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Ruby Hamad’s essay about White women’s tears went viral. ‘White Tears/Brown Scars’ delves deeper into performative victimhood.

“How is it that we have been so conditioned to privilege the emotional comfort of white people?” Ruby Hamad asks in the introduction to her essay collection “White Tears/Brown Scars,” which tracks the fraught legacy of White womanhood across the globe. Catalyzed by Hamad’s viral 2018 Guardian article, “How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour,” “White Tears/Brown Scars” posits that White women’s tears signal power, not weakness. “When white women cry,” Hamad writes, “it also makes them able to leave the conversation and choose not to listen, whereas women of color do not have the ability to choose to leave.” Highly anecdotal — full of first-person accounts based on exhaustive reporting — but also meticulously cited, the essays outline how this tactical affect upholds the status quo of White privilege and power, and its global and social ramifications.

From colonialism to the election of Donald Trump, Hamad takes a closer look at how White women’s performance of victimhood keeps White male patriarchy in place. “It is true to say white women were subordinated in settler-colonial society,” Hamad writes. “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.” The “protection” of White women has been the selling point for atrocities perpetrated by White men, from lynchings to refusing asylum seekers. As the literal bearers of White society, White women were tasked with ideal womanhood. Therefore, their protection, and the subsequent continuation of white supremacy, are part of the same equation. Hamad asserts that by “keeping this false image of impeccable white Womanhood alive, white masculinity was absolved of its terrible crimes and black sexuality could be demonized and mythologized.”

Hamad, who lives in Australia, offers a global perspective as she deftly renders the reach of this “maternal colonialism.” White women’s “care” and commitment to Western notions of civility helmed the mass removal of Indigenous children from their communities in Australia and North America from 1880 to 1940. They lobbied for school segregation, eugenics and the creation of a women’s KKK chapter as active warriors for the continued institutionalization of White supremacy.

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Hamad is concerned with how this imbalance of power affects feminism. She argues that the feminist movement can never be equal if the complexity of women of colors’ experiences are not acknowledged. She points out that Aboriginal women, who are 2 percent of the total Australian population, make up 34 percent of the female prison population. Native women in Canada have alleged forced sterilization up until 2019. Hamad calls upon “feminists who prioritize the concerns of white, middle-class women as though they are representative of all women” to recognize their myopic view of womanhood. She claims that beyond clueless, this fallacy of a universal feminism is also toxic, citing writer Audre Lorde’s definition of tokenization: “an empty gesture designed to placate and even silence our demands for more equitable treatment.”

In both public and personal life, Hamad follows the progression from the White damsel in distress trope — a strategically wielded innocence — to the damsel in defense: that quick escalation of defensiveness when White domination is threatened. Obvious recent examples include Amy Cooper, who hysterically called the police on Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper, and “BBQ Becky,” a White woman in Oakland, Calif., who feigned tears after alerting authorities about a Black family allegedly grilling in an undesignated area.

Hamad points out that White women’s tears do not work when White men are the culprits. She points to the confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court as evidence. Despite Christine Blasey Ford’s tearful recollection of Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault, he was sworn in.

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The referential nature of the collection is a testament to Hamad’s commitment to community. In some instances the book reads more like an oral history. Hamad’s conversations with scholars, journalists, humanitarian employees and other professional women of color about their experiences with White women’s defensiveness and gaslighting in personal and professional settings punctuate the text. These accounts are weighted by data on the effects of racism on women of color, from Georgetown University research on racial perceptions to the Indian Law Resource Center’s findings on the rates of violence inflicted upon Native women.

“White Tears/Brown Scars” is a stunning and thorough look at White womanhood that should be required reading for anyone who claims to be an intersectional feminist. Hamad’s controlled urgency makes the book an illuminating and poignant read. Yet, she would balk at being called ahead of her time. Of forward-thinkers, Hamad writes, “It’s not merely that we are behind them, it’s that we all too often resent those bold thinkers for what they tell us about our society and ourselves.” Hamad is a purveyor of such bold thinking, the only question is, are we ready to listen?

Rosa Boshier is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, the Guardian and Vice, among other publications.

White Tears/Brown Scars

How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color

By Ruby Hamad

Catapult. 304 pp. $16.95

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