White tears are a reminder to people of color that white people don’t notice racism on a daily basis; we only notice racism when the media presents it to us loudly enough.
There has been much critique lately of “white tears.” This term refers to all of the ways, both literally and metaphorically, that white people cry about how hard racism is on us. In my work, I consistently encounter these tears in their various forms, and many writers have provided excellent critiques. Here, I want to address one specific manifestation of white tears: those shed by white women in cross-racial settings.
As the meeting started, I told my fellow white participants that if they felt moved to tears, to please leave the room.
The following example illustrates both people of color’s frustration with those tears and white women’s sense of entitlement to freely shed them. When another police shooting of an unarmed black man occurred, my workplace called for an informal lunch gathering of people who wanted to connect and find support. Just before the gathering, a woman of color pulled me aside and told me that she wanted to attend but she was “in no mood for white women’s tears today.” I assured her that I would handle it. As the meeting started, I told my fellow white participants that if they felt moved to tears, to please leave the room. I would go with them for support, but asked that they not cry in the mixed group. After the discussion, I spent the next hour explaining to a very outraged white woman why she was asked not to cry in the presence of the people of color.
I understand that expressing our heartfelt emotions—especially as they relate to racial injustices—is an important progressive value. To repress our feelings seems counter-intuitive to being present, compassionate, and supportive. So why would my colleague of color make such a request? In short, because white women’s tears have a powerful impact in this context, effectively reinscribing rather than ameliorating racism. To make sense of how this happens we have to first understand what racism actually is.
Therefore, as white people who want to interrupt this system, we have to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement.
Contrary to dominant culture’s definition of racism as isolated and individual acts of meanness based in racial prejudice, sociologists recognize racism as a system of racial inequity between white people and people of color, with white people as the beneficiaries of that system. This system does not depend on individual actors with bad intentions. Because most bias is implicit (or unconscious) and built into our institutions, racism is reproduced automatically. In order to interrupt racism, we need to recognize and challenge the norms, structures, and institutions that keep it in place. But because they benefit us, racially inequitable relations are comfortable for most white people. Therefore, as white people who want to interrupt this system, we have to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in whatever reactions we have in a given cross-racial encounter—such as anger, defensiveness, or self-pity—without first reflecting on what is driving them and how they will impact others.
White Fragility is the term I use to describe the inability of white people to respond constructively when our racial positions are challenged. Because we so seldom encounter this challenge, we are thrown off balance and withdraw, defend, cry, argue, minimize, ignore, and in other ways push back in order to regain our racial equilibrium. These emotions and the actions that result from them are always political because we are not outside of culture. Our experiences are filtered through a particular cultural lens. This lens determines how we interpret the experience. In turn, our interpretation drives our behavioral responses. These behaviors affect those around us. We are not unique individuals interacting in a social vacuum. We have to look beyond ourselves and recognize our socio-political context. Our emotional reactions in cross-racial settings and the behaviors they inform have an impact to which we must attend.
White men of course, enact white fragility, but I have not seen it manifest as literal crying… Their fragility manifests as varying forms of dominance and intimidation.
White men of course, enact white fragility, but I have not seen it manifest as literal crying in these settings. Their fragility most commonly manifests as varying forms of dominance and intimidation:
Control of the conversation by speaking first, last and most often;
Arrogant and disingenuous invalidation of racial inequality via “just playing the devil’s advocate”;
Simplistic and presumptuous proclamations of “the answer” to racism (“People just need to…”);
Playing the outraged victim of “reverse racism”;
Accusations that the legendary “race card” is being played;
Silence and withdrawal;
Channel-switching (“The true oppression is class!”);
Intellectualizing and distancing (“I recommend this book…”).
All of these moves function to get race off the table, regain control of the discussion and end the challenge to their positions.
Yet because of its seeming innocence, one of the more pernicious enactments of white fragility occurs when well-meaning white women cry in cross-racial interactions. The reasons we cry in these interactions vary. Perhaps we were given feedback on our racism. Not understanding that unaware white racism is inevitable, we hear that feedback as a moral judgement and our feelings are hurt.
