I remember discovering feminism when I was in middle school—thank goodness for the internet—and enthusiastically delving into feminist literature. I began to critically dissect the sexism at play around me, questioning societal norms and rejecting traditional gender expectations. I felt pretty well-versed to speak on feminism, and, a bit arrogant having done some reading as a 16-year-old, figured I knew all there was to know about feminism.
However, I never realized how the feminism I read about in those books failed to consider the female experiences outside of whitehood. The books I read about feminism discussed how messed up it was that women were expected to be conventionally pretty and written off as the frivolous sex, but they never addressed how Black women in the United States face a domestic violence rate far higher than that of white women, or how the mainstream white feminist movement has largely failed to lift the voices of women of color, and in many cases, has actively silenced them.
In November, I read two very amazing feminist works that I highly recommend on this topic. The first is Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall, which focuses on the feminist platform in the United States and how the mainstream movement largely ignores issues that predominantly affect marginalized women (including trans women).
The other book I read, which is the one I would like to discuss today, is White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad. In this book, Hamad looks at women of color on a global scale as she offers historical context for how colonialism disseminated racist ideologies throughout the world and how white women have benefitted from and subsonciously and consciously perpetuated racism and sexism over time up to the present.
This book earned its title White Tears/Brown Scars because of the prevalence of a specific type of situation. Years ago, Hamad wrote an article entitled “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour,” which spurred many women to reach out to Hamad and share their similar experiences. In this article and in her book, Hamad describes how “when challenged by a woman of color, a white woman will often lean into her racial privilege to turn the tables and accuse the other woman of hurting, attacking, or bullying her” (p. 7). Often, when a woman of color speaks up against a racist microaggression at work, if a white woman is the perpetrator, she will deflect to crying, insisting how it’s not her fault, often times making out the woman of color to be the aggressor in the situation.
In the chapter “When Tears Become Weapons,” Hamad writes how white women’s instinct to cry when challenged can be a manipulation tactic, playing into the “damsel in distress” role and expecting others to sympathize with her. “It is presented as helplessness and sentimentality, but it is a power move. The power of the damsel is that she provokes the protective urge,” Hamad explains (p. 109). And when the person who has caused those tears is a woman of color, such as a Black woman, who is associated with stereotypes such as “angry, scary, aggressive,” our subconscious prejudices can affect how we interpret these scenarios, commonly resulting in others rushing to the “aid” of the white woman.
This phenomenon did not originate from thin air, and through much of this book, Hamad demonstrates how colonialism used sexism to justify racism and spread these toxic ideologies across the globe. In the 1800s, many scientists (wrongly) concluded that a distinct gender binary was a feature of a civilized society:
The peculiar logic of Eurocentrism was fueled by the rise of scientific racism in the nineteenth century, which regarded true differentiation of the sexes as a status that had only been achieved by the more highly evolved white Europeans… The American School of Evolution regarded sex difference as a racial characteristic and argued that only white European-derived people had evolved to the point of having distinctly separate male and female brains and dispositions.Page 65
When white colonists encountered societies which (to them) appeared to lack a clear difference between male and female roles (again, by European standards), they interpretted them to as “uncivilized.” To the Eurocentric mind, women were supposed to be weak, emotional, and quiet, whereas men were supposed to be strong, rational, and commanding. If a foreign culture did not adhere to this organization, the colonists concluded that it was up to them to “civilize” them. Thus, Hamad writes:
The binary permitted white men to ruthlessly abuse women of color with no consequence: as civilized men, they were spared any burden of guilt or remorse since it was literally regarded as their rightful role not to feel sympathetic or sentimental. The refrains of ‘facts, not feelings’ and ‘civility’ that dominate our contemporary public discourse are rooted in this radicalized and gendered enforcement of white supremacy.Page 69
It is in this way that white colonists used false Eurocentric science which deemed sexism as a feature of a cultivated society to perpetuate its own racist ideals that other societies (and people of color) were inferior. By using this logic, white men mercilessly abused and ravaged the bodies of men and women of color respectively; white men would rape Black women without considering it “rape” because to them, Black women were sub-human, and then these same men would turn around and use the promiscuous “Jezebel” stereotype against Black women.
Although white women are also harmed by sexism (and Hamad does note this), they have historically used their white privilege to their advantage. One particular story Hamad uses to illustrate this is that of Mrs. Cromer and Alukuleta in 1910. At the time, this white woman was living in Southern Rhodesia, and because her white husband was often away and they had Black male servants at her disposal, she began a sexual relationship with Alukuleta, which was illegal (p.77). “A white woman who engaged in sexual relations with a black man was subject to a prison sentence and certain ostracism from the white community,” Hamad writes (p. 78). So when Mrs. Cromer and her lover were discovered, she decided to save herself at the expense of Alukuleta’s life and accused him of raping her.
Let me repeat this: although their interracial sexual relationship was consensual, Mrs. Cromer lied because she knew she would be protected if she pretended he hurt her, and directed the blame solely towards Alukuleta when she knew this would almost certainly result in his death. This is a blatant display of white female privilege.
