Part historical account and part cultural criticism, White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color, by journalist and academic Ruby Hamad, intricately explores white women’s role in the oppression of people of color, resulting in the abandonment of Black, Indigenous, and colonized women. Using examples from history, pop culture, and the personal experiences of women of color (including Hamad herself), she deconstructs toxic ideologies and behaviors that continue to permeate society today. On the verge of a dire election, amidst ongoing social injustices, this timely debut is a dense yet accessible read that is essential for anyone interested in the education and accountability necessary to fight white supremacy.
Gender, race, and feminism
To understand white women’s part in perpetuating the patriarchy is to understand history. Hamad takes us all over the world exploring the rise and maintenance of white supremacy, from colonization to support for Donald Trump. European colonizers sexualized, victimized, and oversimplified Native women—inaccurate and harmful characterizations that still affect women of color today. Hamad relentlessly reminds us of the moments in history when white women not only failed to challenge atrocities against non-white people, but helped pave the way for it, perpetuating the abuse for their own gain.
Hamad explores the connection many women of color have with their race over their gender, and the dichotomy that this has created with white women.
“It is not surprising,” Hamad writes, “that so many of them (white women) still regard feminism as a movement purely concerned with gender, leaving racialized women to keep trying to draw their attention to the ways in which various oppressions affect our lives.”
White feminism, white tears
Throughout history, white women were considered the epitome of innocence and virtue, a persona that not only claimed superiority to women of color, but allowed white women to weaponize that supposed superiority to their benefit, as in the Antebellum South, where enslaved people were often considered the property of white women. Today, while white women continue to reach the upper echelons of society, obtaining top-tier jobs, a disproportionate number of women of color suffer societal labels and toxic patterns that stifle their advancement. “Until white women reckon with this, mainstream Western feminism cannot be anything more than another iteration of white supremacy,” Hamad concludes.
Hamad investigates “white tears,” a term that describes the specific phenomenon of white women’s emotional reaction when they’re confronted or challenged by a woman of color, shifting the focus to the white women’s distress instead of their responsibility for their behavior. This behavior seems so entrenched in social dynamics between white women and women of color that it seems normal, but it’s something that is impossible to unsee, once you start to notice it. Hamad has written a comprehensive manual for anyone to recognize behaviors that continue to gaslight and subjugate women of color today in hopes that this education will lead to the accountability needed for change that is long overdue.
White Tears/Brown Scars is a challenging read, but it is necessary. It shook me out of my complacent “woke” stupor like an earthquake. If you allow it, the book urges you to acknowledge your own privilege and complicity in a racist system. For example, I have privilege as a Filipino American who benefits from ethnic ambiguity and colorism. Hamad urges everyone, especially white women, to get educated and acknowledge this bleak reality: “It is not enough for white women to have their hearts in the right place or to claim they don’t see color and treat everyone equally. Feminism must commit to an explicitly anti-racist platform.”
Image description: The cover of the book White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color, by Ruby Hamad. It is orange, with a black sketched outline of a woman’s face in a three-quarters view. The title text is in black and white.
What, When, Where
White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color. New York: Catapult, 2020. 284 pages, paperback: $16.95. Get it and support independent booksellers at bookshop.com.