a white woman cries over some aspect of racism, all the attention immediately goes to her, demanding time, energy, and attention from everyone in the room when they should be focused on ameliorating racism. While she is given attention, the people of color are yet again abandoned and/or blamed. As Stacey Patton, an assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication, states in her critique of white women's tears, “then comes the waiting for us to comfort and reassure them that they're not bad people.”
Antiracism strategist and facilitator Reagen Price paraphrases an analogy based on the work of critical race scholar KimberlÃ© Crenshaw. Price says, “Imagine first responders at the scene of an accident rushing to comfort the person whose car struck a pedestrian, while the pedestrian lies bleeding on the street.” In a common but particularly subversive move, racism becomes about white distress, white suffering, and white victimization.
White men, of course, are also racially fragile, but I have not seen their fragility manifest itself in cross-racial discussions as actual crying. Their fragility most commonly shows up as varying forms of dominance and intimidation, including these:
â¢ Control of the conversation by speaking first, last, and most often
â¢ Arrogant and disingenuous invalidation of racial inequality via “just playing the devil's advocate”
â¢ Simplistic and presumptuous proclamations of “the answer” to racism (“People just need to .Â .Â . ”)
â¢ Playing the outraged victim of “reverse racism”
â¢ Accusations that the legendary “race card” is being played
â¢ Silence and withdrawal
â¢ Hostile body language
â¢ Channel-switching (“The true oppression is class!”)
â¢ Intellectualizing and distancing (“I recommend this book .Â .Â . ”)
â¢ “Correcting” the racial analysis of people of color and white women
â¢ Pompously explaining away racism and the experiences of people of color
All these moves push race off the table, help white men retain control of the discussion, end the challenge to their positions, and reassert their dominance.
Because racism does not rely solely on individual actors, the racist system is reproduced automatically. To interrupt it, we need to recognize and challenge the norms, structures, and institutions that keep it in place. But because they benefit us, racially inequitable relations are comfortable for most white people. Consequently, if we whites want to interrupt this system, we have to get racially
and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in whatever reactions we haveâanger, defensiveness, self-pity, and so forthâin a given cross-racial encounter without first reflecting on what is driving our reactions and how they will affect other people.
Tears that are driven by white guilt are self-indulgent. When we are mired in guilt, we are narcissistic and ineffective; guilt functions as an excuse for inaction. Further, because we so seldom have authentic and sustained cross-racial relationships, our tears do not feel like solidarity to people of color we have not previously supported. Instead, our tears function as impotent reflexes that don't lead to constructive action. We need to reflect on when we cry and when we don't, and why. In other words, what does it take to move us? Since many of us have not learned how racism works and our role in it, our tears may come from shock
and distress about what we didn't know or recognize. For people of color, our tears demonstrate our racial insulation and privilege.
I asked the woman of color I refer to in the opening of this chapter if I was missing anything in this list. This is her response:
It's infuriating because of its audacity of disrespect to our experience. You are crying because you are uncomfortable with your feelings when we are barely allowed to have any. You are ashamed or some such thing and cry, but we are not allowed to have any feelings because then we are being difficult. We are supposed to remain stoic and strong because otherwise we become the angry and scary people of color. We are only allowed to have feelings for the sake of your entertainment, as in the presentation of our funerals. And even then, there are expectations of what is allowed for us to express. We are abused daily, beaten, raped, and killed but you are sad and that's what is important. That's why it is sooooo hard to take.
I have certainly been moved to tears by someone's story in cross-racial discussions. And I imagine that sometimes tears are appreciated, as they can validate and bear witness to the pain of racism for people of color. But I try to be very thoughtful about how and when I cry. I try to cry quietly so that I don't take up more space, and if people rush to comfort me, I do not accept the comfort; I let them know that I am fine so we can move on.THE MEN WHO LOVE US
In addition to the general dynamics discussed thus far, white women's tears in cross-racial discussions have a very specific effect on men. I have seen our tears manipulate men of all races, but the consequences of this manipulation are not the same. White men occupy the highest positions in the race and gender hierarchy. Thus, they have the power to define their own reality and that of others. This reality includes not only whose experiences are valid, but
is fundamentally valid. In the
white racial frame, not all women are deemed worthy of recognition. For example, contrary to popular white mythology, white womenânot people of colorâhave been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action. When forced to do so, white men could acknowledge white women's humanity; white women were their sisters, wives, and daughters. And of course, through these relationships, white women's increased access to resources benefited white men. This humanity has yet to be granted to women of color.
White men also get to authorize what constitutes pain and whose pain is legitimate. When white men come to the rescue of white women in cross-racial settings, patriarchy is reinforced as they play savior to our damsel in distress. By legitimating white women as the targets of harm, both white men and women accrue social capital. People of color are abandoned and left to bear witness as the resources meted out to white people actually increaseâyet againâon their backs.
Men of color may also come to the aid of white women in these exchanges and may also be driven by their conditioning under sexism and patriarchy. But men of color have the additional weight of racism to navigate. This weight has historically been deadly. For black men in particular, the specter of Till and countless others who have been beaten and killed over a white woman's claims of cross-racial distress is ever present. Ameliorating a white woman's distress as quickly as possible may be felt as a literal matter of survival. Yet coming to the rescue of a white woman also drives a wedge between men and women of color. Rather than receive social capital that reinforces his status, a man of color put in this position must now live with the agony of having to support a white woman over a person of color in order to survive.
White people do need to feel grief about the brutality of white supremacy and our role in it. In fact, our numbness to the racial injustice that occurs daily is key to holding it in place. But our grief must lead to sustained and transformative action. Because our emotions are indicators of our internal frameworks, they can serve as entry points into the deeper self-awareness that leads to this action. Examining what is at the root of our emotions (shame for not knowing, guilt for hurting
someone, hurt feelings because we think we must have been misunderstood) will enable us to address these frameworks. We also need to examine our responses toward other people's emotions and how they may reinscribe race and gender hierarchies. Our racial socialization sets us up to repeat racist behavior, regardless of our intentions or self-image. We must continue to ask
our racism manifests, not