Is White Feminism the De Facto Weapon of White Supremacy?

15 November, 2020

Ruby Hamad, author of   White Tears/Brown Scars   : How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color

Ruby Hamad, author of White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Fem­i­nism Betrays Women of Color

White­ness is the priv­i­leg­ing of those racial, cul­tur­al, and reli­gious iden­ti­ties that most resem­ble the typ­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics asso­ci­at­ed with fair-skinned (West­ern) Euro­peans. Con­se­quent­ly, the terms “white” and “peo­ple of col­or” are not descriptive—they are polit­i­cal. When we talk about “white peo­ple,” we are not real­ly talk­ing about skin col­or but about those who most ben­e­fit from white­ness. When we talk about “peo­ple of col­or,” we talk about those who are exclud­ed. —Ruby Hamad


White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Fem­i­nism Betrays Women of Col­or
by Ruby Hamad
Cat­a­pult 2020
ISBN 9781948226745

Rana Asfour

Ruby Hamad, an Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist, author and aca­d­e­m­ic, was thrust into the lime­light after her 2018 arti­cle in The Guardian Aus­tralia, “How White Women Use Strate­gic Tears to Silence Women of Col­or” sparked a glob­al dis­course on white fem­i­nism and racism. Despite the piece being one of hun­dreds that Hamad had writ­ten through­out her career as a jour­nal­ist, it was to be a “par­tic­u­lar­ly painful and per­son­al one,” birthed from an “emo­tion­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal jour­ney” dur­ing which she had come—“slowly and devastatingly”—to the real­iza­tion that female white soci­ety’s social­ized per­cep­tion of her ethnicity—as an Arab woman—followed a pre­dictable blue­print that pre­de­ter­mined any and all inter­per­son­al con­flict between white women and all women of color. 


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The back­lash Hamad received after her arti­cle went viral was so intense that at one pan­icked point she fired off an email to the news­pa­per beg­ging them to take it down, before quick­ly steel­ing her resolve and ask­ing them to ignore her request. The arti­cle remained. And just as the abuse had at one point over­whelmed her, so did the sub­se­quent mes­sages of sup­port that flood­ed in. Hamad was soon swamped not only with peo­ple applaud­ing her courage to speak out, but, more impor­tant­ly, with an influx of mes­sages from women of col­or who “shared their sto­ries, their tragedies, their stolen years spent won­der­ing why this kept hap­pen­ing to them.” One Arab woman, Zeina, sent Hamad an email in which she shared her expe­ri­ence of being “pet­ted” by old­er white women drawn to her curly hair. Out of the many extra­or­di­nary let­ters that Hamad received was the one from Lisa Ben­son, an award-win­ning African Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist from Kansas City. She informed Hamad that when she’d shared her arti­cle on her pri­vate Face­book page, two of her white female col­leagues com­plained to man­age­ment that she was cre­at­ing “a hos­tile work­ing envi­ron­ment based on gen­der and race,” after which she was sub­se­quent­ly fired. 

It is the com­bi­na­tion of these wom­en’s expe­ri­ences from across the west­ern world with defen­sive white­ness, in social and pro­fes­sion­al set­tings, along with Hamad’s metic­u­lous aca­d­e­m­ic research into white suprema­cy’s his­toric role in cre­at­ing and main­tain­ing the suf­fer­ing of peo­ple of col­or, that make up the crux of White Tears/ Brown Scars and lend cre­dence to Hamad’s arguments. 

What the basic premise of Hamad’s “blue­print” sug­gests is that when­ev­er “white fragility”—a term coined by Robin DeAn­ge­lo to denote the state into which white peo­ple retreat in any dis­cus­sion that reminds them of their race—is chal­lenged, they react with defen­sive­ness. As such, Hamad explains that when she, a woman of col­or, called out white wom­en’s tears as nei­ther inno­cent nor gen­uine, but rather “weapons” they deployed in a bid to silence the oppo­si­tion and main­tain white suprema­cy’s sta­tus quo, the white women were quick to fight back by lean­ing into their racial priv­i­lege accus­ing her of aggres­sive behav­ior engi­neered to “break up the sisterhood.” 

Hamad argues that such defen­sive behav­ior not only ren­ders the crime incon­se­quen­tial, if not dis­mis­si­ble, but it allows the tear­ful white woman to get away with zero account­abil­i­ty. On the oth­er hand, it forces the aggriev­ed woman of col­or to apol­o­gize for the anx­i­ety she caused the “white Damsel in Dis­tress” and sub­se­quent­ly to self-police so as “to play nice and to watch her tone” in any future sim­i­lar con­fronta­tions. This “emo­tion­al­ly abu­sive rela­tion­ship,” writes Hamad, is what she talks about when she talks about “white tears”—tears that rather than denot­ing weak­ness, instead con­sol­i­date white racial con­trol and the pro­tec­tion of white advan­tage his­tor­i­cal­ly devised and engi­neered by white suprema­cy and the patri­archy to keep everyone—including white women to some extent—in their place. More damn­ing is that, to this day, all attempts made at dis­man­tling this illog­i­cal sys­tem of racism con­tin­ues to be met with “an avalanche of tears”—mainly white wom­en’s tears–that cost peo­ple of col­or, its men and women, their scars.