A classic example occurred in a workshop I was co-leading. A black man who was struggling to express a point referred to himself as stupid. My co-facilitator, a black woman, gently countered that he was not stupid but that society would have him believe that he was. As she was explaining the power of internalized racism, a white woman interrupted with, “What he was trying to say was…” When my co-facilitator pointed out that the white woman had reinforced the racist idea that she could best speak for a black man, the woman erupted in tears. The training came to a complete halt as most of the room rushed to comfort her and angrily accuse the black facilitator of unfairness (even though participants were there to learn how racism works, how dare the facilitator point out an example of how racism works!) Meanwhile, the black man who was the victim of her micro-aggression was left alone to watch.
…a white woman was offered a full-time position as the supervisor of the women of color who had trained her. When the promotion was announced, the white woman tearfully requested support from the women of color as she embarked on her new learning curve.
A colleague of color shared an example in which a white woman was offered a full-time position as the supervisor of the women of color who had trained her. When the promotion was announced, the white woman tearfully requested support from the women of color as she embarked on her new learning curve. She likely saw her tears as an expression of humility about the limits of her knowledge and expected support to follow. The women of color had to deal with the injustice of the promotion, the invalidation of their abilities, and the lack of racial awareness of the white person now in charge of their livelihoods. While trying to manage their own emotional reactions they were put on the spot; if they did not make some comforting gesture, they risked being viewed as angry and insensitive (see abagond).
The following are some of the reasons why white women’s tears in cross-racial interactions are problematic:
There is a long historical backdrop of black men being tortured and murdered based on a white woman’s distress and we bring these histories with us. Our tears trigger the terrorism of this history, particularly for African Americans. As my colleagues of color have said, “When a white woman cries, a black man gets hurt.” Not knowing or being sensitive to this is another example of white centrality, individualism and lack of racial humility.
Whether intended or not, when a white woman cries over some aspect of racism, all the attention immediately goes to her, demanding time, energy and attention from everyone in the room when they should be focused on ameliorating racism. While she is attended to the people of color are yet again abandoned and/or blamed. As Stacey Patton states in her excellent critique of white women’s tears, “Then comes the waiting for us to comfort and reassure them that they’re not bad people.” That is analogous to first responders at the scene of an accident rushing to comfort the person whose car struck a pedestrian, while the pedestrian lies bleeding on the street.
In a common, but particularly pernicious move of perverting the racial order, racism becomes about white distress, white suffering, and white victimization.
Because we so seldom have authentic and sustained cross-racial relationships, our tears do not feel like solidarity to people of color we have not previously shown up for. Instead, our tears function as impotent reflexes which don’t lead to constructive action.
Tears that are driven by white guilt are self-indulgent. When we are mired in guilt we are narcissistic and ineffective; guilt functions as an excuse for inaction.
White tears are a reminder to people of color that white people don’t notice racism on a daily basis; we only notice racism when the media presents it to us loudly enough. We need to reflect on when we cry and when we don’t, and why. In other words, what does it take to move us?
Since many of us have not learned how racism works and our role in it, our tears may come from shock and distress about what we didn’t know or recognize. For people of color, our tears are an enactment of our racial insulation and privilege. But because we see our tears as specific to us as individuals, we take offense when people of color find them problematic. In turn, based on past experience, people of color who question us can now anticipate some form of backlash.
Freely expressing our immediate emotions without attention to impact demonstrates that as white people, we have not had to think about the effects of our engagement on people of color. While white women cannot cry in the white male-dominated corporate culture without penalty, in cross-racial interactions we are in the power position. Thus, we have not had to rein in or control our racial responses and can indulge in them whenever and however we want. In fact, we feel completely entitled to require people of color to adapt to us and our white fragility. Much like white women in a white male-dominated corporate environment, people of color have to manage their feelings in ways that keep white people comfortable or suffer the consequences.
