In this current moment, talking about violence against Black bodies is almost trendy as more non-Black folks awake to the realities and horror of systemic racism—horrors that, frankly, we people of color (especially us Black people) have been telling y’all since the peak of the Civil Rights Era remain a core part of the American experience for Black and other people of color. However, one of the problems is that the main reason so many more white people are waking up to this is because of social media and the ability to see just how shockingly glaring many of these Black experiences are. And so, sadly, a lot of these conversations focus only on the overt violence and trauma, such as when our unarmed bodies are killed and left in the street. Or we are unjustly jailed (or detained for waiting at a Starbucks to meet a professional colleague). Or our teenagers are assaulted or harassed by police officers for hanging out just like white teens do, whether at malls or pool parties.
However, white violence against Black bodies is not always so dramatic. There is a type of violence that is just as deadly as a bullet yet rarely seen in the public eye—yet it touches the Black spirit and lives with us. We carry the scars and yet even amongst ourselves as Black people we don’t always talk about it. But it’s there.
Perhaps the only thing deadlier to a Black person’s soul and well-being than actually being killed or incarcerated are the tears of a white woman—among other weaponized emotions. White women’s emotions, particularly their tears, have taken countless lives over the generations. These tears and emotions are weapons of mass destruction and we rarely allows ourselves the chance to have an honest conversation about it. White women tears kill the soul, they make you doubt yourself and your right to exist, they render you voiceless because an emotionally distraught white woman becomes the priority in whatever space she is in. It doesn’t matter if you are right—once her tears are activated, you cease to exist. And few things bring other white people—especially men, and sometimes no matter how misogynist they are—to a white woman’s defense than her declaring that she is feeling hurt, sad or discomfited by the words, arguments or actions (no matter how reasonable or nonviolent) of a Black person. Jobs have been lost, friendships ended and sometimes those tears can send the wrong person to jail. White woman tears are not simply a release, they are a tool.
Last night on Twitter, I saw a few tweets about the weaponization of white women’s tears and it prompted me to share a story that until recently I had parked in the deepest recesses of my mind. It is a story that changed the trajectory of my life and yet a few weeks ago, after reconnecting with a childhood friend, I finally had the language and emotional maturity to give the story the context it needed.
In sharing the story, it found resonance with many so I decided to write about it.
As a teenager in the mid 1980s, there were few spaces for awkward Black girls like me. I was a social chameleon who, due to academic success, landed at what at the time was a prestigious public high school in Chicago. It meant that I bounced between the “drama kids,” “stoners” and “trendies” My trendy friends were all white kids with a few biracial Black boys—and myself, I was the token Black girl. At the time, I would not have called myself that but by the beginning of our senior year of high school, it was clear to me that I was not a true participant; I was the comic relief and the outward display of how not-racist my “friends” were.
Somewhere between my junior and senior year of high school, my black consciousness started to develop and while I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate the concepts well, I knew that my position within this particular group of friends was not an authentic connection but a racialized existence.
I told one of my friends (a white girl) how I felt and that conversation ended our friendship. It also ended my high school career since in the aftermath of that conversation, my friend was distraught and suffice to say, no one heard me. Instead I was suddenly the mean black girl. I was also the weird Black girl and when you throw in the mean Black girl and you have a recipe for disaster. So right after I turned 18, I bounced. I never went back to school. I pretty much blocked that year from my memory for decades but 2018 seems to be the year where I am facing my past full force.
A few years ago, this particular friend and I reconnected via Facebook; she is now a professor at a prestigious college in New England. A college where her colleagues have shared some of my very posts in faculty meetings. We recently met up in Boston for lunch and at the end of our lunch, she apologized for what went down 28 years ago. She told me that my words had sat with her for years and now she understood what she had done to me all those years ago. In choosing not to hear me and centering herself and her whiteness it meant that she did not have to consider the ways in which she and our circle of white friends othered me and turned me into a Black caricature that in a dehumanizing way to me allowed them to be a diverse group of people.
I accepted her apology because, after 28 years—despite dropping out of high school—I have gone on to have a good life. But I am very suspicious of allowing white women to get too close to me. Time and time again, I have learned that white women rarely have the emotional maturity to examine their racist actions and how they harm Black women and other women of color.
Over the years, my experience has been that few white women can sit with emotional discomfort around certain issues (such as race or, especially, the intersection of feminism and race) and when they are confronted or challenged, they take out the one weapon that society has given them. Tears. These tears effectively serve to shut down any constructive conversation and instead in group settings, the goal shifts to soothing the white woman and taking care of her feelings, typically at the complete expense of the Black person’s feelings. Even in racial conversations of weighty matters—and even in settings that are meant to be focused on racial issues or anti-racism work—too often tears serve to stop the conversation from moving forward.
To cry is human but not all tears matter. And they particularly shouldn’t matter when they come at the expense of someone else. Rarely do the tears of a non-white woman carry any value; instead. society conditions us to not cry and, with tears not having equal value, you create a “strong” Back woman. The damsel in distress is never Black. We are expected to always be strong yet also expected to never show anger or disappointment. To always turn the other cheek and be the calmest person in the room.
White women tears are multipurpose: They derail conversation, they emotionally bully others (particularly people of color), and they are almost never questioned—which only adds to the power of a white woman and her tears.
My colleague, author Debby Irving, speaks honestly in our public dialogues about learning early in life that her tears had value. She has publicly shared being told by her parents as a teenager, that if the cops pull you over, start crying. I have heard other white women share similar tales of crying to get out tickets. I have never heard of a Black woman crying to successfully get out of a ticket.
In this moment, as more white women wake up to the horrors of racism and choose to make a difference, there are some honest conversations that need to be had: the role of white women in perpetuating and supporting racism, often through the use of tears and emotions, is one of those conversations. A white woman cannot be a real ally or accomplice without examining her own past experiences using emotional manipulation as a deflection tool, especially in cross-racial settings. To be clear, not all white tears are about literal tears, it’s about the emotional angst that comes out in settings that derails and dehumanize by placing white womanhood on a higher pedestal.
White woman are uniquely positioned in this society—they are both one of the oppressed and also one of the oppressors, and that duality has long served to keep white women and women of color at odds. White women carry a lifetime “get out of jail card” and moving toward any legitimate racial reconciliation requires examining this phenomenon. It means developing a level of racial literacy that can be faced honestly which also includes looking at when have your emotions and tears been deployed against people of color. When have your emotions harmed others? It means diving deep into white fragility and unearthing it—the work of Robin DiAngelo who coined the phrase white fragility is a good starting point.
As James Baldwin wrote “ “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
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