MAJOR TRIGGER WARNINGS THROUGHOUT THIS REVIEW: Racism, rape/sexual assault, domestic violence, colonization, exoticization, etc.
You know all those videos of white women weaponizing their tears as they call the police on Black people for doing mundane things in public? Amy Cooper? BBQ Becky? Carolyn Bryant Donham? White feminism has been a murderous weapon of white supremacy and patriarchy deployed against Black and Indigenous people for centuries. White women often try to use their own patriarchal oppression to display innocence, but still center their whiteness in instances with people of color to hold authority and power over them.
I take no accountability away from myself as I, too, am a white woman. During this review, I will not separate myself from my whiteness or my privilege or my own participation in a white supremecist society. We, white women, are active participants in constant campaigns of oppression just by existing, and especially when we try to claim the title of feminist without an anti-racist lens.
White women are able to oscillate between their gender and their race, between the oppressed and the oppressor, at the drop of a pink pussy hat. White women are more powerful than we have ever been but we still cling to the role of damsel in distress in order to simultaneously exert and deny our power. A lot of white feminists even adopt anti-racist discourse to denounce mediocre white men and try to sidestep their own role in upholding white supremacy, myself included!
When George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, a city I called home for four years during college, in a state I called home for twenty-two years, I saw a lot of white women on my bookstagram grid and my Facebook timeline and my Twitter feed yelling about other white people being shitty and offering no acknowledgement to their own whiteness. Sharing an anti-racist bookstack you plan to read but just haven’t found the time for yet but now there’s a BLM movement trending so you need to virtue signal that you are a good white person to people on your social media network who more than likely already agree with your stance does not give you permission to distance yourself from your whiteness and your position of power.
I have read countless books on antiracism and Black feminism and I used to think that set me apart from other white people. But it doesn’t, because there really is no such thing as a “good white person.” No matter what, I am a cog in the machine of white supremacy and if I’m not actively trying to dismantle it every day, I am taking advantage of the privileges and the power I was born into.
White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women Of Color by Ruby Hamad blustered open a lot of inconvenient truths I had to face. The back of the book states that this book “builds a powerful argument about the legacy of white superiority that we are socialized within, a reality that we must apprehend in order to fight.” I want to take this a step further. Throughout my review, as I analyze the parts that stood out to me the most, I am going to provide actionable steps you can take to support women of color. I also am going to emphasize again that there are major trigger warnings throughout this piece (racism, sexual assault/rape, domestic violence, etc) and my main audience in mind for this piece are white women and white men who should be facing these issues head-on and be the main contributors to dismantling white supremacy.
In May 2018, Ruby Hamad published a piece in The Guardian titled How White Women Use Strategic Tears To Silence Women Of Color that took the Internet by storm. It even led to a Black woman named Lisa Benson being fired from her job because she shared the article on her Facebook page, and her white, female coworkers complained and said it created a hostile work environment for them. This was even after she had sued that same workplace for racial discrimination! With stories like Lisa’s mounting across the globe, Ruby Hamad knew white feminism and white tears used as weapons was a subject that could be dug into further.
Starting off, the book divulges into the topic of colonialism and how it has rigged the game against women of color. As an American, I will completely take accountability for treating my news and my government as the most important. Only over the last few years have I tried to extend my focus on other countries and their histories. That’s why this book was so incredible to me - it offers insight into Australia and the colonialism that has taken place there against Aboriginal people. Even though the author is Australian, she included many facets of American colonialism so it was both relevant to my current lived experience and enlightening to experiences I have no knowledge of.
In a 2018 analysis recounting ten years of data, 407 Indigenous people had died in police or prison custody. Indigenous Australians only make up 2% of the national population due to genocide and colonialism, but make up 27% of the prison population. First Nations women and girls are massively over-represented in the prison population due to the foundation of racism in the justice system and Australia’s response to poverty and homelessness is imprisonment versus social services and government assistance. Much like the United States, Australia used a fine system: you remain imprisoned even with no conviction if you don't have the funds to pay a fine. Aboriginal mothers make up the majority of those in prison who don’t have the ability to pay and they and their families are suffering because of it.
ACTION ITEM: If you would like to donate to Sisters Inside, an organization that raises funds to help release women from prison and pay outstanding warrants, you can donate here: Sisters Inside Campaign.