“[Black people] are only allowed to have feelings for the sake of your entertainment, as in the presentation of our funerals. And even then, there are expectations of what is allowed for us to express. We are abused daily, beaten, raped, and killed, but you are sad and that is what is important.”
I asked the woman of color I referred to in the opening of this article if I had missed anything in this list. This was her response:
“It’s infuriating because of its audacity of disrespect to our experience. You are crying because you are uncomfortable with your feelings when we are barely allowed to have any. You are ashamed or some such thing and cry, but we are not allowed to have any feelings because then we are being difficult. We are supposed to remain stoic and strong because otherwise we become the angry and scary people of color. We are only allowed to have feelings for the sake of your entertainment, as in the presentation of our funerals. And even then, there are expectations of what is allowed for us to express. We are abused daily, beaten, raped and killed but you are sad and that’s what is important. That’s why it is sooooo hard to take.”
The men who love us
In addition to the general dynamics discussed thus far, White women’s tears in cross-racial discussions have a very specific effect on men. I have seen our tears manipulate men of all races, but the consequences of this manipulation are not the same. White men occupy the highest positions in the race and gender hierarchy. Thus, they have the power to define their own reality and that of others. This reality includes not only whose experiences are valid, but who is fundamentally valid herself. In the white racial frame, not all women are deemed worthy of recognition. For example, contrary to popular white mythology, white women have been the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action, not people of color. I believe this is because when forced, white men could acknowledge white women’s humanity; white women were their sisters, wives and daughters. And of course through these relationships, white women’s increased access to resources benefited white men.
By legitimating white women as the targets of harm, both white men and women accrue social capital. People of color are abandoned and left to bear witness as the resources meted out to white people actually increase-yet again-on their backs.
White men also get to authorize what constitutes pain and whose pain is legitimate. When white men come to the rescue of white women in cross-racial settings, patriarchy is reinforced as they play savior to our damsel in distress. By legitimating white women as the targets of harm, both white men and women accrue social capital. People of color are abandoned and left to bear witness as the resources meted out to white people actually increase—yet again—on their backs.
Men of color may also may come to the aid of white women in these exchanges, and are likely also driven by their conditioning under sexism and patriarchy. But men of color have the additional weight of racism to navigate. This weight has historically been deadly. For black men in particular, the specter of Emmett Till and countless others who have been beaten and killed over a white woman’s claims of cross-racial distress is ever present. Ameliorating the woman’s distress as quickly as possible may be felt as a literal matter of survival. Yet coming to the rescue of a white woman also drives a wedge between men and women of color. Rather than receive social capital that reinforces his status, a man of color put in this position must now live with the agony of having to support racism in order to survive.
White people do need to feel grief about the brutality of white supremacy and our role in it. In fact, our numbness to the racial injustice that occurs on a daily basis is key to holding it in place. But our grief must lead to sustained liberatory action. Because they are indicators of where we need to work on our racial identities, our emotions can serve as entry points into the deeper self-awareness that leads to this action. Examining what is at the root of our emotions (shame for not knowing, guilt for hurting someone, hurt feelings because we think we must have been misunderstood), will enable us to address those roots. We also need to examine our responses towards other people’s emotions and how they may re-inscribe race and gender hierarchies.
While we cannot control how our tears impact others, we need to find ways that don’t privilege our immediate emotional needs over the needs of people of color. This work should take place with other white people or within an authentic, mutual relationship with a person of color who has agreed to assist us.
As we develop our racial consciousness we learn how to express our emotions in ways that do not continually center whiteness. While we cannot control how our tears impact others, we need to find ways that don’t privilege our immediate emotional needs over the needs of people of color. This work should take place with other white people or within an authentic, mutual relationship with a person of color who has agreed to assist us. Affinity groups are especially constructive spaces to do our grieving. Contact Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) or European Dissent for information on how affinity groups work and where to find them.
