Learning white tears early

I have been writing in this space since 2008 and over the years I have built up a solid following. As such, I have never been a household name, but my words travel far beyond Maine. And while I have had a few pieces go viral before, nothing could have prepared me for the response to a piece I wrote last month called “Weapon of lass destruction: The tears of a white woman.” The piece was born out of a series of tweets and when my sista in words, Luvvie, mentioned my post in a piece of her own on the subject of white women’s tears, it blew up.

We are living in really weird fucking time when it comes to race. For a brief moment in time, it seemed that we might be making progress on the racial front but it was an illusion at best. In Trump’s America, we are forced to confront the reality that we are a racist nation with a white nationalist at the helm. As I have said repeatedly before, we are a nation built on stolen land with the bodies of stolen people providing the free labor to create it. That is our legacy and until we confront that head-on and acknowledge how racism was part of the fundamental design of America, nothing will really change.

As I wrote in “Weapon of Lass Destruction,” 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 free card” and moving toward any legitimate racial reconciliation requires examining this phenomenon.

While many Black and brown women have experienced mistreatment at the hands of white women, and many white women are starting to realize that not all tears matter, there is a hard truth that I need to discuss publicly: The roots of white tears. After all, truly solving problems requires looking at the root causes of them.

In the average Black American home, conversations on race start early and are had often. To not have these discussions with your children is to fail at parenting because youth is no excuse. America kills Black children and youth, and has often done so based on the words and tears of white women, going all the way back Emmett Till (and before him, of course, but it’s one of the more famous—and infamous—cases)

However, the behavior that leads to white tears harming Black people (and sometimes killing them) is learned and it’s learned early in life. In my previous piece I wrote about a high school friend, but as I watch my middle schooler navigate growing up in a predominantly white space, I see the roots of white tears and fragility being molded early in life. And being used against her already.

I am breaking my usual policy of not talking about my daughter in this space because while the story is about her and another child, there is a larger story at play—one that is about how white fragility is fostered in young white girls.

A classmate early on in middle school befriended my daughter and a mutual third friend; for the sake of the story, we will call the classmate “Jane.” My daughter early on realized that she didn’t quite feel comfortable around Jane because of a lack of respect for personal space and other issues, but because she thought that the mutual friend was cool with Jane, she said nothing. Increasingly, she would try to avoid interacting with Jane but things came to a head this current  school year when the mutual friend and my daughter realized that the other shared the same uncomfortable feelings. Both of them had only endured the girl’s behaviors because each thought the other was really tight with Jane.

Long story short, my daughter and her friend decided to end the connection to Jane. These are both thoughtful girls—my daughter in particular is deeply empathetic and never wants to hurt anyone’s feelings. But she was tired of Jane never giving her space and really felt they had nothing in common to begin with. The girls suggested that Jane extend her social pool and tried other subtle ways to reduce exposure with her and to try to express their discomfort. The subtle approach didn’t work, and eventually my daughter’s friend told Jane what was bothering them—she was polite but direct.

The words were not well received. Jane cried. More than that, she cried to teachers to help prevent her rejection. In the end, the guidance counselor was brought in because Jane was so distraught about my daughter and her friend expressing discomfort at her behaviors. The guidance counselor called me and I expressed very clearly that I encourage my kid to speak up. No one likes to lose a friend but tolerating someone for fear of hurting their feelings is never the answer. I believe in fostering a healthy trust for instincts. If Jane didn’t sit right with them, it should have been OK for them to back away from that relationship. The guidance counselor and I didn’t see eye-to-eye, but it seemed to blow over until a few weeks ago when my daughter and Jane ended up being put together on a group project.

One of my daughter’s teachers, knowing how she felt about Jane and being well aware of the earlier emotions surrounding the breaking of the one-sided friendship, encouraged her to reach back out to Jane. So my daughter did and Jane—who apparently by this time had also burned through a couple other groups of girls with her behavior—immediately started getting very excited about a second chance at friendship. The sudden escalation was startling to my daughter, who merely wanted to get back on friendly “good acquaintance” terms. Oh, and my daughter did gently remind Jane of the previous problems—Jane said that she would try to not go overboard but that “that’s just the way I am.” So, my daughter came home feeling anxious that this girl was going to repeat all the problems from before and was going to be forced back into her life by teachers, one of whom told my daughter “You may not have meant to hurt her feelings before, but you really hurt them badly.”