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From the onset of her book, Hamad clears up a few things for her read­ers: first, that she has opt­ed to use “brown” in the title “both as a poet­ic license indi­cat­ing a catchall for all those peo­ple who don’t qual­i­fy as “white” as well as a way to indi­cate where she places her­self in the race scheme of things. And sec­ond is that the term “brown”—in which she includes all non­black peo­ple of color—is dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed from “Black” through­out the book. Notable is that even when Hamad’s def­i­n­i­tion of “white­ness” goes beyond its rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a skin col­or, instead treat­ed as per­tain­ing to racial priv­i­lege, she admits, even then, the term remains erro­neous; “Who is con­sid­ered white is less about how pale they are, and more whether they are the right kind of pale,” she writes. Arabs with rel­a­tive­ly fair skin are afford­ed some degree of accep­tance in a world that estab­lish­es perime­ters asso­ci­at­ed with fair-skinned (west­ern) Europeans—in oth­er words, some can “pass” for white—until their eth­nic­i­ty is brought to the fore­front. How­ev­er, this “pseu­do white­ness is both con­di­tion­al and revocable.”

So, what is it about a white wom­an’s tears that evoke a need to pro­tect her, where­as women of col­or are met with mis­trust when they show any sort of emo­tion? The answer, it seems, lies in colo­nial­ism. In the “new world” of set­tler Euro­pean colonies, Hamad explains that the label­ing of the gen­er­al indige­nous pop­u­la­tion as bar­bar­ic, promis­cu­ous and ani­mal­is­tic was “both the ratio­nale and the key weapon” in the white col­o­niz­er’s arse­nal that served to de-human­ize the col­o­nized, to main­tain the sta­tus quo of the white man’s dom­i­na­tion and to pun­ish any­one who dared to chal­lenge it. 

Colo­nial­ism, writes Hamad, “rigged the game against women of col­or” because for cen­turies it cre­at­ed car­i­ca­ture race-based rep­re­sen­ta­tions that were prop­a­gat­ed and embraced as part of these wom­en’s bio­log­i­cal make-up. Basi­cal­ly, an iden­ti­ty devised to jus­ti­fy the abuse: Lewd Jezebel, Black Vel­vet, Harem Girl, Chi­na Doll, among oth­ers; all cutout sub­mis­sive high­ly sex­u­al objects with no agency, mak­ing them at once “desir­able and dis­gust­ing.” Despite the pas­sage of time, the tropes per­sist to this day, Hamad argues, albeit under dif­fer­ent nomen­cla­ture such as the Angry Black Woman and her younger cousin the Angry Brown Woman, that con­tin­ue to cement women of col­or’s posi­tion as nat­u­ral­ly dis­hon­est, inher­ent­ly aggres­sive, and there­fore unwor­thy to be tak­en seri­ous­ly or to empathize with.  “Even before we speak,” writes Hamad, “women of col­or are posi­tioned as poten­tial aggres­sors,” their feel­ings regard­ed as irra­tional and prim­i­tive with no log­ic to them, posi­tion­ing them as easy tar­gets to dis­cred­it. As an exam­ple she offers up Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, the bar­tender who in 2018 at the age of 28 pulled off the biggest upset in the U.S. midterm elec­tions by not only win­ning the seat for the Four­teenth Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict of New York City, but became one of the youngest-ever women in the Unit­ed States Con­gress. As a woman of col­or AOC is not with­out her fair share of dis­cred­i­tors ready at any moment to sab­o­tage her fledg­ling career.

Hamad has lit­tle, if any, sym­pa­thy for the col­o­nized wom­an’s bina­ry oppo­site, the vir­tu­ous white Damsel in Dis­tress, the sym­bol of Wom­an­hood whose puri­ty and inno­cence were viewed to be in con­stant per­il from the vices of the indige­nous pop­u­la­tions, ren­der­ing her the per­fect excuse for white suprema­cy’s atroc­i­ties towards peo­ple of col­or. How­ev­er, Hamad is quick to assert that these wom­en’s his­toric ratio­nal­iza­tion of impe­r­i­al wars, their silence in the face of com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties, own­er­ship of their own slaves, the orches­tra­tion of indige­nous child removals in Aus­tralia and North Amer­i­ca and the lob­by­ing for school seg­re­ga­tion, makes white wom­an­hood, in fact, a com­plic­it cohort to the per­pet­u­a­tion of white suprema­cy and the con­sol­i­da­tion of its pow­er. Hamad does, how­ev­er, con­cede for the sake of argu­ment, that while it is true to say white women were sub­or­di­nat­ed in set­tler colo­nial society—white men believed they owned the sex­u­al­i­ty of white women as sure­ly as they owned the bod­ies of col­o­nized people—yet it is “not true to say they were bystanders to the colo­nial enter­prise, and it is cer­tain­ly not accu­rate to imply they were vic­tims of com­pa­ra­ble stand­ing to the col­o­nized populations.”

