Anaïs Duong-Pedica reflects on white fragility, white women’s tears, and the innocence of white women. Follow Anaïs on twitter here – @anaisdpedica
Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham, Rose McGowan, Mary Beard… What do these women have in common apart from their popularity, especially within western feminist circles? They are white women who take advantage of their whiteness and who centre it in their feminism. Taylor Swift’s career capitalises on “playing the victim”, a status she can only claim because she is a white woman. Lena Dunham has been in the middle of several controversies with regards to her questionable racial and feminist politics. Most recently, actor Zinzi Clemmons branded her a “hipster-racist”. Rose McGowan’s activism around sexual violence has been challenged by women of colour, especially Black women, who have demonstrated the ways in which McGowan’s feminism only supports white women. Similarly, Mary Beard’s recent tweets have prompted many to pay attention to the continuing existence of racist and colonial ideologies among British leftist intellectuals. Her tweets sparked responses for two reasons: First, the wilful ignorance behind her tweets on the cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by Oxfam staff in Haiti and second, Mary Beard’s reactions to being challenged online. She first tweeted that she was crying, and then shared a selfie showing her crying and visibly upset. While this seems to have appeared childish to some, this type of reaction will not be unfamiliar to people of colour. In fact, while we have seen a few takes on white feminism emerge out of this, many people, especially women of colour, have written about this in the past.
Crying, being visibly upset or stating that one is upset is a strategy used by white women when they feel at threat of being perceived as racist or accused of racism. These strategies can be called “moves to innocence”. They are emotional responses which are in part related to white fragility or the fact that white people’s ability to endure racial tensions is very low. Not having to think about race or to think of themselves as racialized render white people “fragile” to these conversations, as opposed to people of colour who grow up and live seeing themselves through the eyes of white people. These demonstrations of emotions are also due to the fact that some white people know or, at least, have an idea that they benefit from white supremacy and racism while at the same time understanding that it is unfair. White people, including white women, are invested in avoiding being seen as racist because of these conscious or unconscious understandings of racism as being unfair. However, because white people are socialised and live in white supremacist societies, they are more invested in upholding white supremacy (which will ensure that their privileges are safe) than they are challenging it. This is why rather than prioritizing continued engagement, constructive exchange, reflection, and learning from their mistakes when they are challenged on their complicity in racism, too many white people prioritise deflection and avoidance. White women’s tears act as a shield against accusation of white privilege.
The white woman’s tears work both for the white woman and against the person who is making her uncomfortable (usually a person of colour). In this way, their function is twofold. First, they re-centre the white woman through her emotions and create feelings of empathy and compassion for the white woman. Consequently, race and racism are no longer the focuses, the white woman’s emotions are. After Mary Beard made her emotions visible, many replies showed support to her and called for those who engaged with her to be more compassionate. Similar responses were triggered at Rose McGowan’s reading at Barnes & Nobles after having been challenged by Andi Dier, a white trans woman and activist, on her antagonism with regards to trans women. Rose McGowan became angry, stood up, raised her voice, then cried while Dier was removed by security. The audience tried to soothe McGowan by telling her she was “amazing” despite her clear abuse of power. In a similar fashion, many white women were quick to remind everyone of the importance of Mary Beard’s work, achievements and of her right to be human and imperfect despite her show of racism, therefore prioritizing her protection over a constructive dialogue around racism.
The second function of the white woman’s tears is to shift the roles. If the white woman feels accused of racism, her tears turn the aggression towards the accuser. The one who is seen to have caused the white woman’s tears is now an “abuser”, a “troll”, a “bully”, a “harasser”. David Olusoga, a historian and friend of Beard’s, used the term “lynch mob” with regards to those who addressed Mary Beard’s racism. In these instances, the white woman and her feelings are centered and any attempt to remove her from the centre will be met with resistance by her and those invested in maintaining her (white) power. Moreover, because white women’s display of emotions is a strategy that deflects one’s attention from the issue at hand and re-centres the white woman as a victim, the creation of the victim, through tears, also creates, by association, a perpetrator/offender. If the individual who makes the white woman uncomfortable happens to be a woman of colour, and especially a Black woman, the binary victim/abuser will be reinforced. The white woman’s tears act as a way to differentiate her from the Black woman. The tears exacerbate the social differences between them. The white woman is innocent and upset, the Black woman is aggressive and angry. Even if the Black woman who challenges the white woman cries, her tears will not be valued as much as the white woman’s. Individuals are not equally assumed to be or seen as innocent. Likewise, the display of emotions in order to appear innocent isn’t accessible to all equally. Maybe we can speak of a racial hierarchy of emotions that determines who can display emotions within particular social interactions and how productive or counterproductive these emotions will be. In this context, we need to question whose emotions matter and whose emotions are so valuable that they can be weaponized. In this sense, white women’s moves to innocence and fragility, more generally, are ways in which the status-quo is upheld. They are deployed to silence those who speak against racism (usually people who are not racialized as white) and to safeguard the privileges and comfort of white people, including white women. Many white people believe that western societies are post-racial in that all individuals seem to have the same rights and access to the same opportunities. To believe that racism only manifests through extremely violent policies such as racial segregation, normalization of physical harm against racialized bodies or racist name-calling is naïve. Racism and whiteness are continuously changing. They adapt to their socio-political environments. If a racist practice becomes unacceptable (Racial segregation for example), acceptable racist practices will continue to exist and new racist practices will appear. In fact, in postcolonial western and predominantly-white societies, racism and white supremacy become less and less visible because anti-racist social movements have made many people conscious of the fact that they were unacceptable. Therefore, not seeing racism and white supremacy does not mean that they are not there. They may have taken more subtle forms, like white innocence and fragility.
At this point, it should be said that I am not problematizing the fact that white women have feelings. Being upset, sad, frustrated, angry are normal and expected in these situations. Social change is an emotional business. Rather, what I am problematizing is what is done with these emotions. If one has been socialised as white and as a woman, these strategies will come naturally. White women just do it, without necessarily thinking about it (although some do think about it). Therefore, two important take away messages would be that white women realise and honestly acknowledge these behaviours and their consequences for those who are on the receiving end of white women’s innocence. White women have to internally resist what pulls them toward innocence, what tells them to interpellate particular racial narratives about themselves and the individuals who are making them uncomfortable. If the white woman makes herself a victim by the use of emotions, then she is responsible for also making someone an abuser. White women urgently need to engage, reflect on and be accountable for their actions without centering themselves. While many think that emotions are only “natural” and personal, they are also very much social and political and can be dangerous. As Aisha Mirza writes, white women are dangerous “because they’re allowed to be soft – innocent until proven innocent”.