Distressed DamselsThere’s Nothing Accidental about White Feminist Racism

Ruby Hamad, who has wavy brown hair and large brown eyes, looks into the camera. Ruby wears a red t-shirt and stands against a neutral background.

Ruby Hamad, author of White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color (Photo credit: Courtesy of the author)

In May, Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher, asked Amy Cooper, a white woman, to abide by the rules of New York City’s Central Park and leash her dog. In a now-infamous viral video, Amy refuses and proceeds to call the police on Christian and falsely accuse him of harassing her. “I am in Central Park, and there is an African American with a bicycle helmet,” Amy says, her voice shaking as she attempts to sell the fiction she’s created. “He is recording me, and threatening myself and my dog!” As Amy’s dog yelps and tries to pull away from her tight grip, her trembling voice gets more frantic, the timbre escalating, desperate. “I’m sorry I can’t hear you either! I’m being threatened by a man in the Ramble! Please send the cops immediately!”

I read Ruby Hamad’s debut essay collection, White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color, in the aftermath of this incident, as protests to end police violence engulfed the United States and nearly every white person was desperate to prove their commitment to antiracism. Was this a moment of real change? Had white women come to terms with their whiteness and recognized the deep-rooted biases they share with Amy Cooper? Hamad’s book addresses these questions and more in a profound, scholarly, witty and utterly unputdownable way. She meticulously traces how the creation of the “white woman” identity in settler-colonial nations has been used to justify ongoing subjugation and become an enduring tool in white supremacy’s racist arsenal. Whiteness has defined both white womanhood and Black/Brown/Indigenous identities through the creation of stereotypes: If Black women were racialized, sexualized “Jezebels,” then white women were virtuous angels or damsels in distress who needed to be protected from Black men.

This history of deliberate racialization still persists, notably through the weaponization of white tears. “When challenged by a woman of color,” Hamad writes, “a white woman will often lean into her racial privilege to turn the tables and accuse the other woman of hurting, attacking, or bullying her. This process almost always siphons the sympathy and support of onlookers to the apparently distressed white woman, helping her avoid accountability and leaving the woman of color out in the cold, often with no realistic option—particularly if it is a workplace interaction—but to accept blame and apologize.” Hamad’s rigorous examination of race and gender through pop culture (The Hunger Games, Riverdale), politics (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Christine Blasey Ford) and collective history demonstrates that white women remain active participants in white supremacy, and their feminism—devoid of intersectionality—is an attempt to gain equal dominant footing with white men. Bitch spoke to Hamad about her book, the viral Guardian article that inspired it, and of course, what we can all learn from Amy Cooper.

I wanted to start with your 2018 article in the Guardian, which went viral and became the basis for your book. Could you talk a little bit about your experience writing the article, the reactions, and your path to the book?

That article was a process of me piecing a lot of things together. I know history, and I was watching what was happening in the United States, like the Starbucks incident. So, I was able to identify the pattern in my own life. Whenever I argued with a white female friend or colleague, it would always somehow turn around so that we were privileging her feelings. [There were also] other incidents where I’d thought I was having a minor disagreement with a white woman on social media, and she would just go off. How can they not handle life? You’re not going to agree with someone all the time, but wow, they just can’t handle being criticized by me. It would also always end in some sort of punishment—either me being called a bully or being blocked. I even had to leave a job because of it.

I’d read articles by Luvvie Ajyai about this [dynamic] in the United States [between] Black men and white women; I wanted to zero in on how the interaction plays out between white women—[including white feminists]—and women of color because it’s a specific kind of dynamic. I was very nervous [about] writing [the article] because I thought it would be misinterpreted. [White women] are not going to see what I’m really trying to say: This is an issue of unacknowledged power being wielded to either rebuff criticism or to punish a friend for stepping out of line. White women aren’t born like this. It’s all about social conditioning and they learn it the same way that women of color learn, “If I push this any further—even though I know or believe I’m not in the wrong or I’ve got a legitimate case—it’s not gonna work out well. I have to just suck it up.” We implicitly know this, which means white women implicitly know that they have this trump card they can use. It can be weeping or it can be quite aggressive and vicious. That was such a shock for me. I didn’t think my colleagues were that way. That’s what I was trying to grasp in that piece.

