The destructive power of white women's tears

White women's tears gif

The last time I witnessed the destructive power of white women’s tears, I was the victim.

In 2019 I suffered a hate crime. Throughout the ordeal I gave my friends a live commentary on a Whatsapp group chat, eventually letting them know when I had got home safely.

I was on edge after what happened, but what stung was the radio silence from one of my white friends.

I thought she was using her privilege to turn a blind eye and so I raised with her how I was feeling.

She apologised and blamed being busy with work, which I thought was a bit of a cop-out.

Over time I distanced myself, but in the background I was being painted as the perpetrator of the gradual ending of our friendship.

One of my group eventually told me: ‘My friends and family are wary of you’.

Wary of me? What exactly had I done? I was confused and astounded.

I didn’t know what I had done to deserve this, but now I realise I was experiencing the destructive impact of a white woman’s tears.

My white friend had reframed the situation to put her feelings at the heart of the narrative, rather than what the argument was actually about, and in the process turned others against me.

I’m not alone in experiencing this at the hands of a white woman. Tears and self-victimisation have been an effective strategy for silencing and demonising Black people for many decades.

When we talk about ‘white women’s tears’, it doesn’t mean any time a white woman cries.

This phrase relates to the specific phenomenon where white women can inflict damage on people of colour with a strategic use of emotional outpouring.

This strategy is weaponised when a white woman uses this visible sadness or distress to portray themselves as a victim in a conflict situation, often derailing the actual argument and leading to the vilification of Black people.

Society now has an improved understanding of the physical racist violence Black people face on a regular basis. However, there is still little acknowledgement of the non-physical forms of racism that play out in some white people’s interactions with Black people.

Academic Alanah Mortlock, who specialises in Black feminism and themes of identity at the London School of Economics, tells that white women’s tears are particularly potent as they are ‘attached to the idea of femininity’ and the ‘notion that white women need protection’.

These weaponised tears, which result in Black people being silenced and ‘white women avoiding accountability and gaining sympathy’, contribute to the concept of white supremacy, and, Alanah explains, have historically been used against Black men.

In 1955, Emmett Till, a young Black boy from Chicago, was murdered by two white men after Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, claimed that he had flirted with her. It was later reported that Bryant had recanted her story, confirming that Emmett had not, in fact, sexually accosted her, as she originally claimed. Young Emmett lost his life.

Fast forward to 2020, a video of Amy Cooper, a white woman, calling the police on Christian Cooper, a Black man, after she claimed to feel threatened by his presence, makes ripples around the world.

Christian Cooper had asked Amy to put her dog back on its leash while he was bird-watching in Central Park. In the video, Amy Cooper clutches her phone and says: ‘I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.’

Both Amy Cooper and Carolyn Bryant’s tears came from a place of privilege. While not being physically violent against Christian, Amy knew what the power of her whiteness and her femininity, could result in – and the danger she could be putting Christian in by calling the police.

Amy Cooper was charged by police when the video surfaced and she subsequently lost her job. However, there are so many interactions like these that don’t go viral – where the women who do this face no consequences.

The impact of white women’s tears on Black women

Alanah explains how this idea of femininity, and the assumption of delicate fragility that is historically attached to white women, is not granted to Black women.

‘Black women aren’t imagined as being in need of or deserving of protection,’ she says.

‘Black women aren’t seen as being vulnerable, yet it is the same vulnerability [by white women] that is used to oppress Black communities.’

Put simply – the damsel in distress is never a Black woman. Alanah says that a Black woman isn’t granted that same empathy and protection so is, therefore, expected to protect and defend herself. Yet, unfortunately, when a Black woman does this, she exposes herself to being labelled as aggressive. This was the exact predicament I found myself in.

As described by Alanah, this stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman’ is damaging as it can negatively impact a Black woman’s self-esteem.

‘The world is already hostile towards you as a Black woman, but then since your behaviour is also already perceived as being hostile, naturally, you find yourself in between a rock and a hard place,’ she says.

Alanah adds that Black women, in particular, might experience a form of dissonance on how they understand themselves, and how they are being understood by other people, which is emotionally draining.

White women’s tears hold such power over Black people. While this behaviour might not seem overt, like my experience of an actual hate crime, it still supports racism and is an act of oppression.

The destructive impact of white women’s tears against Black women can be devastating and deeply draining.

‘When white women cry, it also makes them able to leave the conversation and choose not to listen,’ explains Ruby Hamad in her essay collection White Tears/Brown Scars. ‘Whereas women of colour do not have the ability to choose to leave.’

It almost feels like a form a paralysis. It can also be incredibly difficult to call the act out for what it is without adding to the narrative that you are the aggressor. That is why it is such an effective tool to shut down a conversation that needs to be had.

‘But I’m not racist’

Often, when white women are accused of weaponising their tears or their femininity to wield power over Black people, they say they were completely unaware of their act’s impact and were not acting intentionally.

But intentions don’t always matter when it comes to racist actions. Discriminatory behaviour has the same outcome on minority groups whether they are unconscious or purposeful, systemic or individual.

‘Many people still think that racism has to be intentional, that someone has to actively believe in a true immoral racial hierarchy and to physically act on those beliefs for something to be considered racist,’ says Alanah. ‘Yet, conversations about racism still haven’t adapted in acknowledging how racial acts also include non-violent ways of oppressing Black people.’

This is why the notion of just being ‘not racist’ isn’t enough, it is more important to be anti-racist.

This means not only checking your own privilege and behaviours towards Black people – for example how certain displays of emotion might have a disproportionately negative impact – but also speaking up when you see racist behaviour.

Otherwise it all just becomes performative. And, trust me, people can see straight through that.

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