Weapon of lass destruction: The tears of a white woman

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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Black bodies in white spaces in 2018

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. – James Baldwin

Some years ago, I sat in a discussion panel and posed a question to the racially mixed audience: “How many Black people over the age of 40 in this room have been diagnosed with hypertension or are pre-hypertensive?” Every Black person in the room raised their hand. This event took place in Cambridge, Mass., and the majority of Black folks in that room were college-educated professionals.

While hypertension can strike anyone, it disproportionately affects Black Americans. There are the stated risk factors, such as inactivity, smoking, family history, high dietary intake of salt and low intake of potassium. There is also what I have come to believe and that science is increasingly backing up, and that is that the stress of being Black in America takes a toll on the physical body and it plays out in higher rates for things such as hypertension and diabetes. Researchers are just starting to look at the link between racism and maternal health but we need to start looking at the cumulative effects of racism over the course of a lifetime.

A few recent news stories really brought home just how racism is woven into the daily fabric of life for Black folks and other non-white people.

A 14-year-old boy gets lost and decides to go to the nearest house to ask for directions. Instead of getting directions, the homeowner grabbed a gun and shot at the child because in this white person’s mind, a Black child knocking on his door could only mean trouble. So rather than using one’s words, the homeowner decided a bullet would be better. Thankfully, the homeowner missed and the child is OK—or at least as OK as one can be when you wake up late, miss the school bus and get lost trying to walk to school only to be met with gunfire.

If that story wasn’t enough, the second story of the week will definitely get the blood pressure elevated. Imagine arriving at a coffee shop early to meet a friend—you get there first so you decided to sit at a table and wait for your friend to arrive. You figure you will place your order once your friend arrives. This type of daily event is truly the minutiae of life. Except when you are two Black men waiting for a business acquaintance at Starbucks, where it was decided that you are a threat. So the police are called and the next thing you know, you find yourself being arrested despite the protest of fellow patrons who loudly proclaim that you are doing nothing. To add insult to injury, your colleague arrives and tries to explain to the cops that they were meeting with you but the cops have already cuffed you, phones are out recording the incident and what should have been a random coffee meeting has become a trip to the clink and hours worth of detention. Your crime? Waiting while Black.

While it’s easy to blame the individual homeowner and the Starbucks employee for bad decisions, these situations are larger than certain individuals. These stories are about how Black bodies in public spaces are always deemed suspicious and that is because suspicion of Black bodies is deeply embedded in our collective psyche. When we (that is to say, mostly white people) see Black people outside of the “socially acceptable” spaces (serving people or entertaining them), suddenly their right to inhabit the space is  questioned. This is why Black CEOs and executive directors can regale us with stories of being assumed to be the help at dinner parties and why we had a Black president and Black attorney general who could tell us stories about being seen as suspicious.

It’s why I passed down to my kids, the same wisdom that was passed on to me: Don’t touch things in public, keep your hands visible, don’t use the bathroom at an establishment without buying something there—and the list goes on. The idea being that if we can be respectable enough to the white gaze in public spaces, it will keep us safe, or at least safe-ish. It’s why I have bought more unwanted items in small shops than I really want because in the end, I don’t want to be seen as suspicious. It’s a shitty way to live and at middle age, I am tired of it.

We can’t discuss racism without acknowledging how it plays out in our daily lives and how for Black people, it’s not always about the issues that make the news but the daily blows and assaults that sit in your soul and start to fester. It’s also about the times when white folks are complicit and don’t do enough. In the case of the Starbucks situation, it seems white folks did speak up but at that the same time, it’s a reminder of how fucked up it is that we must be grateful that people are starting to do the right thing. Doing the right thing should have been a given for decades now, and yet it’s still not the default. Because for every white person who will speak up, there are far too many more who will freeze up or simply stay silent.

We also have to ask ourselves why when white people feel uncomfortable in the presence of Black people, either the police are called or guns are brought out. What is it about white comfort that negates the existence of everyone else?

After a decade-plus of writing about racism, I am getting tired and yet, I keep on keeping on because I can’t depend on others for my liberation.

However I leave you with this thought: Think about how you interact with non-white bodies and particularly Black bodies in white spaces and be honest with yourself about what you see and feel in those moments. If you are a non-white person, how do you stay healthy in those moments when you feel your existence being questioned? Do you release the pain or is it settling in your body?

Our work is dismantle this system but we can’t do that until we are honest with ourselves.