In the first part of your book, you write about the stereotypes constructed primarily by settler colonialists. It’s very instructive in depicting just how entrenched these racist perceptions are. You write, “Racism isn’t woven into the fabric of our civilization. It is the fabric of our civilization.” How do those stereotypes still affect our modern life?

When I was writing the book proposal, I went through the Guardian article and the line that jumped out at me was: “Even before we speak, we’re positioned as aggressors; whether we’re shouting, or pleading, it comes across the same way.” Clearly, there’s something about the way we’re perceived. Why is it so easy to position a Black woman as angry? Why is it so easy to dismiss an Arab woman as aggressive and crazy? Where did this come from?

Initially I thought [the stereotypes] would just be a small part of the book, but the history was just so incredible. These archetypes were tweaked to fit a particular racial group at a particular time, which all had to do with their relationship to whiteness. So the Jezebel or the “promiscuous Black woman” was initially [created] to rationalize the sexual abuse of [enslaved women]. [White settlers] told themselves that [Black women] were easy. [These stereotypes were being created] in different contexts, like Australia, where there wasn’t institutionalized slavery, but [white settlers] were still like “They’re so easy. Their culture just doesn’t respect women, so [sexual abuse] doesn’t count.” The “China Doll” stereotype wasn’t so much about wanton promiscuity, but was tweaked to be about submissiveness and just really desiring the white man. [White settlers] wanted to rationalize going there and taking over.

Initially, [there were] hypersexualized, objectified stereotypes, but when resistance started—abolition, colonial resistance, the colonial movements—the angry stereotypes and archetypes came in to play so that [white people] could just say [people of color] are irrational and dismiss their legitimate grievance and anger. We now have the angry Brown woman that came out of the angry Black woman stereotype. The “Dragon Lady,” a cunning East Asian woman who uses white men and then discards them, is just completely constructed. [White people] completely projected themselves and they did it so successfully [that] they believed it and still do. That’s why it’s so difficult to talk about racism. The white self—not the white person as a human being, but as a white person in the society—is built on this myth of morality and goodness surrounded by heathens and disease-ridden savages.

If you focus on the work, then that has value in itself. The struggle has value.

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Could you talk about how white women used these stereotypes for their advancement at the expense of their Black and Brown counterparts?

We implicitly have ideas of what people from a different culture are like. With the Middle East, it’s the whole terrorist thing, so [Middle Eastern women] have to be victims looking for a white savior. As soon as [Middle Eastern women] start to challenge that, [saying], “I don’t see myself as a victim in the sense that I don’t need to be saved or rescued,” then they become the threat—the aggressive Arab. With white women, it’s about leaning into their status as the true virtuous victim. All they really have to say is “You’re hurting me” and [women of color] know they can’t win. I wanted to show women of color [of all] backgrounds that what’s happening to them isn’t about them as people. It’s because this society has [placed them in a box] and the minute they step out of it, they become a threat that has to be neutralized. So all the gaslighting, accusations, lost friendships, and lost jobs [are] because we’ve tried to stand up for ourselves.

You write that whiteness can exist without white people, especially when it comes to issues like anti-Blackness and colorism. Where do the Black and Brown gatekeepers of white supremacy fit in? How can we engage them?

I’m from the Middle East and I see how colorism and anti-Blackness plays out there. Lebanon is especially bad. There’s an [avid] appeal to Europeanness—we speak English and French—and a disavowal of the region. That’s [what] I’m talking about. The Western world really solidifies binaries on everything. Race is not a binary, but they set up the two poles of white and Black. White people have all the status, privileges, and beauty, so we appeal to that and disavow everyone who’s more conspicuously racialized than us so that we can get some of that [whiteness]. The other problem is the myth of scarcity: Black and Brown people in the West who attain a certain degree of success can feel threatened by other people of color coming up. The sense of “there can be only one” is another thing that white supremacy has done so well. Patriarchy did it with women as well. There’s that sense of having to be exceptional, the one that breaks through. We internalize that. It’s quite demoralizing to see because, again, we’re buying into this perception that there’s only so much room for a woman of color.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, you wrote that Amy Cooper’s  behavior is “painful evidence of racial violence that has never subsided.” You also expressed hope that the viral video could perhaps be a turning point. Since June, the Pew Research Center reports that support for the Black Lives Matter movement has gone down quite significantly, with 45 percent  of white adults expressing support in September compared to 60 percent  in June. Do you still feel that we’re in a moment of real change?

