White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad

The White Power of the Damsel in Distress: A Review of White Tears/Brown Scars

Ruby Hamad’s 2020 book White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color is a paradigm-shifting work that combines history, personal experience, and media analysis to show how the tears of white women are far from harmless. If you think you know feminism—or even if you think you know intersectional feminism—you must read this book.

Tears, weaponized

When a white woman cries as a response to getting her goodness or her innocence challenged, she is acting, though probably unconsciously, as part of a greater pattern. If you’ve never thought about the intersection of gender, race, and power before, then this might be hard to understand. But that’s even more reason why White Tears/Brown Scars and similar books are essential reading.

Even if a white woman cries simply because she is uncomfortable, those tears have a very specific, but fundamental, role in the centuries-long and worldwide history of white supremacy and settler colonialism. “The kind of distress we are analyzing may well feel genuine, but it is neither legitimate nor innocent,” Hamad explains. She later writes that “The insidiousness of this strategic White Womanhood is that it masks power. It is power pretending to be powerless.”

(Another modern iteration of this strategic powerlessness is the “feminism” which pegs trans women as a threat to cis women, most famously in public restrooms. While Hamad mentions trans people once or twice in her book, my biggest—well, only—complaint is that she did not draw attention to the marginalization of trans women when it would have made perfect sense to do so. The “damsel in distress” performance that was born from this strategic persecution of Black men has seamlessly pivoted to persecute trans women, especially trans women of color.)

The consequences of our tears

These tears have always acted as a load-bearing wall in the structure of keeping the social hierarchy in its “proper” order, because “their weaponized tears are a form and function of [this patriarchy].” Just think of the way white women have historically used their innocence to accuse Black men of crimes they often didn’t commit, which frequently led to the lynching tree, where white women watched the “event” unfold with glee.

White women were integral to this spectacle of violence. Apparently not in need of protection from witnessing torture and murder, they were encouraged to attend lynchings, which often had the atmosphere of family picnics. Women can be seen smiling in many of the postcards that were fashioned from the gruesome scenes and sold for a dime a dozen in corner stores. The images show mangled black bodies burned alive or hanging from trees while white people swarm around mugging for the camera. How could they be enjoying this? The answer is, I believe, that the white women were smiling because they knew it was occurring on their behalf. The extent to which white men were prepared to go to protect their bodies and their virtue gave them a vested interest in maintaining themselves as a protected class. It was a source of power, albeit one with inherent limitations.

RUBY HAMAD, WHITE TEARS/BROWN SCARS, Pp. 86

The abusive white relationship

And limitations there were. Everyone knows that white women were seen as their white husbands’ property (even if unofficially) through this entire period. We had no freedom. We had no inherent worth outside of our sexuality.

[White men’s] rage was fueled not by anger at the violation of a woman’s body but by violation of their property: they believed they owned the sexuality of white women as surely as they owned the bodies of black people. . . . There was literally nothing, not a thing, that a white woman could ever have that was worth more than her sexual virtue. . . . The burden of representing the inherent superiority of white civilization fell not on the shoulders of white women, but firmly between their legs.

RUBY HAMAD, WHITE TEARS/BROWN SCARS, Pp. 84-85

And white men did that to us, but we didn’t care. Rather than fighting back alongside our brown and Black siblings who were oppressed far, far, worse than we were, we were more than happy to stay squarely second to the abusive white men as long as everyone else knew we were above them. See? The white men like us (and our purity) more than they like you (and your hypersexuality), and they’ll lynch you to prove it. That’s why we smile.

White sisterhood is white supremacy

This view of people of color as aggressors applies to women as well as men, which is where the thesis of Hamad’s book comes in, and it’s why this historical context is so important. Hamad goes through the stereotypes of the Lewd Jezebel, the Exotic Oriental, the Princess Pocahontas, the Angry Sapphire, the Bad Arab, the Dragon Lady, and of course, the universally-applicable Angry Brown Woman.

We will cry to silence them just as we have always cried wolf on their male counterparts. The situations aren’t identical, but they are a pattern that happens over and over and over again. This weaponized white feminism is only the latest iteration of it.

Kristina, a Latina woman, explained to Hamad,

When white women cry it also makes them able to leave the conversation and choose not to listen, whereas women of color do not have the ability to choose to leave a conversation when we have made someone uncomfortable. White women believe that their womanhood puts them on the same level of oppression as [us] and that’s where the conversation stops. They seem to believe in equality to the point that they are more interested in having the same power and privilege as white men rather than dismantling oppressive attitudes and systems for all. It’s angering because I’m on their team but I can’t understand why our narratives don’t bolster each other up.

Kristina Delgado, quoted in White Tears/Brown Scars, pp. 116-117

Even if you haven’t experienced it, we can all picture the situation. As soon as a woman of color (usually so gently) tells a white woman that something we did was rude, or inappropriate, we immediately become defensive and we shut down in a flood of tears in our insistence that “I’m not racist. You know I’m not. I can’t believe you would say that I’m racist.” Conversation over. We learn nothing. We refuse.