This increasing widespread fear of black male sexuality was referred to as “Black Peril” by white people and characterized a myriad of similar scenarios, such as the infamous case of Emmett Till, who was publicly and brutally lynched for merely whistling at a white woman. The public—particularly white men—reacted to these supposedly predatory black men with outrage and violence, because they viewed white women as property, as fragile, vulnerable possessions that they needed to defend. Thus viewing them as “the damsel in distress” to justify savage and brutal racist “retaliation” to their “crime” (which was often merely being Black and in the wrong place at the wrong time).
And it’s important to note that no such reaction was garnered when it was white men raping Black women—in fact, as previously stated, white men didn’t even consider their forced sexual behavior as “rape” because they held such a low esteem for the humanity of Black women. Often, white men would use Black women as a way to continue populating their slave market. But this isn’t the only double standard that existed—even some white women’s accusations of rape were ignored; if a white woman was a sex worker or considered a lowlife, men didn’t care about “defending her honor” because she was a “loose” woman and had no honor. And moreover, nearly any white woman who accused a white man of raping her was ignored. Hamad states:
The damsel was never intended to implicate white men. This is why sexual violence by white men was rarely punished historically and why to this day so many white people still react so blithely to sexual assault and domestic violence perpetrated by white men, even when the victims are white women.Page 98
Clearly, judging from these complex politics of when the public cares about who-raped-whom, the perpetrators are most despised when it is a Black man with a “reputable, upstanding” white woman.
To be clear, Hamad acknowledges that we should typically believe survivors of sexual assault and that there are instances in which Black men have committed this transgression. However, there is a very well-documented historical pattern of white women publicly and falsely accusing Black men of rape when these white women see an opportunity to either assert their power or avoid blame, playing into their privileged role.
The damsel is an infatilized woman whose purity and innocence are both inherent and sanctified, leading to her perceived reliance on men and to the obsession with virginity that persists even in a Western world that is supposedly sexually liberated. The damsel ensured that white women were at least considered human, even though it came at the cost of relegating them to subordinate status.Page 97
There are layers to oppression. Yes, white women suffer from the patriarchy, but it would be ignorant to claim that all women suffer equally. Because while white women can use their white privilege to their advantage when it suits them, Black women have no such option. When it’s the word of a white woman against that of a Black woman, most often the general public (and more importantly, the people in charge) will likely side with the “sweet, innocent” white woman than the “aggressive, feisty” Black woman.
No matter how much we insist that we’re not racist—that we don’t think that way—a lifetime of racist, subliminal messaging acts as an underlying and invisible bias in all of us, and moreover, many of the institutions we have come to take for granted have been built upon fundamentally racist ideologies. So while we can claim up and down that “we’re not racist; we have Black friends,” there is clearly some degree of racism informing our subconscious biases when little girls who are white are more often viewed as “innocent” and “lovable” than girls of the same age who are Black, as studies report.
Again, Hamad does not assert that white women are not harmed by sexism, nor does she claim that all white women are intentionally sabotaging marginalized women. But Hamad does explain how white women of the past have used their pseudo positions of power as a “delicate damsel in need of protection” at the cost of people of color’s well-being, and how traces of that still exist to varying degrees in the behavior of modern white women.
Additionally, Hamad discusses the specific stereotypes that hinder Indigenous, Latina, Arabic, Asian, Chinese, and other non-white women; she discusses how various cultures and groups of people have adopted the racist European ideals of beauty and have perpetuated racism within their own communities. This book is 250 pages of highly valuable information and an impressive bibliography.
So, as a white woman, what have I gained from reading this book? How has a book, which largely calls out white women for their failure and lack of solidarity with women of color, affected me? Do I feel “attacked” or “offended” by this book?
Honestly, my feelings don’t even matter in this equation. Whatever “take” I have on this book is irrelevant, because it’s not my voice that is supposed to be at the forefront of this conversation.
However, if I were to answer this question, I would say: Absolutely not. In fact, if I felt offended by this book, I would be exactly the type of teary-eyed pseudo-victimized white woman this book describes.
What I have gained from this book is perspective. I have a far better understanding of my personal existence in relation to history and the complicated societal power dynamics I have been born into. After reading White Tears/Brown Scars, I feel far more equipped to analyze my own behavior and reactions to the world around me, and to question my emotional habits in the privacy of my thoughts. When I understand these sociological issues and where I fit into it all, I can engage in my global community with a more nuanced awareness and productive intent.
White women: we have to do better. It is wrong for us to attain a place of comfort in society and apathetically (or even maliciously) disregard the widespread inequality that marginalized women face. The first step towards being better is to educate ourselves, and I highly recommend the two books I’ve mentioned in this article as a starting point for that education. Our collective consciousness must shift towards one which includes the interests of all women, not just a self-serving agenda. We must acknowledge how we are in a place of privilege and use that privilege to lift up the voices of women who have been silenced for so long.
Thank you for reading.
For more book reviews by Slanted Spines, check out this page.