When I wrote [the op-ed], I was thinking that Amy Cooper so clearly demonstrated the [white damsel in distress. She got increasingly hysterical—and I use that word deliberately because she’s faking it, putting on this performance of hysteria. That’s the power move: She can call the police, claim to have been attacked by a Black man, and there’s nothing he can do about it. So the turning point is that it didn’t work out for [Amy]. I think it’s going to get harder and harder for whiteness—white people determined to hold on to that power—because we’re becoming more attuned. We’ve always been attuned, some of us more than others, but we’re able to speak back to [whiteness] now in a way that we never have before. [But then again] they’re not gonna give up the power that easily or they would have done it by now. Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but I wrote that before I saw or heard about George Floyd, and I wanted to end on a bit of hope and believe that something has to come out of this.

An illustration of a woman over a bright orange background.

White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad (Photo credit: Catapult)

Kamala Harris has received a lot of criticism from Black and Brown communities about how she upheld white supremacy as a prosecutor. At the same time, her nomination matters to so many people because it’s so moving for them to see someone who looks like them and talks like them. How can we build on this pride without dismissing it? How does Harris’s nomination affect the discourse we’re having on white supremacy and racism?

It’s a hard thing because I see the emotional impact her nomination has had. But the cynic in me is like, “They’re placating you. They’re giving you this little thing so you’d be, ‘We do like the system after all.’” I’m not going to tell American people that they should not feel pride in that, especially people of color, who can feel that pride while knowing that the reality is not all that rosy. Going back to that idea of the turning point, maybe once that door is open, it has to stay open, and maybe then we can usher in the more radical voices. The criticisms are legitimate, but I think people will get used to [Harris’s nomination] and adjust. I don’t think it’s going to derail the fight in a way where people are just going to stop speaking up or not criticize her just because she’s a Black and Indian woman running for vice president. I want people to enjoy that moment because it’s not my place to tell them they shouldn’t, but I’m personally a little wary. We’ll see.

You write that white people set the standards of humanity that are designed to ensure its own success and make Black and Brown people fail. Are people of color destined to be passive passengers on a white supremacy train? Or can we hope to steer the world in another direction altogether?

The passive bystander or passenger was the role ordained for us, but we’re making inroads. We’re not just gonna sit here silently because you want us to. Can that translate into something material? I don’t know. The potential is definitely there. It’s getting harder for whiteness to maintain domination using its traditional methods. But my theory is that once the softer methods of keeping us in place are no longer working, the physical domination steps up. My fear is that’s when the more overt explicit physical violence—[as we see from] some of the protests in Portland in particular—steps up because the threat of punishment or violence is no longer enough to keep us in our place. The world is so different now than when I actually wrote the book, but there’s a line in the conclusion where I say we’re running out of time. We have climate catastrophes, the conflict in the Middle East, racism, riots, and the economic crisis—and all this is going to converge. What keeps me going is [I know] I have to lose attachment to an outcome. That’s something I learned from yoga.

Obviously, you want a good outcome, but if you were just focusing on that, you’d see the scale of the problem and say, “There’s no way. We’re fucked.” But if you focus on the work, then that has value in itself. The struggle has value. However we embody resistance individually in our own way—whether we’re protesting on the street, writing, or organizing in some other way—that’s what it’s about. My words [are] my contribution. If my words can have an effect that inspires some people to do something, then that grows. Other people [will start] saying and doing things [to address the problem]. [As for white women allies] the first step is [for them] to acknowledge [the power they have]. The second step is to relinquish it and actually live the values they say they have as feminists. If they’re not willing to, then it’s all talk.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


Madhuri Sastry, an Indian woman with shoulder-length brown hair, poses in a black leather jacket and denim button-down shirt
by Madhuri Sastry
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Madhuri Sastry is a writer with a background in human-rights law. She is the marketing director at Guernica. Her writing has appeared in several publications including Slate, Guernica, Catapult, and Wear Your Voice. She’s an amateur but dedicated home cook, and lives with her partner, a corgi mix, and about 20 plants in a concrete jungle. Find her on Twitter @chicks_balances.