Although I would have picked this up on my own once I heard about it, I sought out and read White Tears/Brown Scars as a part of an antiracist book club that I joined for the month of June. Comprising mostly educators in Ontario, the book club’s organizer picked this book because our profession is predominantly white women, so white tears are a problem. As a white women, I’m a part of that problem, even if I’m not the one crying. As the subtitle of this book implies, white tears are but one manifestation of white feminism. What Ruby Hamad is really here to do is school all of us in how white feminism can actually prop up the patriarchy, and indeed uphold whiteness, even as it seeks liberation for white women.
Hamad wrote this book after an article of hers in The Guardian received a lot of traction, both negative as well as positive. In among the latter were women of colour who told her that they felt less alone reading her article. So in addition to schooling white women with this book, Hamad is also here to help racialized women understand where the historical context of white tears and how the phenomenon as a power dynamic can manifest in surprising ways. Hence, much of the book, and in particular the first few chapters, really focuses on a history lesson. Hamad connects how the modern phenomenon of white tears is really just the most recent manifestation in a long line of ways in which white women—even white women who are feminist—have weaponized their race and gender to uphold whiteness.
Hamad explores the “false binary between white women and other women” in which femininity is defined in such a way that whiteness becomes a key part of womanhood. Literally as I write this review, Black women are being banned from Olympic competitions for a variety of reasons that have little to do with athletic integrity and everything to do with policing femininity. White cis women, Hamad shows us, can always count on being women, even when they experience misogyny as a result of patriarchy. In contrast, Black women and women of colour have historically not been perceived as people, let alone women; when we allow them to be people we often reduce them to stereotypes, as seen in our literature and pop culture. White women are allowed to have a full range of emotions—including tears—whereas women of colour must be careful with their emotional range, lest they fall into one of these stereotypes.
Something that really hit me as I read this book is how white tears relate to cultural appropriation. Hamad only mentions this phenomenon tangentially; she discusses how quick we are to put some women of colour (like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) on a pedestal, only to see them fall when it’s convenient. But this also made me think about how white women are the ones responsible for a lot of cultural appropriation. We stole yoga from India; we are the ones who robbed Black people of “on fleek,” “spill the tea,” “receipts,” and all many of vernacular that wasn’t ours to take but was taken anyway because white women think they deserve access to everything. And when someone—even politely—suggests that maybe it’s not ours to have, we whip out those tears right quick.
In this way, Hamad lays out how our white supremacist society polices racialized women, and how white women are complicit in that. When it comes to feminism, Hamad draws explicit connections between white suffragists and eugenics, as well as deliberate exclusion of Black women from the push for enfranchisement. In other words, the movement that so many people point to as the emergence of modern feminism was racist and exclusionary and really out only for white women. This won’t surprise any racialized women, of course, but my fellow white women might feel fragile hearing such a charge. Oh, no, surely feminism is in it for all women! Except, as Hamad and others like Ijeoma Oluo in Mediocre and Mikki Kendall in Hood Feminism have shown, it’s not. And White Tears/Brown Scars goes a long way towards explaining why that’s the case.
Probably one of the most salient and easiest examples to pull from the book would be how Hamad comments on the behaviour of Mary Beard, a white classics professor. After facing criticism for a racist tweet, Beard, instead of apologizing, doubled down on the idea that she was being “attacked” by online haters. Hamad says,
By posting a close-up of herself literally crying, or at least appearing to be, Beard pivoted from her one down identity—woman—to her one up identity—white—from her usual public role of feminist agitator to the “powerless” role of the damsel in distress…. It was no longer about what she said or why it upset many people of color: it was about her feelings. Her innocence. Her victimhood. Her strategic White womanhood.
This is what Hamad wants you to take away from the book. Some white women know what they are doing—as Hamad says, how can they not when so many women of colour have pointed out this issue by now—but even when white tears come seemingly innocently, they aren’t. They are embedded in the whiteness of our society, in the way that white women are taught that they can position themselves as vulnerable—feminine being weaker, thanks patriarchy—to deflect from any harm they might be responsible for in a given situation. Not only does this trigger help from white men, but it gaslights the woman of colour (because it’s usually a woman of colour, although it might be a racialized man) whose correction or question provoked the tears. White tears are a symptom of strategic white womanhood, which in turn are learned behaviours that allow white supremacy and patriarchy to flourish.
Some of you might be wondering how I related to this book personally, as someone whose whiteness has always been a part of me but whose womanhood has become visible very recently. I did struggle, honestly, to conceptualize my position within this framework. Let me be unequivocal: I am a white woman. My transness doesn’t diminish that fact, and any oppression I experience as a trans woman doesn’t diminish the white privilege I have. On the other hand, like racialized women, I experience moments in our society where my being perceived as a woman becomes contextual and contingent. By this I mean that I don’t think I have the same privilege a white cis woman has to fall back into that “damsel in distress” role. However, I’m still really new to my transition to the point that the pandemic hit before I could really figure out this whole “womanhood” thing in public. So I have to say that I have very little data with which to help me understand these complex intersections of identities—I am very interested to see what happens as I get out into society that isn’t my workplace through a screen. Sigh. I guess this is just something I need to continue unpacking for now!
None of this is to excuse myself or push myself towards innocence from white tears or my complicity in upholding whiteness, of course. No matter my individual actions, structurally I have a position in society in which I contribute to and benefit from white supremacy. So it behoved me to read White Tears/Brown Scars, just as it behoves me to recommend it to you now, especially if you are a white woman like me. We need to push past our fragility and our discomfort at the fact that, hey, we aren’t perfect and are sometimes going to slip up and do things that harm racialized people. It’s not possible to be antiracist simply by declaring oneself so on social media. Antiracism is a lifestyle, and it’s one that is bound to be punctuated by mistakes that come as a result of our privilege and power. That doesn’t make it any less real or important, but it does mean we need to think deeply about our actions, especially when others call us out or in. And shelve those tears for later when you’re home with your ice cream.