Turn­ing her atten­tion to the Fem­i­nist move­ment, Hamad sees that noth­ing much has changed when it comes to white women cling­ing to the lin­ger­ing notion that white suprema­cy has social­ized them into—that they know what’s best for non-white women. Despite the advances women have made to attain admin­is­tra­tive posi­tions equal to men, what “priv­i­leged” white fem­i­nists have failed to do is invite their Black and brown sis­ters along for the ride. What is glar­ing­ly obvi­ous, writes Hamad, is that mere­ly hav­ing more white women in pow­er­ful posi­tions “isn’t going to result in a more just and equi­table soci­ety.” “Those of us who attempt to make our griev­ances pub­lic – myself includ­ed,” she writes, “are met not with empa­thy and sup­port but with deri­sion and “black­list­ing.“ ‘ This, she points out 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.” In one inter­view, Sonia, a forty-some­thing-year-old agrees with Hamad, “I broke through the boys’ club but I don’t think it’s pos­si­ble to break through this white club.” As Hamad sees it, as long as white feminists—not by any means any fem­i­nist who is white—are more inter­est­ed in hav­ing the same pow­er and priv­i­lege as white men rather than dis­man­tling the oppres­sive atti­tudes and sys­tems designed to hin­der the pro­gres­sion of women of col­or, and until white women are able to acknowl­edge the advan­tages of their “white­ness” and the griev­ances of their black and brown sis­ters, she pre­dicts that an all-inclu­sive sis­ter­hood remains illusory. 

Hamad shifts her focus to a clos­er exam­i­na­tion of the eco­nom­ic and social struc­tures in mod­ern glob­al soci­ety. She lays blame on the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem first for the intrin­sic dis­pos­ses­sion of the indige­nous pop­u­la­tions and sec­ond in the cre­ation of a class sys­tem that is depen­dent entire­ly on fuel­ing race and racism for its exis­tence and dom­i­na­tion. “Racism,” she writes, “is not so much embed­ded in the fab­ric of soci­ety as it is the fab­ric.” She notes the social pro­gres­sion of the Damsel in Dis­tress to one in defense who is loud­er, bold­er, and quick to act out on her dis­trust of peo­ple of color—think Amy Coop­er, who out­ra­geous­ly called the police on bird­watch­er Chris­t­ian Coop­er in New York City’s Cen­tral Park. Hamad casts a gen­er­al­ly dim view regard­ing the state of our glob­al soci­ety that she sees as entrenched, whether con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly, in racism, forced to view the world fil­tered sole­ly through “the reduc­tive lens of the white imag­i­nary.” Hamad advo­cates that it has nev­er been more urgent for peo­ple of col­or to forge col­lec­tives, to dis­card bina­ries, to strive for rep­re­sen­ta­tion that reflects their true iden­ti­ties and to chal­lenge and destroy the ones cre­at­ed by the oppressor.

White Tears/ Black Scars is a pow­er­ful, enlight­en­ing book that deserves to be read time and time again and is noth­ing short of a tour de force in the fem­i­nist canon. Ruby Hamad man­ages with unapolo­getic can­dor, exhaus­tive research and engag­ing inter­views, to face up to and dis­man­tle white suprema­cy and show it up for what it real­ly is: a sys­tem set up to sub­due, dehu­man­ize, and ulti­mate­ly exon­er­ate itself by lay­ing blame on its vic­tims. She chal­lenges her read­ers to imag­ine how the world would’ve looked today had West­ern Europe not tak­en it upon itself to con­fer sub­hu­man sta­tus on some in order to sub­due the entire world in its own image. Her extra­or­di­nary prose, and faith­ful­ness to the truth—even when it hurts—guarantees that she, and all the “for­got­ten ones” she ded­i­cates the book to, are not only seen and acknowl­edged, but their mes­sage is heard clear and far.

Rana Asfour is a free­lance writer and book review­er. Her work has appeared in var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing Madame Mag­a­zine, The Guardian UK and The National/UAE. She blogs at BookFabulous.com and is present­ly cap­tain of the TMR Eng­lish-lan­guage BookGroup.

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