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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2 thoughts on “Learning white tears early”

  1. Superb. You’ve articulated some really key points here. The part about healthy trust for instincts really resonates. Too often, these instincts (or what I call intuition) are repressed in children and even moreso in the context that you’re discussing here. Brava from England!

  2. This article did resonate with me. It was shared with me on twitter by a white woman I interact with. She is in the northeast. I am in the south. We are both educators. I believe she teaches at a private school. I teach at a high poverty public school. I had a beef with a white colleague early in the school year and invited her to my classroom to handle it. Because of my age and experience I was unmoved by her tears. I told her that I was sorry that she was upset but not to talk to me the way that she did, again. I still don’t trust her. She is a deceptive opportunist. I make the best of it because we work on the same team. I am sorry that your daughter is being made to engage with a girl she created a boundary for that has been breached by teachers, all because of the power of a white girl’s tears.

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