We can assume that our racial socialization sets us up to reproduce racism regardless of our intentions or self-image. Our task is figuring out how that happens, not if. Crying in racial discussions is often viewed from a white perspective as a supportive gesture of shared experience. But in the context of cross-racial discussion about racism, no form of white engagement that is not informed by an antiracist perspective is benign. Going against our reflexive and unexamined responses is difficult and often counter-intuitive, but it is necessary and will result in the least harmful and most authentic engagement.
I would like to thank Idabelle Fosse, Reagen Price, Marxa Marnia, Christine Saxman, Shelly Tochluk, Tee Williams and Jason Toews for their invaluable feedback on this piece.
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Read more Of Dr. DiAngelo’s insights into racism.
White Fragility and the Question of Trust
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism
White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash
This is pure evil. That black women was a pure racist for denying that white women the right to weep over the death of another human being, in her presence, all cause of her skin colour. Here’s the flip side: If it was a white guy that died, The white women probably would still weep: but the black one wouldn’t care at all; all cause the victim was the wrong skin colour. She would just say boo hoo, another white boy dies, who cares! then rant about cop on black shootings. She judged the worth of that dead man on… Read more »
I find it really strange that this article is written by a white woman. If we are going to discuss the effect of white women’s tears on POC, then wouldn’t it make more sense to hear directly from POC? Why do we need the filter of a white woman’s words? And as usual, really frustrated by the generalness of the discussion. “When a white woman cries, POC feel this way.” I find it really hard to believe there is one response, and trying to generalize seems to generate a lot of defensiveness and eye-rolling. I feel strongly that the commenter… Read more »
This article has attempted to create something articulate out of something very simplistic. These examples listed are not an example of white guilt or the inability to accept appropriate blame. They are the actions of self-centered aholes, and they come in all colors. To group them into one trivializes your agenda and invalidates your true argument. Tears shed out of empathy cannot be compared to those shared out of an attempt to redirect. Tears can be shed as a sign of true concern and heartbreak. Those do not desire comfort, as they are not for oneself. Blatant rudeness cannot be… Read more »
Great article. Thank you!
Although I understand and agree that “white tears” in 99% of scenarios, especially the ones you listed are detrimental. That being said I don’t think that crying because you saw a video of a black man get shot is self-indulgent, rather just a natural response. I would cry if I saw a video of a black or white man die, because violence is very disturbing and sad. In my eyes all the other scenarios you cited make sense, but crying as a response to watching people being shot and killed – that’s not self indulgent.
Let’s say a white woman is in the room with the mother of the black man who got shot. The white woman starts crying. Then everyone turns their attention to her and tries to comfort her. The black woman, the mother, must deal with her pain alone (which is of course much deeper). So the problem is the crying draws attention to you and away from the pain felt by black people. So if you must cry, leave the room. Yes it is a natural response sometimes.
Why would anyone try to comfort the white woman in the first place? This example makes no sense. Those who turn from a grieving mother in favor of someone feeling empathy are idiots. No one with half a brain would confuse the two. If they did, I sure would not want them supporting me anyway, as their support was obviously fake and self centered.
Sounds like these people want to be left alone or white people should know their places. Do not worry, I intend to give people like this all the space they need. Oops, I responded just like you expected a white man would respond. I know way too many people who post this stuff.
Robin sounds like a real piece of work.
These responses are predictable. Because people dont know the history of manipulation and the projected frailty of the distressed, weak fair skinned damsel or that whiteness is a state of mind not a race, they will attack the messenger. The empty rhetoric that misses the point is pretty much the state of mind that shuts down conversations for cryptic insults. It is very difficult to invite people into a conversation, when they are looking for an argument.
One word: Libtard.
You are a libtard. ??
What a shit article. Get over your “internalized oppression” bullshit and stop demonizing whites! After all you CAN be racist towards whites, which in this case you are!
Who are you talking to? The author of the article is white.
This is why the social sciences are a complete waste of time. If everyone was concerned with this crap nothing would get done. Get a real degree.
