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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We can’t commiserate

One scenario I’ve encountered more than I’d like, as the Black acquaintance of many kind-hearted white folks waking up to the reality of racism, is the attempt to form a bond of solidarity over my personal, ongoing trauma. If that sentence seems awkward and wrong, that might be due to the clumsiness of the situation I’m trying to describe. I suspect these conversations spring partially from empathy and from distress over a specific evil conscientiously privileged people and myself now commonly hate (white supremacy) and partially from the same anxiety that seems to guide performative allyship in all its forms—namely the fear of being identified as part of the problem and an overwhelming desire to prove oneself to be one of the good guys. It’s as if we live under the constant threat of being thrown into a game of racism tag, and white friends talking to this Black woman suddenly remember, at random, that they must establish, beyond a shadow of a doubt, they are emphatically not it.

Performative allyship reflex (a phrase I admittedly coined for this think piece) shows up in many uncomfortable ways, from random remarks about favorite Black personalities (sports players and singers are high on the list) to out-of-place recountings of personal acts of anti-racist heroism to literal declarations of, “I just love your people!”

But the kind I’m writing about today packs a particularly painful punch, and this is how it unfolds: To prove their recognition of racism as a permeating presence poisoning our everyday interactions, or to prove how it bothers them as much as it bothers me, or maybe just to process a heaviness they aren’t used to sitting with, well-meaning white connections share a disturbing event with me so that we can react together. “My uncle said x,y,z, and I was just so mortified.” Or, “I can’t believe so-and-so thinks they can say the N-word.” Or even, “Did you hear about that recent murder (fill in any case of police brutality)? The dash cam video was just so awful I couldn’t watch.”

It’s hard to explain what I feel when I’m thrown into these conversations, often without warning. For one, I’m an introvert who processes heavy feelings in isolation, often through writing, and rarely face-to-face (a situation I have repeatedly found to be frustrating at best and often downright damaging). In fact, my first line of defense when interacting with a world constantly dehumanizing me, creating, compounding, dissecting, or minimizing my most essential and life-defining pain is that mask Paul Laurence Dunbar* speaks about:

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

And that’s just my baseline. After reading a news story about a child in New England who was lynched by his peers, when white acquaintance Joe asks me how I’m doing, the mask stays firmly in place while I smile and bring up the weather, pretending I’m not stuffing down secondhand trauma. But if Joe goes on to bring up said horrific event, processing his own reaction with me, confiding that a brown friend once told him she was threatened with lynching and reflecting on how upsetting it has been for him to realize this violence is real and closer than he thought, my grasp on the mask becomes desperate. Underneath it, my triggers send waves of adrenaline coursing through my limbs while Joe gazes imploringly at me, waiting to see how his offering of commiseration will be received.

But we can’t commiserate. I’m not shocked nor even simply miserable, nor helpless in realizing white supremacy still rules the land. I know it viscerally, in every fiber of my body. I have experienced it in ways I can never unlearn and ways which he will never comprehend, no matter how hard he tries.

I suspect Joe feels these confessions make us closer, imagining we are experiencing similar emotional reactions over a specific appalling event. But, of course, I don’t feel closer to him at all. I see myself and my children in that noose, while he sees his neighbor. Our reactions are worlds apart, and on top of that, I’m deeply hurt (though unsurprised) that he is more concerned with my approval of his allyship, or with processing his own journey of racial consciousness—using me as a sounding board—then he is concerned for my well-being in this constant onslaught of psychological violence.

Empathy is a poignant teaching tool, and I recognize that a first step in the process of empathy is relating personally familiar, lived experiences with the experiences of others. When someone you know is going through grief, a natural reaction is to remember how you felt when you lost a loved one. But if you haven’t lost a loved one, how much space should you and your experiences take up in a conversation with a widow burying her spouse? Would you mention a neighbor who lost recently their mother? Would you bring up your most recent abstract musings on death and its ripple effect? Or how embarrassed you are by your insensitive uncle who doesn’t think grief is real?

Yet, when it comes to race-based trauma carried by people of color (POC), we are often expected to hold space for the experiences of observers, following their cues, rather than leading discussions about our own pain at our pace and at moments of our choosing, when we feel safe. I can only speak for myself when I say this dynamic not only complicates my personal healing process but often makes it difficult to form deeper, more meaningful relationships with white connections who seem to want them.

A sense of safety is paramount to trust, and trust is the foundation of any measure of healthy intimacy, including friendship. We can’t commiserate over the impact of racism when the impact we experience is fundamentally different, but I believe it is possible to dialogue in a way that creates and fortifies healthy connections if we can establish safety and trust. To do so, we must put aside the performance and build on the understanding that POC carry substantial trauma—trauma very different from non-POC—and that discussions connected with our trauma happen when we want them to, in a way that is empowering for us. Let the people with the trauma initiate. Let us set the pace and the boundaries, and then respect them.

*The Dunbar poem quoted is titled “We Wear the Mask” and can be read in its entirety here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44203/we-wear-the-mask

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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