White Tears: Emotional Outbursts Are Not Empathy

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "White Fragility" by Robin J. DiAngelo. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What are white tears? How does white emotion distract from the issue of systemic racism?

White tears is a term that refers to the manner in which crying is used as a defense mechanism. Instead of focusing on the issue of systemic racism and your own complicity in it, there is a show of emotion.

Read on to see how white tears are used and why they are a distraction.

White Fragility: Saving Face With White Tears and Emotion

White people lose face from these challenges, because they believe (incorrectly) that they are being attacked personally. In situations where myths of meritocracy are being challenged (as in a discussion of how white people benefit from racially biased hiring decisions, for example), white people may also feel that their sense of having “earned” their position is being called into question. They respond with white tears and white emotion.

Unable to reconcile these challenges with their belief that they are good people, white people retreat into white fragility, which helps them save face. Many even use the language of violence to describe what they’re feeling when confronted with examples of their own racism, claiming that they feel “assaulted” or “traumatized.” One woman DiAngelo encountered even claimed that she might be suffering a heart attack after hearing that an anecdote she relayed was racially problematic. This woman was saying that even the mere discussion of racism could result in her death. 

Some white people even cling to the idea that it is actually white people who face systemic racism rather than people of color (distressingly, a recent social survey found that 55 percent of whites believed this). 

A Mechanism of Control

But we should not make the mistake of characterizing white fragility as merely a defensive mechanism. Rather, white fragility is a powerful means of reinforcing white supremacy and shutting down any challenges to it by people of color.

By casting the white person in the discussion as the victim, white fragility enables white people to command social resources of time and attention. For example, a white woman brought to tears, or white tears, after being forced to confront her complicity in systemic racism might compel other people (even people of color) to comfort and reassure her that she isn’t racist.

Or, a white man who reacts angrily and defensively in the same situation will similarly refocus the attention on his angry and bombastic reaction. These tactics draw attention away from the discussion of systemic racism, shut down potential challenges to it, and make white concerns and white anxieties the focus.

Being able to set the terms of discussion, and define what is and is not acceptable, is itself a powerful manifestation of white privilege. White fragility demands that people of color as a means of social, emotional, economic, and even physical survival walk a constant tightrope around their white colleagues and neighbors. The cumulative effect of white fragility is to discourage people of color from challenging white supremacy by dramatically raising the emotional costs of doing so.

White Tears

One common expression of white fragility, especially on the part of white women, is crying. Author DiAngelo documents several instances during her career as an anti-racist educator in which white women sobbed and broke down upon hearing stories from people of color about their experiences with racism, or hearing about their own culpability for racist outcomes in society. This is white emotion.

While these women no doubt felt that their outbursts of emotion came from a genuine place of solidarity and empathy, it was seldom experienced that way by people of color. To them, the crying was self-indulgent behavior that sucked up the energy in the room and redirected the conversation toward the emotional distress of the crying white woman, not the people of color taking great personal risk in sharing their stories of oppression.

White tears are a powerful manifestation of white fragility, a way of neutralizing or stopping a discussion about racism by transforming it into a conversation about an individual white woman’s hurt feelings. 

The trope of a distressed white woman in a racially mixed setting also conjures powerful and traumatic historical memories for people of color, especially black men. During the era of mass lynchings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white mobs frequently used the supposed (and often fabricated) threat that black men posed toward white women as a pretext for horrific acts of violence. Thus, black men learned to navigate their role in the racial hierarchy by being especially sensitive to the emotions of white women.

Because of this historical memory, black men often feel they must instinctively minimize white female distress, lest they draw the ire of white men—who see themselves as the protectors of white women and who occupy the dominant position in the gender and racial hierarchies. The crying reinforces this racial hierarchy by placing white comfort and white feelings front and center, thereby justifying white claims to emotional resources, time, and attention.

The lesson for white people is clear. Racism hurts and even kills people. Your hurt feelings pale in comparison to the enormous toll of centuries of racism. It’s simply not about you and your sadness.

White Tears: Emotional Outbursts Are Not Empathy

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  • Why white people become defensive when confronted with the idea of racism
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  • How we as society can gradually overcome our deep racial divides

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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