Book Review: White Tears, Brown Scars - Ruby Hamad
Astria Zahra Nabila
“What happens when racism and sexism collide? My answer begins with the realization that the way people regard and treat us comes down to how well we match the stereotypical features associated with our perceived gender. Because women of color are always perceived as lesser women, then whatever the intersection—be it gender identity, sexuality, disability, or something else—every experience of marginalization is made more acute when race is thrown into the mix.” (pg. 13)
In White Tears, Brown Scars, Ruby Hamad, a journalist-cum-author-cum-academic, delves into one of the major failures of white feminism: the disregard of intersectionality and its impacts on the movement. White feminism has often been subjected to criticisms due to its exclusionary nature, yet it still manages to steer, or even embody, the mainstream of the movement at large. Hamad’s White Tears, Brown Scars was preceded by her Guardian article “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour”. Published in 2018, the article triggered a mixed response, from indignation and animosity (predominantly from white feminists) to appreciation from women of colour whose daily struggles in navigating mainstream feminism are aptly illustrated by the article. The article’s success to prompt discussions inspired Hamad to write White Tears, Brown Scars. Blurbed by Ibram X. Kendi, author and anti-racist activist, the book further analyses the impact of white fragility, often taking the form of white female’s tears, on silencing women of color (WOC).
The concept of ‘white tears’ is not intended to invalidate legitimate distress, but rather it refers to the fragility of some members of the dominant group which is readily showcased upon having their dominance questioned. What gives power to white females’ tears, Hamad argues, is the established association between their distress and the idea of femininity and assumed weakness. In the context of WOC’s fight against racism perpetrated by white females, associating white females in tears with helplessness automatically positions WOC as the aggressors. Hamad underlines that the strategic use of tears by white females is not a sign of distress, but rather a demonstration of their relative power over WOC. Once a white female starts to cry, the nature of the discussions on racism is shifted; it is no longer about the actions carried out by her and how they impact WOC, but rather it is about her feelings. “Her innocence. Her victimhood. Her strategic White Womanhood.” (pg. 109).
One example is Mary Beard, a Cambridge professor, and prolific classicist, who cried while defending her controversial statement regarding the serious sexual misconduct carried out by Oxfam staff in Haiti. Beard commented on the crime by pondering “....how hard it must be to maintain ‘civilized’ values in a disaster zone”, leading to criticisms, most of which were from WOC, of colonialism and racism against Beard. Hamad notes how by responding to the criticisms by crying, Beard was complicit in the silencing of WOC and their concerns as she was “unable to see past her own innocence and victimhood” (pg. 108). By making Beard, a history professor who ought to have a greater awareness of gender and race, as an example, Hamad shows how the marginalization of the WOC in the feminist movement occurs as well at the more ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum, let alone at the other end of the spectrum.
The binary of distressed white females as victims against hostile women of color as the assailants is buttressed with biased stereotypes: lewd Africans, angry Arabs, exotic Orientals, among others. These distorted representations are strategically used to justify white males’ aggression against women of color while perpetuating the idea that only white females can embody the ‘true femininity’ and thus deserve ‘protection’ from their male counterparts. In this context, white females are both winners and victims of the white damsel representation: while they are protected from responsibilities for racism, the very same protection that they receive validates their assumed inferiority vis-à-vis white males.
The use of certain stereotypes and archetypes is not a novel strategy for preserving the dominance of the white race. Hamad’s analysis of the intersection between race and gender is heavily tinged with the centrality of colonialism perpetrated by western countries and its legacy in today’s racial and gendered oppression. White Tears, Brown Scars highlights several examples of colonial practices which ensconce several immutable binaries governing our everyday lives and perceptions of ourselves: white/coloured, West/East, civilized/savage. Hamad’s analysis reiterates the argument that stereotypes are ‘power-driven knowledge’ designed to bolster white dominance and project Western imaginations and fantasies of WOC, which explains their ambiguous and erratic characterizations in order to meet the needs of the white majority.
The use of veils among the so-called “Oriental women”, for instance, was used to be employed strategically by white colonizers for their labeling of WOC as promiscuous by transforming the religious/cultural garment into an accessory of seduction; Oriental women supposedly used veils as a tool to entice their male counterparts while providing anonymity. Contrast this with the post-9/11 world’s portrayal of veils as a symbol of terrorism and aggression. While the construction of veils has changed, it still serves its primary purpose: to depict the Orient as savage, barbaric, and backward, the very antithesis of the West.
A distinction of White Tears, Brown Scars is Hamad’s criticism against Marxism, one of the major canons in the study of oppression, for its failure to address the role of racism in society, particularly the exploitation of people of color in Western capitalism. Focusing on intersectionality, Hamad argues how the white working class could even transform their economic status into an advantage through the act of ‘classwashing’, namely attempts to absolve claims of racism by emphasizing the poor economic conditions of the white working class and the supposed unfairness to discuss racisms with the disenfranchised.
These are only a few of the various cases used by Hamad to exemplify the struggles besetting WOC against sexism and racism, ranging from African, Arab, and Asian women navigating aggression in this white-dominated world.. As we live in increasingly perilous times, dismantling all forms of oppression becomes more critical. White females could either continue reinforcing white supremacy by (at best) resorting to mere tokenism in their version of feminism or join the inclusive sisterhood with the WOC by first acknowledging their relative privileges and their role in ‘scarring’ their coloredcounterparts.
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 03 — September 2022