So. This one’s a doozy.
Two days ago, journalist and PhD candidate Ruby Hamad had a piece published in The Guardian. Its headline: ‘How white women use strategic tears to avoid accountability’. It is an excellently written and incisive bit of work. It is sharp, clear, and to the point, and it doesn’t cloud its message in unnecessary length. Hamad’s underlying contention is more or less summed up straight away in her opening paragraph:
That the voices of “women of colour” are getting louder and more influential is a testament less to the accommodations made by the dominant white culture and more to their own grit in a society that implicitly - and sometimes explicitly - wants them to fail.
While it goes on to explore a more specific issue on top of this one, this is where it all begins. It’s immediately clear from the opening that the piece is, in essence, a new formulation of Frederick Douglass’ immortal pronouncement about the fundamental need for proactive agency in the struggle for liberation. ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand,’ said Douglass. ‘It never did and it never will.’ If you want your freedom, in other words, you will have to fight for it. If you want what rights are owed to you, you will have to wrest them from those that keep them from you, for they will never be given willingly. Capitalism is a zero-sum game, in which those who gain derive their power from those who are made to lose. The modern world was built by the few exploiting the labour of many, the owners of industry relying historically on keeping the hand of the worker busy while ensuring that her voice remained silent.
The key point to Ms Hamad’s piece is that capitalism thrives by pitting one group against another. Again and again it creates a hierarchy of subjugation to keep the majority fighting against itself, dividing people along lines of race, gender, sexuality—whatever works best at the time. It knows that its very life depends on this endlessly renewing competition for scraps, because if all those exploited groups were to ever unite against their common enemy, change would be inevitable. As such, if you examine a modern capitalist system, it is quite easy to find these fault lines of exploitation. In the past few years, modern progressive discourse has repeatedly focused on one key concept: ‘Privilege’. It’s quite a Marxist label, really, quite easily viewed as a modern proxy term for class. Take any old cartoon about the stratified levels of class in society, replace the labels of jobs with ones of colour and gender, and the similarity is striking. That’s because the two notions are very much intertwined, and the system relies on having each privilege class oppressing the class below it.
It is this staggered oppression, occurring along the fault lines of gender and race, that Ms Hamad’s piece describes so well. She writes:
Trauma assails brown and black women from all directions. There is the initial pain of being subjected to gendered racism and discrimination, there is the additional distress of not being believed or supported, and of having your words and your bravery seemingly credited to others.
Malcolm X’s words—‘The most disrespected woman in America, is the black woman. The most un-protected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America, is the black woman’—come to mind.
Hamad goes on:
And then there is a type of trauma inflicted on women of colour that many of us find among the hardest to disclose, the one that few seem willing to admit really happens because it is so thoroughly normalised most people refuse to see it.
It is what […] blogger and author Luvvie Ajayi called the “weary weaponising of white women’s tears”.
To some people, especially those of a progressive bent and used to fighting the good fight against the patriarchy, this phrasing may seem jarring. How does one ‘weaponise’ white women’s tears? There are those who might read this, and who would refuse to see nuance and would then jump straight to a conclusion that does not follow: ‘Does that mean that the grievances of white women are not legitimate?’
But Hamad’s piece describes exactly what she means:
To put it less poetically, it is the trauma caused by the tactic many white women employ to muster sympathy and avoid accountability, by turning the tables and accusing their accuser.
In other words: Of course it doesn’t mean that all white women’s grievances are illegitimate. All it means is that white women, being higher up on in the pyramid of privilege to women of colour, have the opportunity to exercise a particular type of clout that the women of colour do not possess. And that some of them choose to do so, at the expense of the women of colour below them.
As Hamad says:
“White women tears are especially potent … because they are attached to the symbol of femininity,” Ajayi explains. “These tears are pouring out from the eyes of the one chosen to be the prototype of womanhood; the woman who has been painted as helpless against the whims of the world. The one who gets the most protection in a world that does a shitty job overall of cherishing women.”
As I look back over my adult life a pattern emerges. Often, when I have attempted to speak to or confront a white woman about something she has said or done that has impacted me adversely, I am met with tearful denials and indignant accusations that I am hurting her. My confidence diminished and second-guessing myself, I either flare up in frustration at not being heard (which only seems to prove her point) or I back down immediately, apologising and consoling the very person causing me harm.