Hold up! This kid that it took my daughter months to shake is entering back into her life and it’s being encouraged—and my daughter is being gently chastised for hurting her feelings without her own hurt being acknowledged? Never mind that my kid wanted nothing to do with Jane beyond being able to work with her without fuss and say hi in the hallways. Furthermore, Jane is already saying flat out that she might not respect my daughter’s boundaries and somehow this is acceptable? This is the same child who had to leave school early because after months of not getting the gentle hints, my girl finally gathered the courage to speak up and yet my daughter had to sit with the guidance counselor because she committed the crime of upsetting Jane? What about the months that Jane spent making my daughter feel uncomfortable and she sat with it?

My daughter had tears, too, especially when teachers and counselors were pointing out to her how sad Jane had been. But my daughter’s tears didn’t matter.

No one likes to hear that feelings are not reciprocated, but it happens. That’s life. And given that these kids are in 7th grade, they aren’t too young to learn this lesson. Yet no one in positions of power at this school seem to grasp that Jane can’t have it her way all the time and instead my kid is being asked to go the extra mile because of Jane’s unwillingness to respect boundaries and to scale back her behaviors a bit? My child has to capitulate but Jane doesn’t have to compromise?

As the co-parent and I strategized on how best to help our girl in this situation, that was my own light-bulb moment. Girls are taught early that their tears have power. And white girls learn early, too, that they have special power over people of color in a world dominated by white people. Also, combined this with the fact that white fragility starts early in life because, well—how often do white parents struggle with discussing race? A lot. To the extent that most white parents try to sidestep the topic whenever possible and many avoid it altogether.

Especially in middle class and upper middle class white families, staying “nice” and not stirring the pot and not talking about “uncomfortable” things is a cultural marker. People of color have to have these uncomfortable talks all the time with their kids for those kids’ psychological and literal survival. This is something I often discuss when I work with groups. How to unlearn niceness. Being a nice white woman in a very bad way is a real thing. White anti-racist writers and activists have touched upon this as well. “Nice” white nice ladies get people killed at worst and emotionally harmed at best. The past few weeks have already seen the news of various white women calling the police on Black people for doing very normal things—like leaving an Airbnb location, taking a nap on campus, barbecuing in a park and asking for a corporate phone number to lodge a complaint (granted, that last one has some conflicting stories but calling the police was still questionable and led to the Black woman being brutalized).

However, before one becomes a nice white woman who uses emotions and tears to deflect (and perhaps escalates to one who calls police to enforce her personal view of social order), one is a nice white girl who picks up the social cues which reward certain behavior. Instead of giving a Jane a few minutes to clear her head and think about how her own actions might have led to her situation, she was rewarded with an early release thanks to tears. When it was too much to handle on her own, the adults were at the ready to assist her. Instead of acknowledging the courage it took my daughter to stand up and speak her truth, she was made to feel like a villain. Instead of keeping the girls separated, they were paired up with the mandate to get along, with the onus placed on my daughter.

How often are Black women forced to swallow their feelings in the workplace and white women are allowed to essentially have their way? Far too often.

While white women absolutely must develop racial literacy and move beyond white fragility, they also need to examine the unspoken values that are transmitted in their families. Are you unintentionally creating a value system that rewards white fragility at the expense of non-white people? Are your schools and community institutions rewarding white fragility? The suspension rates in this country when it comes to Black girls is frightening. We live in a country that punishes Black girls and women when they speak truth to power—or punishes them more harshly than white girls and women for the same offenses when actual wrongs are committed—but we tell white women who do the same thing that they are brave or that they deserve a second chance. This discrepancy doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the change starts with us—and how we teach, encourage and interact with those closest to us.

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No to this “Oh”

Too often, White America has selective memory when it comes to the past. It reminds me of my tween daughter’s forgetfulness around things like chores, and yet she never forgets when her allowance is due.

