For the most part, Mary and Kayla were good friends. They liked a lot of the same music, had fun conversations at Friday night dinners, and generally had good laughs together. However, every now and then, Mary would make problematic and tokenizing comments that made Kayla, and other people of color in their friend group, uncomfortable.
When Mary made statements like “I’ve been supporting the Black Lives Matter movements for a really long time!” or “I did projects on the American prison complex in middle school!”or “I always add my own commentary when I repost infographics about social injustice, unlike other people,” Kayla felt like she needed to be congratulating Mary for not being racist. Despite her good intentions, Mary’s comments made Kayla feel like the token Black friend who could be used to make her white counterparts look like better, more inclusive people.
Kayla wanted to be more comfortable with sharing her own experiences and stories, but whenever she mentioned her time living in West Africa, or anything that had to do with her identity as an African American, Mary took it as an invitation to flex her knowledge of the African countries or talk about her extensive past in supporting the Black community.
After talking with the few other people of color in the friend group and realizing that she was not the only one who was starting to feel tokenized and uncomfortable, Kayla decided to bring it to Mary’s attention. She tried her best to be polite yet firm when she confronted Mary on her problematic behavior. She explicitly said she wasn’t angry, and that she didn’t think Mary was a bad person. Kayla was still more than willing to be friends with Mary, as long as the tokenizing comments ceased.
Suddenly, Mary and every other white person in the friend group stopped speaking to Kayla. It was clear that Mary felt extremely guilty about her comments, and she cried to her friends about the confrontation. She broke down in tears after simply seeing Kayla in public. In turn, her friends began to antagonize Kayla. In their eyes, Kayla bullied Mary. Kayla was actively working to hurt Mary. Kayla was the angry Black woman. Kayla was perceived as a villain for causing the tears of this white woman.
Hearing that you have exhibited some problematic behavior may be difficult. Being the recipient of said problematic behavior is worse.
Mary’s white guilt is not Kayla’s problem. Mary’s inability to accept constructive criticism and acknowledge her own problematic behavior is not Kayla’s problem. Antagonizing Black women for addressing problematic behavior and their discomfort cultivates a hostile environment for all members of marginalized communities and upholds the notion that white comfort and ease should be put above all. It is clear that though many white people may perceive themselves as great allies to communities of color, this is not always the reality. When 7,400 adults in the United States were asked about their perceptions regarding allyship in the workplace in a survey conducted by Lean In, just 45% and 55% of Black and Latina women felt they had strong allies, respectively, while a whopping 80% of white employees viewed themselves as strong allies to women of color at their workplace. This is precisely why it is crucial to center the voices of the marginalized, because even self-proclaimed white allies may be the ones committing microaggressions, or talking over less-privileged voices.
If people of color are intimidated into being silent, and white people are unable to address their own role in harm, any commitment to becoming aware of how to support Black people is unfulfilled. Everything remains stagnant, and everyone loses.
Further, the idea of “one up, one down identities” illustrates the way that privileged and marginalized identities can exist within one being. People that are a part of one marginalized group may have less privilege than the white man, but be significantly more privileged than someone who is part of the same marginalized group in addition to another disadvantaged identity. The privilege any individual has is centered around one’s proximity to whiteness, masculinity, and straight/cis-gendered identities, and can lead to the quantification of privilege and the co-opting of identities. White women are “one away” from the highest form of privilege, and thus play a unique role in simultaneously upholding, being harmed by, and benefiting from systems of oppression. This allows the white woman to easily shift from being oppressors to victims, whether intentional or not. Unlike white men, they live in a gray area that allows them to easily escape binary views of the oppressed vs the oppressors, and enjoy the benefits of being white while maintaining some authority to act as a voice for disempowered groups. Ultimately, the unique position of white womanhood presents a complex dynamic that gives rise to victimization, rationalization, and the oversimplification of crucial discussions pertaining to race.
This is precisely why the tears of white women can be a powerful tool of privilege. White women routinely gain sympathy like no other group. In the media, in classrooms, and in day-to-day life, they are centered in conversations that are not necessarily about them, and nuanced dialogues about race and privilege can be oversimplified and “softened” due to this frequent practice. We also see more widespread sympathy for white women, because their white male counterparts are usually very willing to rally behind them and attack others for simply speaking up in the name of “protection.” Therefore, white women are positioned as people who transcend the idea of race privilege, especially when their so-called “good” intentions and history supporting social justice causes are made to be the central focus of crucial conversations.
Black women easily become antagonized in these situations because their perspectives, feelings, and struggles are consistently put secondary to the feelings of white women. This, combined with the difficulty that many white people have with addressing and being aware of their own problematic behavior, creates a hostile environment for people with multiple marginalized identities. This is particularly true for Black women, whose voices are rarely, if ever, highlighted.
From the American criminal justice system to college dorm rooms, it’s strikingly clear that these principles govern the way that Black women are forced to contort themselves to reach the very delicate, near-impossible balance of maintaining the comfort of white people and speaking out on the issues that impact them.
For all of the white woman tears that we see, we need to remember and recognize the tears that Black women are not allowed.We must do a much better job of recognizing when the wrong people are being centered in conversations surrounding privilege and discrimination, and create environments that allow for the cultivation of healthy, yet difficult dialogue. White people must be willing to hear and learn from direct criticism, especially when they are so willing to call out other white people for similar problematic behavior. In the pursuit of creating environments for positive social change, it is up to us to center the experiences of those with marginalized identities, especially those at the intersection of these identities. Further, it’s time to actively renounce and decenter the White Woman Victim Complex.