For years, certain segments of the internet have been awash with discourse on “White tears” and the related concepts of “male tears,” “cis tears,” and others.
While there have been plenty of explainers written on the topic, there has not been much comprehensive writing on the function White tears serve. There remains much discussion of “White tears” and phrases similar to it as problematic and alienating terms. This obfuscates the original intention and meaning of the term itself as a means of identifying and discussing oppressive actions.
Though many people may view it as another meaningless and frivolous meme, the term “White tears” actually originates in the academy. The term first appears in the literature in Dr. Mamta Motwani Accapadi’s 2007 essay, “When White Women Cry: How White Women Oppress Women of Color.” In her piece, Motwani notes and theorizes on White women’s use of tears as a defense mechanism when faced with discussions of privilege or situations of racial discomfort.
Motwani describes how White women employ tears and a narrative of feeling “attacked” when women of color criticize them in a manner that highlights their racial position (211). She goes on to explain how, in these moments, White women leverage their proximity to the “standard of humanity” (213) to derail the conversation through emotional manipulation. Motwani illustrates this through her analysis of a case study in which an Asian American woman and student affairs professional criticized the performance of a particular office led by a White woman:
How might we assess the situation if we noticed that during this conflict the White woman was crying while the Asian American woman continues to talk without any noticeable change in her tone of voice? Our societal norms inform us that crying indicates helplessness, which triggers automatic sympathy for the White woman. Certain stereotypes of Asian Americans characterize them as unfeeling and/ or devoid of emotion, therefore our norms also reinforce that the Asian American woman, showing no physical reaction, must not be experiencing emotion. As we piece together these observations to create “the story,” we might further conclude that the Asian American woman caused the White woman to cry, without regard for her feelings. As shown through this scenario, the White woman’s reality is visible, acknowledged, and legitimized because of her tears, while a woman of color’s reality, like her struggle, is invisible, overlooked, and pathologized based on the operating “standard of humanity” (209-210).
White women’s tears, indeed, the tears of any politically advantaged person facing criticism from a politically disadvantaged person, are not innocent reactions. Crying is a socially conditioned response shaped by people’s individual relationships to existing power dynamics. Some of us cry more readily than others, not because we necessarily feel more or less, but often because our tears have been more accepted or encouraged than those of other people.
Crying itself is a form a language. A means of conveying emotional distress and a need for comfort, support, and protection. Situations such as the one described by Motwani demonstrate the political use of tears as well. A White supremacist world already centers and prioritizes the concerns and interests of Whiteness over all other subject positions. When the relative advantage of Whiteness is threatened by a person of color’s words or actions, tears provide a means of maintaining extant power relationships by recentering Whiteness, discrediting criticism, and constructing a false narrative of racial innocence.
White tears recenter Whiteness because crying itself communicates helplessness and injury. This shifts the focus of discussion from White people’s racist choices to White people’s feelings. Since White tears are usually accompanied by alibis of ignorance and good intention, an additional discursive shift from the consequences of White people’s actions to the intentions behind those actions also occurs. The particular critique in question, whatever it may be, is thereby interrupted. The recentering of Whiteness and particularly White feelings also positions the White person as the true victim and the person of color as the one who inflicted harm, effectively neutralizing the critique in question.
These consequences of White tears lend themselves to the construction of a false narrative of racial innocence. White tears’ erasure of White violence sanitizes the the harm done as the result of ignorance and misguidance. What this ignores is that the political conditions that enable interpersonal and institutional racism are not the result of ignorance, but rather, unearned power and intentional exclusion. The inequities that engender racial violence go back centuries, past living memory, and have shaped the personal histories of nearly every person alive on earth today. There are no racial innocents here, because none of us stand independent of history.
White tears defer responsibility from individuals and institutions to a nebulous, blameless social malaise disconnected to any one individual. As a result, the White person in question is freed from the expectation of repairing the harm they have done, as everyone is simply too busy attempting to repair the alleged harm done unto them.
Two examples of this surfaced recently in popular culture. First, reports have surfaced that Kendall Jenner is allegedly “traumatized” by the backlash to her Pepsi ad. Secondly, Freida Pinto cried while John Ridley described his interracial relationship during a Q&A session on her upcoming series, “Guerilla.” Although Jenner herself does not appear to have leaked those details, and Pinto’s story was originally misrepresented, both instances have been employed by others as a means of silencing Black activists’ criticism of White media productions.
Much like reverse racism is the real racism, the backlash Pinto and Jenner face has become the real violence at hand, since the only harm done appears to be the tears of these non-Black women. If either of these people have been truly hurt by the response to their participation in anti-Black media (which seems highly unlikely, especially in Pinto’s case, since the entire affair has been misrepresented from the beginning), then they will have to take that up with capitalism and White supremacy, the things that positioned them to receive such criticism to begin with.