As a Black American, it is fascinating to me how often White America looks back on the distant past with fond memories. It’s rare to find any Black American over 50 who yearns for those eras to the degree that our white counterparts yearn for them—and how often they are seen as “the good old days.”

Of course, why would anyone of color with any sense of history or self-respect yearn or look back fondly at a time when you were denied access to numerous spaces simply due to the color of your skin? A time when the even the family vacation was a racial experience because you couldn’t count on finding a roadside diner that might serve you and you had to do your best to avoid the sundown towns even in northern states like Illinois lest you end up dead. As my father told me, the day he graduated from high school in Blytheville, Arkansas, he was on a bus out of town that evening. Heading to someplace where a Black person might stand a chance of breathing. No, Black folks as a whole don’t revisit the past here in America because to revisit the past is to realize that the progress we envisioned isn’t nearly as far in the past as we like to think, along with the fact progress hasn’t gone as far as it should have yet (or as far as we’ve have been led to believe).

However, in a changing nation, revisiting the past for white folks takes on an entirely different tone. A time when whiteness paid maximum dividends and extending humanity and decency to non-white people wasn’t a thing. Or, as a local community group in Maine advertised with an upcoming stage production of “Oh, Susannah,” they described a version of the Old South as a “dream remembered” of “knights and their ladies, masters and slaves,” and a “pretty world where gallantry took its last bow.” Oh, and the production was to be composed largely of minstrel songs. And promoted using a Confederate stars and bars flag.

In case knowledge of minstrel-style shows isn’t your jam, let me give you the Wikipedia description:

“The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American form of entertainment developed in the early 19th century. Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that mocked people specifically of African descent. The shows were performed by Caucasians in make-up or blackface for the purpose of playing the role of black people. There were also some African-American performers and all-black minstrel groups that formed and toured under the direction of white people.”

So. yeah…in Sanford, Maine, the local theater group Sanford Maine Stage thought that staging a taste of the old days in the form of “Oh, Susannah” would be a marvelous idea. While the composer of the actual song “Oh, Susannah” was known as one of the fathers of American music, much of what he wrote was fodder for minstrel shows. Foster himself performed in blackface at one point.

A production like “Oh, Susannah” is steeped in racism. It’s one thing to revisit the Confederacy in a historical sense, but even then, it is to revisit some of this country’s darkest history. But as a form of nostalgia and longing? No.

That is a period in history when the degradation of Black people was openly sanctioned and encouraged—when we were viewed as less than human—and this country’s lack of remorse over that in general is bad enough. Its unwillingness to admit what a crime it was and how much it still impacts today. But as bad as that ignorance is, in the era of proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, why would anyone with an iota of decency want to take part in a show  steeped in the misery and subjugation of an entire people and look at as merely wistful entertainment?

Well, after community pushback the theater company decided to cancel the production. But in choosing to cancel the show, there are those voices who refuse to acknowledge how hurtful this very idea was, including a number of the actual performers in the show. Not to mention others in and beyond the community telling people not to be so sensitive and lamenting political correctness.

In this moment, I am reminded of how harmful the silo of whiteness is because too often it prevents its inhabitants from seeing larger truths. Online, there were those upset by the cancellation who were asking “where is the tolerance?” Well, I guess that’s an inadvertent good choice of words for those that actually made that word choice, because “tolerating” is something we tend to do for unpleasant things. So, in a way, those people are making my point. They are asking us to endure such ignorance.

The fact is the marketing of this show used hateful imagery and words—no one needs to tolerate that. The larger question is, “Why didn’t anyone question or flag this production before it became public?” It is not comforting to know that people spent weeks on rehearsal and preparation and no one thought that maybe this was a bad idea? I love theater and there are far too many shows that could have been produced that would not have been steeped in white supremacy. That could have explored the Old South in a more honest or nuanced way.