Hamad focused on the association between female innocence and sexuality and people’s refusal to see Black girls as innocent and lovable. She connected this happenstance to outrage over casting Rue as a Black girl in The Hunger Games and a Black Annie to the beginnings of settler colonialism. For centuries, colonizers have forcibly stripped Black and Indigenous girls and women through a pervasive and incredibly endemic process of hypersexualiation. They were exploited under the gaze of the White, Male Settler and these men completely disregarded their personal autonomy and violated their bodies repeatedly, while projecting the responsibility of the fetishization onto the woman herself. This is made apparent in society’s Jezebel, Exotic Oriental, and Princess Pocahontas archetypes. Because of this history, women of color today experience both racialized and sexualized harassment and assault.
Prior to colonization by white settlers, rape (as well as sexual and domestic violence) were incredibly rare in tribal communities, and when it did take place punishments were traditionally harsh, often resulting in banishment or even death. Per the book The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America by Sarah Deer, colonizers were baffled when they came to America and realized Native women had control over their bodies. This created sexual violence as a tool of colonization and the entirety of the blame of the epidemic still occurring today in the Indigenous tribes falls on white colonizers. Princess Pocahontas was created by Disney and showcased a stunning, slim and exotic ‘savage’ who caught the eye of the charming, kind John Smith. But in reality, Pocahontas was a teenage rape victim who was forced against her will to marry the old Englishman John Rolfe and died in England at only twenty years old. Every Halloween, I never fail to see a slutty Pocahontas on my Instagram grid, further sexualizing the girl who deserved to live young and free with the rest of the Powhatan tribal nation. Now, according to Amnesty International, 1 out of 3 Native American women will be raped in her lifetime, with 70% of sexual violence committed against them by non-Natives. Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women.
Latinas historically endured rape as part of the European colonization of Latin American countries by Spaniards. The mixing of races during the European colonization of LAC was primarily the result of widespread rape of Indigenous women. Conquerors trafficked and commercialized women into prostitution, and this trauma cannot be erased or disregarded from present times. From these historical roots, stereotypes of the foxy, exotic, and lusy Latina emerged, which to this day have rationalized sexual violence towards Latina women. In a study published by USC, researchers found that of the top 100 top-grossing films of 2016, a small 3% of roles were occupied by Latinx. In that 3%, 25% of the women cast were completely nude or in sexy, stereotypical attire. It is estimated that nearly 80% of Central American women and girls are sexually assaulted in Mexico on their way to the United States across the border. The rape, femicide, and violence against Mexican women have become so widespread and brutal that it has actually been described as a pandemic. These stereotypes and history of sexual violence also lead to current day sexual harrassment in the workplace. According to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, 77% of the Latinas surveyed said that sexual harassment was a major problem in their workplace. Immigrant Latina domestic workers are even more vulnerable to sexual exploitation due to constant fear of deportation, the suffering of social isolation in a country that doesn’t care about them, and feeling like their entire livelihood is dependent on their employer. Female farmworkers, who are primarily Latina, are 10 times more vulnerable than other races to sexual assault and harassment at work.
After the Phillipine-American War, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, the US occupation that took place in Asian countries propelled local sex industries and sex trafficking rings to serve white soldiers. This led to Asian women being fetishized, exoticized, and sexualized as lotus blossoms, china dolls, and dragon ladies. Projecting exotic aesthetics onto Asian women with submissive contextual assumptions is incredibly harmful. It allows the white conqueror to imagine her as a decorative object or a toy, which essentially commodifies Asian women into passive objects - made to be seen, played with, and touched, but never heard. It places their entire value onto their bodies. Because of orientalism and sexual imperialism, Asian women face immense barriers and violence today. In a 2002 study conducted by Jennifer Lynn Gossett and Sarah Byrne, out of thirty-one pornographic websites that depicted rape and/or torture of women, more than half of these videos showed Asian women as the rape victim. Asian and Pacific Islander women also make up the largest group of people trafficked into the United States. One in ten Asian American women report violence from an intimate partner and these numbers increase when you go into more detailed ethnicities and nationalities: 56% of Filipinas and 64% of Indian and Pakistani women report experiences of sexual violence.
In the book, Ruby Hamad’s emphasis on misogynoir during the slavery-era was disturbing and gut-wrenching. Slavery was terrible for men, but even worse for Black women, and needs to be talked about more. The jezebel archetype that Black women are hypersexualized that still exists in today’s culture has multiple functions. It is built to terrorize all Black people in order to reinforce white power, as a sexual outlet for white men to abuse while maintaining sexual chastity within the white community, and to provide a source of continuous labor. Some historians, usually white and male, try to argue about our third President of the United States Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved-mistress Sally Hemmings and that she consented to sexual encounters with him. But a power imbalance to that magnitude is distorted to such a degree that consent is not feasible in the slightest.
ACTION ITEM: SPARK (Sexualization Protest Action Resistance Knowledge) Movement is a girl-furled, intergenerational activist organization that is working to foster an antiracist gender justice movement to eradicate violence against women and girls in promoting girls’ healthy sexuality, self-empowerment and well-being. They provide feminist, girl-focused training, consulting services, curricula and resources to arm activists, educators, community leaders, and girls themselves to foster coalitions and partnerships to create innovative solutions to combat sexualization, objectification, and images of violence against women in media and society. You can donate, sign petitions, or learn more here.
Throughout the book, Hamad uses anecdotal stories from women of color in Corporate America, Western yoga studios, and media companies to display weaponization of white women’s distress. I appreciated her section where she transcribed another author I enjoy, Luvvie Ajayi, that this weaponization is a corollary of toxic masculinity and that it might be appropriate to call it toxic femininity. But can femininity be toxic if women technically are not in ‘power’? Since it is used as a direct leg of toxic masculinity and is wielding power over both men of color and women of color, I would argue absolutely. White privilege applies to white women just as it does to white men and this toxicity is the specific concept of White Womanhood, rather than of generalized femininity by itself.
“White women’s tears are a cynical invocation of a type of womanhood whose historical role was to be not only conventionally and acceptably feminine but the civilizing force in frontier societies, the moral judge, the prototype against which all other women were judged and found lacking - the peak of human evolution.”
A survey from 2006 of employees from five large U.S. companies found that women of color are the most likely to experience workplace harassment among all groups of people. This entails microaggressions, double standards, unconscious bias, and overt racism. Black women are often held to a much higher standard than their white and male peers, often presumed to be less qualified despite having higher credentials or business results. Why is that? Biopolitics. Certain segments of society (white) are able to thrive while others (POC) are vulnerable to exclusion. The way our society is set up right now doesn’t make it impossible for people of color to slip through, it just makes it hard enough that most people of color can’t. The people of color who DO make it through are often seen as those who made it based off their own exceptional ability, versus being seen as a testament of a white society who designed a rigged system that lets in a few to be able to pretend the barriers simply don’t exist at all.
ACTION ITEM: Donate to Black Girls Code or Buy From A Black Woman. Black Girls Code is a San Fran-based organization that works to empower girls by exposing them to STEM. They hope to increase the number of WOC in the digital space and train one million girls by 2040. Buy From A Black Woman is an organization that aims to empower, educate, and inspire Black female business owners and provide them with tools to succeed to try and remedy the disparity of annual sales for Black female businesses being five times smaller than other female-owned businesses.
One of the most influential chapters for me was titled There Is No Sisterhood: White Women And Racism. She talked heavily on the Christine Blasey Ford trial and the election of Donald Trump, Australia’s suffrage movement involving maternal colonialism (the role white women played in the removal of Indigenous children from their families), white saviourism, white women’s involvement in the eugenics movement, and how the almost-election of Clinton was NOT a feminist accomplishment due to her role in imperialism.
It has been a very long time since I have read a book that has had such a profound impact on me. Antiracism and intersectional feminist work is a lot of unlearning. Reading one book on the subject does not make you an expert. I would sometimes catch myself while reading saying “I already know this statistic” as though reassuring myself that I am doing the “good work.” But that is WRONG. Reading about someone’s experience with racism is not the same thing as experiencing racism, and no matter how many times I read a statistic, a fact, a story, the work will never end. A lot of performative allyship has taken place recently, some of it good intentioned and some of it to display a completely false illusion because of trending, mainstream activism work. Being seen as a good white person is not enough and never will be. Partaking in daily, constant antiracism feminist work is necessary and is the only way women of color will face liberation.
I would recommend this book a thousand times over. I don’t like to use “discomfort” when I talk about antiracism work because I still feel as though that centers my feelings and not actual change, but this book will make you uncomfortable. It should give you a visceral, emotional reaction and it should leave you feeling frustrated and quite honestly, a little fucking defeated. But when you close the final page, you will rest and be ready to take on at full charge, the brutal manipulations you see white women partaking in every day to disempower the resolve of women of color. To remain innocent is to remain willfully and actively ignorant. It is not accidental. It is not passive. And it is time to not let anyone pretend otherwise.
White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women Of Color
By Ruby Hamad.
280 pages. OUT October 6, 2020.