Ever notice the way the temperature drops whenever a person of color brings up the issue of racism around a group of white folks? Things can be going great, the conversation rolling along, but then someone says something racially insensitive, and a POC holds them accountable, throwing open the gates and inviting all hell to break loose. White tears start flowing, washing the POC’s original point away in a turbulent, exhausting current of sympathy-seeking bullshit.
Non-POC readers, y’all might be tightening your alabaster brows right now, wondering what in the hell white tears are. The way I use and understand the term, it represents any situation in which a white person responds less than gracefully to a real or perceived accusation of casual or overt racism.
Still not picking up what I’m putting down? Let’s use an example to shed some clarity, shall we?
White person: You must be really happy that Amendment 4 passed. Now so many black people will be able to vote again!
Person of color: Actually, most of the former felons who are getting their voting rights back are white.
WP: I just figured you’d be excited about this since most of the people in jail are black.
POC: Wow, that’s a really racist statement. It’s also untrue.
WP: Oh my god! I can’t believe you just called me racist! I collected so many petitions for Amendment 4, and I voted for it! It’s so messed up that you would think that I could even be a little bit racist!
POC: *bangs head against wall until the white tears stop*
See? White tears don’t have to be literal tears, but they are akin to the shrill wailing of a security system that begins whenever a POC has triggered a white person’s inherent brittleness when it comes to conversations about race. Even a little pressure, applied during a conversation like the one above, can cause a white person to snap, thus soaking the POCs around them with angry, wounded, or self righteous white tears.
Think of these tears as a gentle way of reasserting the silent power of white supremacy, which underpins every institution in American society and poisons every social interaction. When you resort to sobbing white tears, the narrative undergoes an immediate shift. The old narrative involved you saying something racist. But the new narrative is this: I’m attacking you, unprovoked, with my mean words about racism, which is unfair for whatever reasons you will present, rapid fire, to everyone around us — you have friends who are black, you voted for Obama, Oprah is your favorite celebrity, etcetera.
White tears are a pretty handy tool to have in one’s arsenal if the goal is to avoid any kind of conversation about a subject as touchy as racism. You get to upset the narrative, recentering the conversation on you, your feelings, and what a terrible person I am for attacking you so unnecessarily. It’s a good trick, and it has withstood the test of time.
I can’t count the amount of times in the last year that I’ve reversed the hell out of a conversation I thought might actually reap real results because of that kind of recentering. It’s a bit like feeling the earth rearrange underneath your feet, leaving you in unsteady, sometimes dangerous territory. And because black people — and especially black women — are so often typecast as angry, we have to be doubly careful to remain calm, no matter what kind of bullshit gets slung our way. For a POC, the best response to white tears is to disengage immediately, which leaves the racist fuckery untouched to fester with time, instead of being dealt with, which was the original intention behind calling it out. This is yet another example of how racism continues to thrive in our society.
Look, racism is a heavy subject, maybe even the heaviest subject to take on in this country. Our history is filled with examples of brutal oppression, and though things have improved, we are a long way from the kind of equality the founding fathers wrote about when they were envisioning breaking free of their own, more privileged form of bondage.
To talk about systemic racism and white supremacy is to accept the discomfort that goes along with it. There will be emotions like anger, shame, and guilt. Let them come. Marinate in that discomfort until you find some internal clarity. Don’t take the easy way out by turning on the literal or figurative waterworks. If you really want things to change in this country, if you truly desire for the promise of American to match its brute reality, then it starts with being willing to see your biases for what they are. Own them, and then own the process of changing them with daily, deliberate self-reflection and action. And, mostly importantly, receive the words of the POCs around you with openness and grace instead of hostility and tragic martyrdom.
POCs don’t have a choice when it comes to facing the harsh realities of institutional racism. It affects us every day in ways that cannot be ignored. But what’s even more demoralizing is when a so-called ally can’t bear the weight of a single conversation about racism in which we imply that she could do better. If you truly want to stand with us, that means accepting criticism without lashing out and ‘putting us back in our place’ for the sake of your own emotional comfort. The world changes when we first change ourselves. It’s the only form of creation that we possess. You have the power to create change or to create a barrier keeping a better world from being realized. Choose wisely.