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The underbelly of activism…what we don’t talk about

An activist is someone who works for social or political change. It’s a label that we are quick to bestow upon those who are passionate for change and we applaud those who live the activist lifestyle. We admire their courage, their bravery, their moxie and yet too many times aside from verbal accolades, we rarely think about the lonely existence of the activist or the emotional, physical, and even economic toll of activism on those who work for change.

Thus—while I am in awe of the Parkland shooting survivors and all the young people who have activated against gun violence in this country—I am also deeply worried too.

As the young people from Parkland have already discovered, there are people in this world who are vile—people who have no compunctions about mocking survivors of violence, insulting them, and even issuing death threats. Here in Maine, Leslie Gibbon, a now-former Republican candidate for the Maine House, went online and verbally attacked Emma Gonzalez, a courageous and outspoken survivor of the Parkland shooting. The one upside is that Gibbon had until that point been running in an uncontested race and decided to abandon the race after his comment created a media firestorm—and he suddenly found himself in a contested race as someone else was so offended by his comments as to be moved to run against him.

This past weekend’s March For Our Lives was a beautiful youth-led event across the nation. It was uplifting and inspiring to see our youth exhibiting the type of moral conviction and courage that is increasingly lacking within our adult population. One young lady in particular caught my attention: a dynamic and passionate Black 11-year-old by the name of Naomi Wadler who spoke in our nation’s capital on the specific gun violence that disproportionately affects Black women and girls and who also reminded us all to #SayHerName. Her words brought tears to my eyes and then a quiet rage that an 11-year-old Black girl must lose her childhood so early because of society’s failure to protect our youth and for society’s refusal to see the humanity of Black women and girls.

Given the current climate and the cowardice that runs rampant, I found myself wondering, who is protecting this child and are her parents ready for the attention that no doubt will be paid to this precious and precocious child?

My own daughter will be 13 soon and given my own work, I have intentionally worked to protect her innocence and joy in the world. Our world steals the joy away from our young far too early and it is stolen away from children of color even sooner. We rarely discuss my work in our home. She is aware of it, but it is not a central talking point. My daughter is always broadly aware of what’s happening in the world—but the details? I rarely have those conversations because once she fully starts to grasp how society sees her, something will be lost that can never be returned. Having an adult child and looking back on how I had to steal his childhood away in order to keep him safe as a Black male, I am not anxious to have to take that action though, at almost 13, the window of unbridled childlike joy and amazement is quickly closing.

In recent years, as social media has become woven into the fabric of our daily lives, we are able to look into the lives of those on the front lines and see the high moments and the tense moments. But rarely do we see the real and lonely moments. Rarely do we see those who live on the front lines scraping to make ends meet; the post traumatic stress that is often part of being on the frontlines in the streets. The death threats that become so normal that you easily forget that death threats are not everyone’s norm.

Several of my recent speaking engagements have required private security to ensure my safety. Something shifts in you when a walk to the bathroom requires hired professionals to keep you safe.

This piece really gives one pause about what it means to be an activist. Untimely death, stress, fractured community, and the list goes on. Too often as activists we give so much of ourselves that there is little left over and there is a gulf between the reality of living as an activist and what we often envision. Despite our commitment to change and our continual drive, what’s left for ourselves can be dysfunctional and downright unpleasant.

Hence why the elevation of young people and particularly Black and brown girls and young women who must be wise beyond their years does not sit well with me. Historically when we look at the movements in this country, it is the women who are often forgotten and left to pick up the pieces. We love to venerate our dead changemakers but then revise history so that we leave out the struggles they faced when alive. Social change should not demand our physical bodies and souls.

If you were heartened this past weekend at the sight of young people leading the charge, perhaps you need to ask yourself how you can support these activists. How can you ensure not just their physical safety but their emotional and mental well being too? That requires intentionality and action. While not everyone is not meant to be on the front lines, we have a responsibility to provide whatever resources we can to the larger movement beyond empty words. Back up your words with actions.

I have been involved in movement work for over 25 years now in one form or another, so my words come from a place of lived experience. I am someone who is intimately aware of the high price of social change, I live it every day. Even now, I am still affected when hateful words are directed at me as a result of my work. If you are involved in movement work, how can you ensure your own well being while working for larger change?

We are living in a moment that requires the courage and conviction of the many if we are to push back against the few who wish to hold us all hostage for their own selfish purposes. We can longer wait on someone else; we must become the change that we wish to see. These kids are brave so let’s show them that we too are brave. Let their youthful vigor and poise propel us to the next level.

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.

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