White Women’s Tears

(A message for white folks from a white woman.)

Crying is a universal human emotion.  It is good to cry and be in touch with our emotions in times of sadness, grief, stress, happiness, or whatever happens to elicit this response in you.  Crying is also an externalized emotion that can arouse empathy and care from those who witness it.  What I’m saying here is that tears have power.  When someone cries, people around them respond with concern and empathy.  This is especially true for white women.  People will organize around our distress, thereby abandoning people of color.  Because of this particular power, it’s important for white women to be aware of why we are crying and the impact those tears hold in racially charged situations.  To take it a necessary step further, we must recognize the legacy that we bring in the long historical backdrop of Black men being tortured and murdered because of white women’s distress.

Maybe you’re thinking, “I’m just a crier! I cry easily. I don’t think it’s right to ask me not to cry if I’m upset.”  I get that.  I think we should all be entitled to our emotions, but the reality is we are not.  Our society organizes around white people’s entitlement to our emotions, and this makes it hard for us to see racialized dynamics.  It’s hard to stay humble and check ourselves long enough to look at a person of color’s lens on a situation.  If and when we do see their perspective, we are ashamed of being exposed as unaware of racism and often complicit in the oppression.  This tension is real and sad, and we can’t just fix things and move on.  We also can’t spiral in shame.  We need to build stamina to stay in this moment of tension and shame, in order to truly empathize and understand the perspective of the person that we hurt.  

I use the term racial stamina which, like our body stamina, is a muscle that we need to exercise to get used to moving through racial situations.  White people are brought up to not even acknowledge there is a muscle to work out, and people of color have no choice but to exercise it daily.  Their reality does not dismiss mine, but their pain and hurt should be prioritized, especially since our society is constructed to prioritize whiteness.  As we say in one of our Circle of Hope proverbs, “In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable.”

So how does this show up in my real life?  Let me share an example from a recent shopping trip at Target.  My daughters and I were making some clothing purchases and had used one of the self-service checkout lanes.  We finished our transaction and headed out the door, when a buzzer blared.  I figured that one of the items still had a security tag attached, and I definity did not want to arrive home with that still in place and have to return to the store to get it taken off.  Also, we were in a rush to get home because my daughter had tennis practice.  

So I turn around right at the exit, distressed and upset.  My eyes dart around for an employee to help me.  I catch the eye of a Black male cashier.  He signals for me to come over so he can help.  I bring my bags over to an empty cash register and begin removing my items to find the tag.  I pull out a shirt and hand it to the cashier, and he eagerly removes the tag to help me on my hurried way.  He doesn’t check my receipt and there is no suspicion that I have stolen anything.  I thank him and realize that he is in the middle of a transaction with a Black woman, and I have taken his help and attention.  My distress expressed by my white body caused a reaction in which a white woman was saved, and a Black woman was abandoned.  There I was, wholly complicit in a racist action.  It happened so quickly and with minimal intention or thought.  I had traded some of my humanity to access comfort and prioritization of my needs.

Having some awareness of this in the moment, I had an opportunity for a minor course correction.  I went to leave again and the same buzzer buzzed: I must have missed another security tag.  This time I remained calm, walked over to the same empty cashier stand and found the additional tags.  The cashier was helping another Black customer and I waited until he was done with his line before requesting his help again.  In retrospect, I could have walked over to the Customer Service counter rather than expecting the closest employee to serve me immediately.  I may not be able to control all the ways that others react to me, but I can work on controlling my stress responses so that I don’t ignorantly play a part in white supremacy.  

While this story involves strangers who I met and left in an instant, I have several other stories that hit closer to home.  At a recent lamentation church event I had to control my tears as my friends of color expressed the difficulties of racism they experienced in our community.  I have several examples when I have questioned the perspective of my Black friends and family members in favor of my white understanding.  How could my experience be so different, I wonder?  But, looking back on it today, it is still hard for me to admit I chose to accept and support familiar white perspectives over protecting and believing my loved ones.  

Even now, I still feel distressed about reconciling these thoughts, and facing my ugliness.  We have been steeped in the ugliness of white supremacy and have to face it in order to be forgiven and to figure out how to relate equitably with those we are hurting in our ignorance.  As white Jesus-followers, we are redeemed, but we need to continually seek to understand and repent from our sin of racism, in order to live into our personal and collective transformation.  It takes work and courage to keep turning to our own hard history, embracing it and growing.  Part of this courage includes building a default deference to the experience of people of color in racialized situations.  We need to take care of ourselves and each other in the process, so we can keep building our racial stamina.  It takes patience and vulnerability to stay poised for humility and decentering, and to keep showing up in our fullness to all of our cross-racial relationships. 

I am grateful for the gift of patience and support from my friends and family of color.  I recognize that I will never have the racial lens that they bring.  I get sad when I think about the fact that there will always be a degree of separation (things that I will not readily understand) in my cross-racial relationships, but I think it is part of my antiracism journey to trade back some of my comfort and self pity for the amazing opportunity for connection, human to human.  

Beyond tears, there are lots of ways our white fragility shows up in emotional responses.  These include varying forms of dominance and intimidation, control of conversation, “playing the devil’s advocate,” silence and withdrawal, intellectualizing and distancing, hostile body language, and using credentials, age or experience to “pull rank.”

Finally, let me encourage us with some practical tools for combatting white tears and fragility.  When you find yourself having a moment of white fragility, try to pause and interrogate that feeling.  Don’t shrink away in shame and silence – keep showing up even if you are vulnerable and afraid of doing the wrong thing.  Perhaps you can process with a white friend who is also committed to antiracism.  Be willing to feel some pain, grief, sadness and discomfort – at your own actions – and then be willing to take action to combat white supremacy.  Think about how you respond to your white friends regarding their fragility:  Do you commiserate completely and uphold the system, or do you help to challenge them toward growth in antiracism?  You may want to talk about it in therapy.  Consider creating healthy boundaries for processing conversations, and don’t expect emotional labor from your friends of color, especially if the relationship is not mutual.  Be intentional about fostering sustained, authentic, reciprocal cross-racial relationships.  


One thought on “White Women’s Tears”

  1. Thank you. I really appreciated your examples. I’m committed to this and have sometimes struggled to notice the less obvious use of my emotions as manipulation. Your examples Are helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

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