Review by Camilla Patini
The construction of whiteness and what this means for women and people of colour is the subject of Australian writer Ruby Hamad’s excellent first book, White Tears, Brown Scars. Written off the back of her viral article ‘How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour’ (The Guardian Australia, 2018), the book delves deeper into a troubling pattern of behaviour that Hamad had observed play out again and again between white women and women of colour, both in workplaces and online. Hamad’s original article outlined how, in situations of interpersonal conflict, a white woman would use her distress to accuse the other woman of hurting or attacking her, thus forcing her into the position of the ‘angry brown/black woman’. In a sickening turning of the tables, the woman of colour’s valid claims are swept under the rug, while she herself invariably accepts blame and apologises. Such a strategy allows the white woman to cast herself in the role of victim, and ensures that she never has to acknowledge — or confront — her racism.
Publication of the original article was followed by an ugly and abusive social media storm, dominated by claims that Hamad was ‘bullying an entire race of women’. An African-American television journalist named Lisa Benson was fired from her job after two of her white female colleagues reported her for sharing the article on her private social media page; the reason given was that she was ‘creating a hostile work environment based on race and gender’, a response that can only serve to underscore the validity of Hamad’s central thesis. Despite the intense negative backlash, the article resonated with women of colour across the Western world, providing much-needed validation of a phenomenon they encountered regularly in their daily lives.
White Tears, Brown Scars builds on this and the important work of numerous academics and sociologists, among them Robin DiAngelo, whose 2018 best-seller White Fragility explores white people’s defensiveness when challenged by people of colour. Hamad contends that just as white fragility holds racism in place, so too do white women’s tears. Drawing on a wide range of sources, from historical documents to contemporary interviews and conversations with women of colour across the world, Hamad confidently unpacks the effects of racism and sexism on women of colour, from colonial times to the present day. She begins by explaining how white women have historically united with white men, using their privilege to defend and advance their interests at the expense of women of colour. Particularly good is Hamad’s analysis of the role of white women in upholding and defending colonial structures. Here, she argues with shrewdness and dexterity, citing numerous historical examples to support her thesis, using language that makes the more academic content accessible. What is lacking here, however, is an analysis of how poor white women too were subject to colonial rule. Hamad is right to point out that white women’s suffering was nowhere near on par with that of colonised women, but more exploration of the intersection between the two injustices would have been illuminating.
This book is not written for (but is at key points addressed to) white feminists, which Hamad clarifies does not mean ‘any feminist who is white’, but rather feminists who prioritise the concerns of white, middle-class women at the expense of women of colour. Hamad points out that even in left-leaning feminist circles, racism still rears its ugly head. She invites white feminists to do more than pay lip-service to ‘intersectionality’, to drop their defensiveness and look squarely at how their own whiteness disadvantages women of colour. Such a call is particularly salient right now as we reckon with the results of the U.S. election; more white women voted for Trump this time around. A very large demographic has revealed the extent to which they will go to maintain white supremacy and patriarchy. This shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve been following the conversation around race and power in the U.S., but it is both deeply saddening and depressing. The book doesn’t offer any actual conclusions as to what women of colour can do to remedy this situation, but this may be Hamad’s way of highlighting that this is a problem for white women to solve.
The central argument of this book is compelling and sound, but its clunky structure can make it a difficult read. Hamad switches her focus frequently, veering from discussing the negative effect of gendered and racialised stereotypes on women of colour to more impassioned political commentary in a way that can sometimes feel chaotic. But the book is also full of material and analysis that is relevant right now. Hamad dedicates a chapter to the ways portrayals of Arabs and people of colour in Western culture have historically lacked nuance and contributed to anti-Muslim and anti-Black prejudices on screen. She engages, thoughtfully and with passion, with the need to dismantle such archetypes. Each page is underpinned by its author’s own resilience and grit.
With all the accounts of racism and sexism that puncture the analysis, it’s possible to feel depressed or hopeless. But in the end, Hamad offers her white female readers a challenge: ‘White women can dry their tears and join us, or they can continue on the path of the damsel — a path that leads only to certain destruction for us all.’ (218) Hamad draws on a real sense of urgency as she pleads with white women to make the right choice: ‘Time is running out.’ (218) There are some hard truths to contend with here. It seems white people just need the courage to do the right thing.
White Tears, Brown Scars is a challenging but rewarding book about race, gender and whiteness, and is essential reading for anyone who considers themselves an intersectional feminist.
White Tears Brown Scars
by Ruby Hamad
Melbourne University Press, 2019
Camilla Patini is a London-based writer and editor.