More than tears

It’s familiar because that’s just the way it is. That’s part of living in a white supremacist society. Actually, it’s a necessary part. It’s white supremacy masquerading as innocent cluelessness. It’s insidious because it’s seemingly exponentially more palatable in our modern minds than a lynching or a slur. And the white women who do this don’t even realize we’re doing it. Why would we connect these helpless, uncontrollable tears to the tears used to lynch people a hundred years ago?

But the connection is there. It might not make much sense now, because it’s impossible to sum up this incredible book in a thousand-word blog post, and there’s so much more to it than what I’ve tried to convey. Even now, it feels tempting to dismiss Hamad as an Angry Brown Woman after seeing women like her accused of blowing things out of proportion so, so many times. That’s why I think it’s so important to read as many books by women of color on these feminist issues as you possibly can.

Even given their unique perspectives, they are all telling us the same thing. (Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall also comes to mind here.) Within Hamad’s book alone must be a dozen examples of brown and Black women sharing their experiences, mostly in the workplace, of white women crying or petting their hair or reporting them to HR for sharing an article about white women’s tears. If these issues weren’t about race, or were benign at all, then it wouldn’t happen to virtually every woman of color at nearly every job they’ve ever had.

We can’t not know

There is no excuse for us to say that we don’t know. It’s clear that most white women don’t care about equity for women of color, but our liberation is tied to theirs. The sooner we can detach our own worth from our proximity to white men in a display of white supremacist power-hoarding, the better.

As it is, white feminists keep apologizing whenever we raise these issues, telling us they will listen, they will improve, but they never do. And women of color are losing patience. Because white women can’t not know. After all the years of viral articles, hashtag movements, and marches instigated and led by women of color, white women simply cannot claim they do not know what it is they are doing to us that is driving us away from them. All too often, we are expected to be content with getting our ideas out there only to see them quickly appropriated by white women as they join white men in the halls of power—the very same halls that oppress and exclude us.

RUBY HAMAD, WHITE TEARS/BROWN SCARS, Pp. 184

White women will keep ourselves oppressed by a patriarchal system that doesn’t care about us, because knowing that we have the power of whiteness on our side is easier than admitting that this world which hates women will turn around and crush us just as it crushes everyone who it doesn’t see as white. And when we find ourselves in dire circumstances such as abortion bans, we act like we don’t understand why Black feminists don’t want to join hands with us and beg white men for our own bodily autonomy back. We have much to learn if we will only listen.

There is no sisterhood. How can there be, when white supremacy has done such a thorough job of setting White Womanhood apart from the rest of us? There’s a division, all right, but it is not caused by us. Yes, there is much for white women still to fight for, but consider that every single obstacle to their advancement is placed there by white society, by their own people. . . . It is not surprising—though it is certainly regrettable—that so many [white women] still regard feminism as a movement purely concerned with gender, leaving racialized women to keep trying to draw their attention to the ways in which various oppressions affect our lives. Until white women reckon with this, mainstream Western feminism cannot be anything more than another iteration of white supremacy.

RUBY HAMAD, WHITE TEARS/BROWN SCARS, P. 162

4 thoughts on “The White Power of the Damsel in Distress: A Review of White Tears/Brown Scars

  • December 5, 2022 at 4:42 am
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    Oh, there is so much to unpack in this review. Good news: you have convinced me to read this book and “…read as many books by women of colour on these feminist issues as you possibly can.” I admit this is a subject I’ve read nothing about…and that has to change. While reading you blogpost I was reminded of Frances McDormand in the movie “Mississippi Burning.” Classic example of white woman living in a living in a white supremacist society and seen as her white husbands’ property. I’m making a list for #BlackHistoryMonth 2023…and will add this book to my reading. Any more book suggestions for #BHM?…always appreciated.

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    • December 5, 2022 at 9:10 am
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      Oh that’s great to hear! Personally my biggest suggestion has to be Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning. Honestly it’s so long it took me an entire month 😅 I also try to use BHM to learn about Black joy and success and not just suffering though. I have Unbowed by Wangari Maathai for that, though I haven’t read it yet.

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  • December 5, 2022 at 9:40 am
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    I’ve read Kendi’s book…impressive. I too will celebrate black joy…I have a list of films by the newest black film directors of the 2000s: McQueen, DuVarney, Jenkins, Rees, and Peele. Unbowed is new…so I’ll have to look at it on Goodreads!

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  • December 8, 2022 at 1:26 pm
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    I was going to comment that I’ve read Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism so far on this topic, but I saw a link to your review so will go and read that, too. I am with you on trying to read and celebrate Black joy as well as pain, and I’m also trying to keep a UK slant to my reading, although some stuff just isn’t being talked about so much here yet (I’ve got Running While Black to read which is a US book, for that reason). This one is on my list to watch out for, too, and sounds good and powerful.

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