Possibly off topic, but why should either the black or white woman feel entitled to tell the “stupid” man what he was feeling, instead of *asking* him “why do you feel you are stupid?”
And engaging with him positively as a person rather than a piece of evidence?
I hope he was eventually able to make his point and be heard by them both.
“Tears that are driven by white guilt are self-indulgent. When we are mired in guilt we are narcissistic and ineffective; guilt functions as an excuse for inaction.” This article functions in the same masturbatory and self-congratulatory way that you’re describing. White liberal savior “allies” are full of guilt and yet really think they’re woke baes doing the good work and defending us downtrodden people of color. Clearly there are poc who will agree with the message of this article because they are rightfully tired of having people co-opt racial oppression and tired of having people speak for them. The truth… Read more »
No possible chance of white women trying to commiserate in the only way she’s been taught?
Blame the woman. Got it.
I’m sorry but I must disagree. Every person in this country has the same opportunity to either make their lives better no matter how hard the work is or to give up and cry poor me. I did not own slaves and as far as I can find out neither did my ancestors. Why then should I pay the price for individuals who lived decades ago and their actions? Do I believe slavery was right? Absolutely not! Has anyone alive today been a true slave in this country? Probably not. There were all kinds of injustices heaped on all races… Read more »
Your individual culpability for slavery isn’t the issue today. The issue is that racism itself is still very much alive and well. We all grew up steeped in a system that does, in fact, advantage white people. We didn’t choose to, and we didn’t choose to be white, and we don’t choose to have these advantages. But we do. So what’s left? What’s left is to acknowledge that racism exists, that white privilege exists, and not make discussion of racism about how *we feel* instead of about the real oppressions and even deaths that black people are experiencing. This may… Read more »
I must disagree. The level of disrespect shown to our Commader and Chief should be a clear indication of the problem we have in society. President Obama is an accomplished gentleman who has to deal with corporate news stations calling his children racist names. Not to mention that daily disrespect from high ranking members of our gov’t ( or have we forgotten the infamous you’re a liar during the state of the union). If the POTUS has to deal with the racists comments from all walks of life how fair do you think a 45 year old man who has… Read more »
Actually, the hundreds of thousands of mostly POC who are imprisoned currently are 100% slaves, with no liberty, no humanity, and enslaved- primarily for the color of their skin. Look a little bit into the Prison Industrial Complex before you declare slavery to be abolished. You might be surprised at what you find out.
Rebecca is correct. Go and read the 13th amendment and you will find that slavery still exists for black people in this country.
I am a white guy and I cry every time I see another black man gunned down by the police. Usually I do it at home in front of my wife, but it is hard for me to see why my expression of grief and rage is problematic. I don’t need anyone to comfort me, I can mange my own emotions, thnaks.
I think the author is speaking of tears from a different heart. A heart that is not crying for the innocent killed, but out of defensiveness. When white people feel “white guilt” they don’t know how to handle it and cry out of feeling judged.
this article should be included in teaching against racism in all educational institutions worldwide.
This article was extremely powerful and challenging – thank you! I also have a question – is it not possible for a white woman/person to cry with empathy? Of all the explanations you gave and assumptions you made about why a white woman cries about racial issues, empathy didn’t appear. Do you think it’s possible for empathy to be a reason or would you suggest that it’s not? I ask because I have spent my life trying to be more intentional about taking the time to really validate what the person in front of me is feeling – to affirm… Read more »
Empathy is not the measure of how well you can mirror someone’s emotion. Imagine someone in your life got sick and died – when you told someone about it a year later, would it make you feel heard if they cried the way you did at the funeral? Of course not. It would be disingenuous since they didn’t know the person, and now you’re in the position of comforting them, not communicating with them. The reason this sucks is that the person you’re trying to share with is not engaging with you – they’re weirdly trying to mirror an imaginary… Read more »
Empathize yes, but empathy would be more constructive if you showed it by being a true ally and calling out racism and acknowledging your privilege.