It is a perverse mini-war of privilege playing out in the liminal space between two oppressed groups, one using its relative position of power against the other. Hamad concludes her piece thus:
It is not weakness or guilt that compels me to capitulate. Rather, as I recently wrote, it is the manufactured reputation Arabs have for being threatening and aggressive that follows us everywhere. In a society that routinely places imaginary “wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern” people at the scenes of violent crimes they did not commit, having a legitimate grievance is no match for the strategic tears of a white damsel in distress whose innocence is taken for granted.
“We talk about toxic masculinity,” Ajayi warns, “but there is (also) toxicity in wielding femininity in this way.” Brown and black women know we are, as musician Miss Blanks writes, “imperfect victims”. That doesn’t mean we are always in the right but it does mean we know that against a white woman’s accusations, our perspectives will almost always go unheard either way.
Whether angry or calm, shouting or pleading, we are still perceived as the aggressors.
Likewise, white women are equally aware their race privileges them as surely as ours condemns us. In this context, their tearful displays are a form of emotional and psychological violence that reinforce the very system of white dominance that many white women claim to oppose.
Powerful, nuanced, and very well written, Ruby Hamad’s piece received its share of support.
I'm a white woman and I saw a lot of truth in your article Ruby. I'm sorry a lot of the response has been so dreadful!— Freiya (@freiyaisobel) May 9, 2018
I was wondering if any sociologists are following this, bc it’s amazing & very clear cut study on human behavior playing to type. Nearly all of these comments are proving your point and they’re all clueless & blind to their complicity through behaviors that keep the system going.— LaShawnda Jones (@SpiritHarvest) May 9, 2018
But as even those comments make clear, there was also plenty of backlash from those who spectacularly missed the point, and who in the process validated Hamad’s piece.
It would never have been printed because it wouldn't be written because WoC don't get away with pulling stuff like that even if they tried it. Not a difficult concept to understand if you try just a little. https://t.co/zzmDwh799M— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 9, 2018
🤔🙄😆 Ruby Hamad's rant is racist nonsense published by a quasi-reputable source; people who are democratic are properly sick and tired of the double-standard, and have rightly held Hamad responsible for her words. The good news is, most ppl will not remember her name tomorrow.— TheTruthIsOutThere (@LuciHoneychurch) May 9, 2018
Wanna bet? https://t.co/NRTpsDe6ts— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 9, 2018
These writers are radicals on the fringes. Not serious journalism. It’s radical leftist propaganda, they have no ability to think for themselves.@rubyhamad— William Peters (@beautifulwood) May 9, 2018
This is definitely an original critique by a freethinking intellectual. https://t.co/eIhe6v9YNi— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 9, 2018
The fun is also happening in my DM’s. pic.twitter.com/l12CBKaiUV— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 9, 2018
I am winding up an ungrateful, racist guest w/ no appreciation for the generosity of Australians who took her in out of pity. Are you comparing that to uber- progressive Schneiderman beating sh** out of women and calling them his 'brown slave,' etc?— Ghost of Bull Moose (@BullMooseGhost) May 9, 2018
I am not a guest in Australia. You on the other hand are a tiresome racist who denigrates your fellow citizens because they are the wrong race. Save your pity because you won't get any 'gratitude' out of me. https://t.co/vty8r74Gad— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 9, 2018
This is without a doubt one of the most dehumanising things you can say to another person - that they are forever a guest not a resident, and as such they have no right to speak or participate in public discourse. That their lot is to be forever supplicant and silent. #GTFOH https://t.co/MwGN27Ad8f— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 9, 2018
OK Ruby's point is now proven, a well written article is now reinforced by the massive over reaction of said people whose comfortable existence has been challenged. Ridiculous.— Shaun Hanna (@Sarsagoth) May 9, 2018
For those wondering why I bother to respond to the abusive trolls - it’s bc sometimes we have to share the extent of the silencing tactics used against us so ppl see how insidious & widespread they are. That they try so hard to silence WoC the most tells you how important we are.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 9, 2018
I just cannot wrap my head around the irony that I am being called: racist, dehumanising, aggressive, bigoted, Islamist(?), divisive, oppressive, ugly, a piece of shit, & sexist, bc I wrote about the way in which WW sometimes brand WoC as bullies if they speak up about something.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 9, 2018
Can someone please explain to me why editors at the @guardian think it's reasonable to promote the idea that a white woman crying is an act of violence?— Claire Lehmann (@clairlemon) May 8, 2018
