White Tears, Brown Scars was written off the back of a viral article that Ruby Hamad published on The Guardian. The article, titled How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour, highlighted a pattern of behaviour Hamad observed when conflict occurred between white women and women of colour, where the former would use their distress to force the latter into the position of "angry brown woman", discrediting their argument and positing the white woman as the victim. Hamad argued that this strategy meant white women never had to acknowledge their racism, and instead were able to continue to inhabit the role of victim, while ignoring the unique oppressions suffered by women of colour at the hands of whiteness.
The article went viral on publication, triggering numerous responses and claims that Hamad was "bullying an entire race of people". Its impact was so great that an African-American woman, Lisa Benson, lost her job after sharing the article on social media when a colleague accused her of racism against white women.
This story is horrifying to encounter, and certainly substantiates Hamad's central argument, which is that white fragility is as present in liberal white women who claim to be feminist allies, as it is in the conservative circles where it is most expected. Hamad points out that despite the lip service paid to "intersectionality" within white-dominated feminist networks, insidious racism still rears its head when conflict arises between white women and women of colour.
White Tears, Brown Scars is by no means easy reading. The book's structure can feel chaotic, jumping from analyses of historical tropes used to stereotype and undermine women of colour, to impassioned arguments about representation in pop culture. At times the thread between the different analyses in the book are somewhat tenuous and prevent the central argument from ever feeling complete.
Hamad's insightful dissection of the role of white women in upholding white patriarchy and colonialism is highly pertinent. As she points out, the role of white women in colonial Australia as the "civilisers" of Aboriginal children was fundamental to reinforcing and legitimising the more violent oppression of Indigenous men and women through white male force. She backs this up with numerous other examples in global history.
However, the crucial flaw in Hamad's logic is the lack of a meaningful analysis of economic and class inequality within this argument. Whilst her point is absolutely sound when it comes to privileged white women oppressing Indigenous Australians, we know that poor and convict white women were subject to sexual assault, degradation and disempowerment under colonisation as well. One doesn't excuse the other, but it does demonstrate that the line drawn between power and race wasn't always linear.
Hamad extends her analysis to current day feminism by examining the discrepancies in the way white feminists celebrate 'wins' as always prioritising white women over the promotion and celebration of gains for women of colour. An example she uses is the way white feminists saturated the media with celebration of a white woman being cast as the new Doctor Who, while in Hamad's opinion, basically ignoring the casting of an Arab actor to the title role of Disney's live action remake of Aladdin. She writes,
"I suppose, despite the ample bandying about of words such as 'intersectionality'... it was too much to ask of white women to understand that, for many Arab women, the casting of an Arab Aladdin could be an equally, if not more, important milestone."
But in this argument lies the ultimate flaw in White Tears, Brown Scars - Hamad sees these two reactions as being not only directly linked, but as a zero sum game. It is not possible, within Hamad's framework, for the celebration of a woman's casting in a traditionally male role to be a win for feminism at the same time that the casting of Aladdin is a win for people of colour. Yes, white feminists are notoriously quiet when it comes to celebrating or denouncing issues that affect women of colour, but that doesn't necessarily negate the impact that wins for white women can have for all women more broadly. The issue, as Hamad does hint, is that white feminists are quick to celebrate wins that affect them as wins for all women, but are less likely to push for outcomes that would significantly benefit women of colour, at the possible expense of white privilege. An example would be how underpaid childcare workers are often migrant women, but to increase childcare rates would negatively affect majority white working women - a feminist conundrum, and possibly a more substantial example than Dr Who versus Aladdin.
Hamad goes on to posit that white women's support of Saudi Arabian teenager, Rahaf Mohammed was a tactical erasure of the suffering of women of colour in Australia, rather than a positive use of feminist media networks to support the pleas of a woman seeking asylum. That there could be both positive and negative outcomes and implications of such a complex scenario is not suggested or explored in Hamad's argument.
Unfortunately, these weaker arguments contrast poorly with the stronger elements of the book, such as the incredibly salient point Hamad makes about the way the white feminist reaction to The Handmaid's Tale as an alarming possible future reality for women ignored the fact that sexual exploitation of women of colour has been a cornerstone of colonisation throughout history.
Hamad writes with a vigour and insight that is energising to read. Her language is at once academic and accessible, distilling complex social and historical issues into a format that is highly readable. This strength does suggest that if the book had been given more time to percolate, it would have benefited from an overall more cohesive structure that would better do Hamad's arguments justice.
However, given the incredibly short period of time between the original viral article and the commission of the book, White Tears, Brown Scars still packs a powerful punch.
Most importantly, the book validates the phenomenon that sparked Hamad's initial article, and that is experienced by women of colour in white society regularly. The most powerful sections of the book are the interviews conducted with women of colour who share the times their valid concerns have been negated by the tears and defensiveness of white women - a scenario that plays out again, and again, in workplaces and online.
As a woman of colour, I've been on the receiving end of these "strategic tears", when I've deigned to point out the hypocrisy of white feminists in my own social circles who fail to mobilise on issues affecting women of colour. The reaction is often so extreme, and so defensive, that I have chosen silence rather than being subjected to it again.
Hamad provides a much-needed validation of these shared experiences amongst women of colour - although she doesn't necessarily present a way forward for the feminist movement. Perhaps it's an unfair expectation of a single writer to propose a solution to decades of racism entrenched in liberal feminism. However, reaching the end of the book, having been immersed in what is going wrong, I was searching for some insight from Hamad as to how we can make it right. This wasn't forthcoming, and maybe that is indeed the point - that these issues must be addressed by white women, not left as the domain of brown women to solve.
Ultimately, White Tears, Brown Scars is a powerful read that confronts a culture of complacency and complicity within white liberal feminism in oppressing women of colour. This is a challenging, important read that will benefit all readers, regardless of gender or race.
- White Tears, Brown Scars, by Ruby Hamad, is published by Melbourne University Publishing.
- Zoya Patel is a Canberra writer. Her debut book is No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging.