Pets or Threats

White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color BY Ruby Hamad. Catapult. 304 pages. $15.
The cover of White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color

“White people still run almost everything,” The New York Times’ Australian bureau intoned in 2018 in a devastatingly brutal report on cultural diversity in Australia’s workplaces. The whiteness above is noticed by workers below. Sonia, a forty-something woman of color (she asked me to omit her ethnicity for privacy reasons), has been employed in the same medium-sized private sector firm for a decade. She is a mid-level manager, a position she only achieved after nine years despite consistently positive performance reviews and above-average results that, she tells me, were frequently better than the men and white women promoted ahead of her. Following a restructure several years ago, she has seen a handful of white women promoted or newly hired into senior managerial positions, disrupting the previously male-dominated leadership team. Any hopes, however, that a more gender-diverse management team would improve her working life were quickly dashed. “It used to be a boys’ club,” she says. “It felt like no matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t going to break through. I had to get results three times as good as my (male) coworkers just to be considered for a promotion . . . I finally managed to get promoted only to find it is now a white club.”

What Sonia says has happened in her rapidly changing workplace is that as the male managers, including the small number of men of color, either left or were let go, many of them were replaced by white women. In that time, the cultural diversity of the entire workplace has shifted, with newly hired employees and contractors being almost uniformly white. Whereas before, women of all races, including white women, were absent from management, now there are white women in leadership positions; however, this newfound power is not trickling down to women of color. Rather, in an apparent display of inverse intersectionality, the privilege of white women is intersecting with the power formerly held exclusively by white men and fusing to create an even more impenetrable, compounded barrier for nonwhites, undermining any prospect of female solidarity in the process. Sonia had hoped that the restructuring would result in an easier pathway ahead for her—she describes her new, white male boss as “very supportive”—but has found her progress stymied by the new management, who, she says, are less likely than ever to reward or even acknowledge her ongoing achievements. Convinced she never would have made it even as far as she has if the company had operated this way when she first joined it, Sonia now feels she is on borrowed time, and is considering her future prospects. “I broke through the boys’ club,” she says, “but I don’t think it is possible to break through this white club.”

But how can Sonia break through the white club in her corporate finance world when even feminist organizations fall back on the master’s tools of white innocence, moral superiority, and victimhood when challenged by women of color? “Rage, tears, and confusion,” described sociologist Sarita Srivastava back in 2005, is how white feminists respond to even the most tentative discussion of anti-racism. Western feminism has inherited the legacy of presumed moral virtue, innocence, and benevolence that has categorized the Western identity since its settler-colonial foundations. This means that white feminist women whose dominance is questioned by women of color frequently respond in ways that demonstrate this attachment, and Srivastava quotes women of color who found themselves repeatedly frustrated by white women crying “all the fucking time.” One noted that the indignant tears, anger, and foot stomping were not only common but standard responses in any organization discussion of anti-racism. So standard, that it was only after it happened in every single organization she has worked for that she finally “realized it wasn’t about me . . . after a while.” Meanwhile, white feminists Srivastava interviewed spoke of their “fear” and “terror” that “at any second” they might be accused of racism, echoing the common position that being accused of perpetuating racism is somehow worse than being subjected to it. These feminists responded to any anti-racist challenge mounted, not as an organizational or analytical problem that can be discussed and rectified, but as a personal attack that goes to the core of their being and brands them as “racist” for life. By turning the tables, they use their strategic innocence both as a shield from criticism and as a weapon to get what they want from women of color: “I’m feeling attacked,” “You are calling me a racist; how can you?” “But I’m the one who’s been a victim all my life,” are typical emotional responses. In this way, their self-image as good people is restored, and the woman of color is once again silenced.

I can understand why white feminists do not want to be seen as “bad.” Feminism is, after all, a movement concerned with rights, justice, and tolerance. But the historical foundations of white society, built as it is on a racism and colonialism that claimed to be acting in the best interests of those it oppressed, do not just magically disappear because people want to be “good.” The answer is not to fall back on defensive tears that disempower and silence women of color because the very existence of these tears aimed in our direction are both an indictment and our punishment. White feminists have to do what they expect of men: to separate the act from the person and look at racism as they look at sexism, as a structural problem that can only begin to be solved when they stop putting their hurt feelings ahead of our material harm. It is not enough for white women to have their hearts in the right place or to claim they don’t see color and treat everyone equally. Feminism must commit to an explicitly anti-racist platform. And that means severing themselves from their historical and emotional attachment to inherent innocence and goodness.

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.

There is no recourse for women of color who have been burned by white feminism. Internet call-out culture, often accused of “silencing” powerful white voices, is far more likely to be successfully utilized to further ostracize brown and black women. Those of us who attempt to make our grievances public—myself included—are met not with empathy and support but with derision and “blacklisting.” This is how whiteness reasserts itself: through a white feminist movement that aligns itself with diversity and inclusion to get white women through the door but then slams it shut in brown and black women’s faces.

White supremacy is not a left/right issue. It is the very foundation, the structure, the roof, and the contents of our society. Racism is not so much embedded in the fabric of society as it is the fabric. For all their differences, progressives and conservatives will often unite in tacit displays of white solidarity when it comes to ensuring people of color do not threaten whiteness to any significant extent. Think of how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar are so strongly rebuked by their own party as well as the Republicans (the accusations of anti-Semitism leveled at Omar did not gain mainstream traction until they were endorsed by Chelsea Clinton on her Twitter account). The right sees us as threats and their scorn is relentless unless we assimilate, disavow our own cultural heritage, and pledge allegiance to “Western civilization.” The left claim to be our “allies,” but only as long as we implicitly accept an inferior position and never attempt to get ahead of ourselves, let alone ahead of them. As long as we play the part of their pets. And that means allowing our hair to be stroked or playing the passive silent victim or acting the role of the nonthreatening sassy sidekick.

Feminism is not immune to this. For should we fail to keep up our end of the unspoken bargain, should we tug at the invisible leash that whiteness and white feminism have secured around our necks, then that solidarity is revoked and White Womanhood ensures it is always us, and never them, who pay the price for speaking out. Turns out, they too saw us as threats all along.

Copyright © 2020 by Ruby Hamad, from White Tears/Brown Scars. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.