Because nothing an "oppressor" can do, including the experience of misery, lessens their identity-politics status as "oppressor." https://t.co/RE8ET8Aqu1— Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) May 9, 2018
Oh look. Jordan is now on the case. https://t.co/KUbahMIZ95— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 9, 2018
Nah, I'm just gonna keep retweeting the abuse. Because the scale of this has to be seen to be believed. That one article by an Arab woman is enough to get the likes of Jordan Peterson, Cathy Young & Claire Lehmann frothing at the mouth is exactly why WoC must keep going. ✊🏽✊🏽— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 9, 2018
Okay, since my mentions are blowing up and I am procrastinating anyway, I am going to give a little background to my piece in the Guardian today. This will be a thread but hopefully not a long one.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
1. I have struggled a fair bit in my work in recent years. I won't go into details but I will just say that every time I tried to talk to the appropriate people about my concerns I was shot down.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
2. I was told that "nothing is good enough for me" when I complained about being plagiarised and told to be grateful because the white woman who ripped off my work was more famous than me.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
3. Last Anzac Day (2017) I was bullied for the whole day by an editor who tried to coerce me into writing a piece attacking Anzac Day. When I kept refusing (basically in tears), she threatened to pull my piece from publication and then came good on her threat.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
4. I was so traumatised by that experience I took a few weeks off. Only for the behaviour to recommence. Eventually I left that job amidst accusations I was being difficult.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
5. Every time I tried to talk about that and similar experiences, I was told I was in the wrong and I should just shut up. So eventually I did.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
6. But trauma doesn't magically disappear just because no one wants you to talk about it. And when I did try to talk about it, I kept getting told I was being vengeful or angry or maybe I was just imagining things?— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
7. And then I noticed, all the people saying this to me were white women. White women I had trusted and respected and thought felt the same way about me.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
8. And then I looked back to other incidents in my personal life that took a similar trajectory. But still, I thought it must just be me. That there was something about me that meant this kept happening to me.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
10. I shared her Tweets on my FB page (now deactive) to see if other brown and black women had had similar experiences. Lo and behold, yes they had. And many of them shared them with me.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
11. And then I started seeing them everywhere. RuPaul's drag race. Jully Black and Jeanne Becker.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
13. Clearly there is a pattern here. Yes, it is about the white women who use their tears to silence WoC but it is also about a society which permits it to happen unabated.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
14. It happens because brown and black women are denied innocence. To borrow some lyrics from my favourite song, "we cut and we bleed but they seem to find this so hard to believe." That we are in pain and that we are being hurt does not even seem to register.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
15. Our protestations and our demands for some sort of justice are interpreted as attacks and bullying and being harsh. And so we are abused all over again.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
Anyway, now that I have so much attention on me and my page, I do want to say that it was two very supportive white women who commissioned & published that piece from me yesterday. If they can so easily understand I am not 'attacking all white women," then so can everyone else.— Ruby Hamad (@rubyhamad) May 8, 2018
Really, Hamad’s point is not a particularly hard one to grasp. Especially when it is articulated so clearly. Observing the backlash, then, proves an immensely instructive demonstration of the power dynamics at play in our society. The vast majority of power lies at the top, with the rest of the structure sharing what little remains, in staggered levels as we descend. Crucially, this capitalist pyramid of privilege relies on foot soldiers to maintain its structural integrity. These are the people and institutions that hit back at anyone who might try to climb the pyramid, or to even point out its nature. Ruby Hamad calmly and rationally pointed out a particular aspect of the structure, and so she had to be punished. Whether through wilful misunderstanding, bad faith interpretation, or plain anger and hate, the hordes bared their teeth and snarled in defence of the status quo.