By Hellai Gul
In May 2018, Ruby Hamad wrote an article published in Guardian Australia that received enormous backlash and support. The piece highlighted a phenomenon experienced all too often by women of colour: white woman tears.
Hamad suggested that there is “a pattern so predictable it work[s] like a blueprint” when it comes to how conflict unfolds between white women and women of colour: when confronted by a woman of colour, white women tend to fall back on their racial privilege by accusing said woman of colour of “hurting, attacking, or bullying” behaviour. This is usually accompanied, as a means of final reinforcement, by what Hamad calls weaponised tears. Regardless of the method or tone of the approach, the woman of colour is seen as an aggressor. By positioning herself as the damsel in distress, the white woman receives support from surrounding witnesses and the woman of colour is antagonised and ostracised. Hamad calls this power manoeuvre ‘Strategic White Womanhood’.
Hamad’s first book, White Tears Brown Scars, expands upon the article to set out the historical basis for this patterned conduct. Her analysis begins by tracing the initial encounters (or lack thereof) between white women and women of colour, namely in settler colonial societies in Australia, the US and Southern Rhodesia. In the colonies, white men self-appointed themselves as pinnacles of power and, as Hamad convincingly argues, placed white women very strategically within the system to not only reinforce patriarchy but to also fortify white supremacy.
Hamad provides an account of settler society in which only the colonisers were gendered, in a binary of rational white men and sentimental and fragile white women. Extending the same distinctions to the Indigenous population would undermine the supremacist justifications of colonisation. This, as we know, inevitably resulted in the utter dehumanisation of First Nations people, especially of native women. As Hamad puts it:
“For hundreds of years, excluding women of colour from womanhood has been key to maintaining this racial hierarchy, and white women have been both privileged and subordinated by it. It seems clear to me that this is why it is women of colour who remain most marginalised and most at risk of violence and discrimination.”
As time passed, the same process of categorisation was applied to all other people of colour. It is worth noting here that neither Hamad nor I are entirely content with blending all people of non-white heritage under the same banner by using the phrases ‘people/women of colour’; it is rather, as she points out, due to a “lack of better terms”.
The legacy of colonisation continues in the stereotypes and misrepresentations of women of colour in every aspect of contemporary culture. Hamad focuses on the caricatures used in representations of women of colour in film and other popular media. Along with academic research material and data, Hamad also refers to well-known public occurrences of white women clashing with women of colour and showcasing the pattern of deflection and tears, specifically Mary Beard’s tweets about Oxfam staff’s alleged misconduct and the infamous scene in which Yumi Stynes called out Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s racist comments concerning Indigenous communities on morning television.
Hamad also interviewed women of colour from around the globe who contacted her in the aftermath of her Guardian article to relay their experiences with this phenomenon and to highlight the prevalence of it:
“I have begun to gain an understanding of how pervasive this experience is for the majority of women of colour living in the West – how much it shapes, limits and mars their lives and, most frustratingly, how little recourse they have to seek accountability from those who do it to them.”
Although Hamad’s efforts do her arguments justice, the mixing of different research methodologies may be dizzying for some readers. She does make academic theory and concepts accessible to a wider readership without watering down their complexity. Hamad also avoids falling into the trap of having to divulge personal trauma or drama, which is a troubling common trope of contemporary feminist writing.
By conceptualising Strategic White Womanhood, Hamad provides a framework, cemented in historical basis, for this patterned behaviour. She refuses to call it ‘toxic femininity’ as she argues that the core of the problem is not just about gender but a particular form of it, namely white womanhood, and it is not just toxic but a strategic performance. Although this display of white womanhood is predominantly experienced in professional settings, it also occurs in social situations, both in the physical world and online platforms.
“Strategic White Womanhood makes personal what is political. It reframes legitimate critiques as petty gripes. It takes the onus off the structures and systems that hold back women of colour and places it firmly on the behaviour or perceived behaviour of the women of colour.”
The feminist movement is of course no exception as it has been complicit in the silencing and exclusion of women of colour, especially if one dares to criticise the movement or a particularly well-known white feminist. There can be no sisterhood or movement, certainly not an intersectional one, as long as white women use their position in the power hierarchy to dismiss and alienate women of colour.
In order for any significant change to occur, Hamad proposes a two-part approach: firstly, for women of colour to become aware of the structural limitations placed upon them within the hierarchy and to then collectivise; and secondly, for white women to not only acknowledge their white privilege but also that they participate in “a system where their womanhood is itself a privilege and a weapon”. Hamad, for her contribution, has provided us with a historical account of and terminology for calling out Strategic White Womanhood.
White Tears, Brown Scars is out now through Melbourne University Press.
Hellai Gul is a writer, critic and a postgrad at Sydney University. Her research interests include modernist and contemporary literature as well as feminist philosophy. She is writing her first collection of short fiction. She tweets @hellaigul.