While the Sanford area is, like many Maine communities, predominantly white, there are non-white community members and white allies who now are concerned that they may be branded as troublemakers for standing up for what is right. The fact is that speaking truth to power often comes at a cost. Still, it’s always the right thing to do. For those who are disappointed that the show is canceled, I would invite you to ask yourself “Why?” To ask yourself why you think that your right to participate in or view a production that is hurtful matters so much. I am sure many of those pushing back would be offended to be called racist and yet their behavior is very much what American racism is all about. It’s the belief in rugged individualism and the American dream while denying or ignoring that it is almost always at the expense of someone else, and most dramatically at the expense of people of color. It’s the same racist spirit that justified “discovering” someone else’s land and then enslaving others to work that land to build a new country.

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The ramblings of a tired Black woman

For the past several years, we have been bombarded by images of Black lives being snuffed out at the hands of law enforcement. For some, the ensuing conversations in the aftermaths of these deaths represented the first time they had started to examine racism in America. And yet, still these conversations didn’t go far enough. They were the appetizer into talking about race.

However, the conversation is subtly shifting and we are almost at the point where as a collective, we may have no choice but to face ourselves and our nation’s history and present stance when it comes to Black folks in America.

America has never embraced Black people as a whole in this country. Other than our Native American brothers and sisters, America’s relationship to Black Americans is tenuous at best. We may like individual Black people, but as a whole? Nah. Too many white Americans, despite what they may feel/think, have absorbed the cultural attitudes which have been with us since the first African was brought to this country and we created race as a way to subjugate those with darker skin. Anti-Black bias is one of the founding pillars of this country and despite the shifting laws and the occasional embrace of individual Black folks, America does not like Black people.

The recent Starbucks incident points to the daily realities that Black folks face in this country. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we work to fit in, our very presence is deemed suspect. Even if what we do is exactly what the white people around us are doing. We as Black people rarely admit that because the truth is painful to acknowledge. To know that the country of your birth does not fully recognize or welcome you as a full citizen.

A few days ago, I had a chance to share a recent encounter with a white woman while waiting to board the train. You can listen here. What struck me in listening to the full piece and hearing from other Black writers was just how tiring it is to be Black in America. The “just us” rules which are generationally passed down, the times we shrink ourselves in hopes of not being deemed other. Or viewed through the lens of suspicion.

I have been sitting with the fact that no matter how often proof pops up of Black folks being mistreated, there will always be those who argue “If only they had done XYZ.” No, there is no level of doing that will keep Black people safe until a critical mass of white folks acknowledge that the same system that “others” people like me operates because whiteness has been placed on a pedestal of humanity that requires a fall guy. Black folks are that fall guy. However the realization is not enough; at that point, it requires action and material support to balance the scales of humanity. Yet too many white folks despite years now of seeing videos of Black people routinely abused or killed by the authorities (and others)—what amount to snuff films and pain porn—can’t move beyond the “know” to the actual “do.” So we spin our wheels and wait for the weekly dose of Black degradation caught on video and circulated on social media.

This week I am feeling particularly tired. Perhaps it’s because we have a non-stop assault on Black humanity. From the young men in Starbucks to the young woman whose request to speak to management at a Waffle House led to her arrest and groping by the police department to the group of Black women golfing who had the police called on them because they were golfing too slowly.

I am tired because too often even when we rally to support Black people in many of these incidents, too often Black women are left unsupported. That pesky intersection of racism and patriarchy. Black women are expected to do for all and yet who does for us? We experience the racism and genderism that comes with being women and femmes and yet we are rarely supported.

For decades now, we have told ourselves that things are getting better racially and yet the data doesn’t support that claim at all. We now know that in the last 50 years there has been little progress for Black Americans when it comes to home ownership, unemployment or incarceration. The wealth gap has tripled for White Americans despite the fact that educational attainment for Black folks has improved greatly. Black women in particular are obtaining a larger share of the college degrees being issued but this isn’t leading to the creation of wealth.

No, things aren’t getting better and yet, small numbers of white people are starting to wake up to the horror which they inherited. The realization that the game is rigged and it always favors white folks. The understanding that this is larger than the school to prison pipeline and  that there is no facet of life in America which is not tainted by race or at risk of being tainted by race. The question is can that small number wake up the masses or is it just a continuation of the dream we have all been dreaming?

I have no idea what happens next but I will tell you this, I am tired.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Photo by Jezael Melgoza on Unsplash