Crying when the pain is ours is basically taking space and asking for the attention to be directed to you.
I have had White female friends claim empathy and then demand me to forget my feelings so I can spend time acknowledging their feelings of empathy. I have to point out that that’s not empathy but manipulation.
Not true. I also need nobody to tell me how to feel or to validate my feelings. Hence the word feelings. I cry at all types of socially injustice.
Amazing insights here, particularly for my being a doubly privileged, as a white man, yet waking up to decades of unconsciously held fragility (even disability, un-diagnosed until a parent), made intensely worse in my also being on the ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) continuum (intense world syndrome, hyper-sensitive and at times hyper-rational). I cry often when by myself watching emotionally ladened movies, and encourage myself to do so, to better engage with my fractured senses to connect with what is usually repressed. For many with ASD, we do have the raw feelings and emotions of others, yet the mental processing is… Read more »
How white do you have to be to be too white to cry? If you’re mixed race can you cry? What if you look white but you have a black grandmother? What if you are an adopted white child with black parents or have a half brother/sister who is black? Or you have a black husband and mixed race children? I don’t like the way this article identifies someone by their colour and then uses that to decide if they have a right to be moved to tears by something. Yes some people are annoying but you can’t tell them… Read more »
And yet, you are playing devil’s advocate, and doing exactly what the article said. I think you won the race to the bottom.
To be clear:
Control of the conversation by speaking first, last and most often
Playing devil’s advocate
Hostile body language
These are all techniques of argumentation developed in Debating. They are not invalid just because the subject is Racism….
I’m not sure if your reply was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. But in case it wasn’t…
To be clear:
All of those techniques would be invalid in a reasonable logical system. And not one of them are allowed in honest, intellectual debate.
The reason why I think your comment may be purposefully ironic is because you saved “Switching subjects” for the last item on the list…and then switched the subject in your final paragraph. Nowhere in this article, or its premise, is there mention of “Debate”, only discussion and/or dialogue. How exactly does one debate racism?
They are in this case, unless you think racism is an issue subjected to debate. The examples mentioned were not debate settings anyway, but rather support groups and so. What was there to debate exactly? If we should put BlackLivesMatter to debate, we are even further behind in acknowledging the ways in which racism works.
What’s wrong with playing devil’s advocate? If an argument is strong, it will stand up to the challenge.
I think those are good questions but I don’t think that the fact that you can ask those questions means that this phenomenon is unrelated to race. White women have a specific relationship to power that women of color do not; women of color have historically (and are currently) dehumanized, and one of the ways that marginalization occurs is through the delegitimization of their emotions. Also, white-presenting multiracial people have different identities and histories than white people; white people who actually have sustained and significant relationships with black people may have better reasons to cry (but not always; plenty of… Read more »
I would like to thank everyone for their comments because they helped me understand the context of this article. Honestly when I first read the article I came away with white women shouldn’t cry in public because it’s racist. After reading the comment section I think I now get that it’s about deflecting from the issue and turning it into a personal issue, while completely ignoring the real problem.
Thank you for this article! I think white women in the comments section who are saying that they can’t help when they cry and who are having a defensive reaction to this article should consider the fact that if you have never had to think about the impact of your tears, THAT is a sign of white privilege. I also think it’s REALLY important to give credit where credit is due, and that the quote “Tears that are driven by white guilt are self-indulgent. When we are mired in guilt we are narcissistic and ineffective; guilt functions as an excuse… Read more »
I’ve found the Buddhist concept of “idiot compassion” – discovered via Smiling Buddha Cabaret at this link https://enlightenmentward.wordpress.com/2010/04/28/manifestations-of-idiot-compassion/ – to be a really useful tool for thinking through issues like this. Basically, we are practising idiot compassion when we allow ourselves to be so overwhelmed by our own emotions that we lose sight of the effect we may be having on others, and of what actions might truly be helpful in a situation. Decentering ourselves and paying loving and respectful attention to others is the hard but necessary step.