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How white women use strategic tears to avoid accountability | Ruby Hamad

The legitimate grievances of brown and black women are no match for the accusations of a white damsel in distress

That the voices of women of colour are getting louder and more influential is a testament less to the accommodations made by the dominant white culture and more to their own grit in a society that implicitly and sometimes explicitly wants them to fail.

At the Sydney writers festival on Sunday, editor of Djed Press, Hella Ibrahim, relayed the final minutes of a panel on diversity featuring writers from the western Sydney Sweatshop collective. One of the panellists, Winnie Dunn, in answering a question about the harm caused by good intentions, had used the words white people and shit in the same sentence. This raised the ire of a self-identified white woman in the audience who interrogated the panellists as to what they think they have to gain by insulting people who want to read their stories.

In other words, the woman saw a personal attack where there wasnt one and decided to remind the panellists that as a member of the white majority she ultimately has their fate in her hands.

I walked out of that panel frustrated, Ibrahim wrote. Because yet again, a good convo was derailed, white people centred themselves, and a POC panel was told to police its [sic] tone to make their message palatable to a white audience.

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Trauma assails brown and black women from all directions. There is the initial pain of being subjected to gendered racism and discrimination, there is the additional distress of not being believed or supported, and of having your words and your bravery seemingly credited to others.

And then there is a type of trauma inflicted on women of colour that many of us find among the hardest to disclose, the one that few seem willing to admit really happens because it is so thoroughly normalised most people refuse to see it.

It is what that writers festival audience member was demonstrating, and what blogger and author Luvvie Ajayi called the weary weaponising of white womens tears.

To put it less poetically, it is the trauma caused by the tactic many white women employ to muster sympathy and avoid accountability, by turning the tables and accusing their accuser.

Almost every BW (black woman) I know has a story about a time in a professional setting in which she attempted to have a talk with a WW about her behavior & it has ended with the WW (white woman) crying, one black woman wrote on Twitter. The WW wasnt crying because she felt sorry and was deeply remorseful. The WW was crying because she felt bullied and/or that the BW was being too harsh with her.

When I shared these tweets on my Facebook page asking brown and black women if this had ever happened to them, I was taken by how deeply this resonated, prompting one Arab woman to share this story:

A WW kept touching my hair. Pulling my curls to watch them bounce back. Rubbing the top. Smelling it. So when I told her to stop and complained to HR and my supervisor, she complained that I wasnt a people person or team member and I had to leave that position for being threatening to a coworker.

For the doubters, here is a mild version of this sleight-of-hand in action:

Jully Black and Jeanne Beker

Notice it is the white woman Jeanne Beker who first interrupts the black woman Jully Black who takes the interruption in her stride. Black continues to speak passionately and confidently, which Beker interprets as a personal attack on her even though Black is clearly talking in general terms (just as Winnie Dunn was). Beker then attempts to shut Black down by essentially branding her a bully.

Had Jully Black not stopped and repeated Jeanne Bekers words back at her Why are you attacking me? they would have passed largely unnoticed, just another woman of colour smeared as an aggressor for daring to continue speaking when a white woman wanted her to stop.

It doesnt usually end this way. White women tears are especially potent because they are attached to the symbol of femininity, Ajayi explains. These tears are pouring out from the eyes of the one chosen to be the prototype of womanhood; the woman who has been painted as helpless against the whims of the world. The one who gets the most protection in a world that does a shitty job overall of cherishing women.

As I look back over my adult life a pattern emerges. Often, when I have attempted to speak to or confront a white woman about something she has said or done that has impacted me adversely, I am met with tearful denials and indignant accusations that I am hurting her. My confidence diminished and second-guessing myself, I either flare up in frustration at not being heard (which only seems to prove her point) or I back down immediately, apologising and consoling the very person causing me harm.

It is not weakness or guilt that compels me to capitulate. Rather, as I recently wrote, it is the manufactured reputation Arabs have for being threatening and aggressive that follows us everywhere. In a society that routinely places imaginary wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern people at the scenes of violent crimes they did not commit, having a legitimate grievance is no match for the strategic tears of a white damsel in distress whose innocence is taken for granted.

We talk about toxic masculinity, Ajayi warns, but there is (also) toxicity in wielding femininity in this way. Brown and black women know we are, as musician Miss Blanks writes, imperfect victims. That doesnt mean we are always in the right but it does mean we know that against a white womans accusations, our perspectives will almost always go unheard either way.

Whether angry or calm, shouting or pleading, we are still perceived as the aggressors.

Likewise, white women are equally aware their race privileges them as surely as ours condemns us. In this context, their tearful displays are a form of emotional and psychological violence that reinforce the very system of white dominance that many white women claim to oppose.

Ruby Hamad is a journalist and PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales

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What happened when I discovered my brother was a sexual predator

Unravelling the central mystery of my childhood taught me the uncomfortable truth about toxic male behavior and what I, as a man, must do about it

Ive fallen out of touch with a lot of childhood friends, but how it happened with my Christie was different more sudden, and at the time, inexplicable.

Christie was my best friend. Her mother, Suzanne, was my mothers best friend since high school. In adulthood, they would get together for coffee once a week. I can still remember the times I spent listening to both of them hold forth on politics and relationships at the kitchen table while Christie and I would play hide and seek.

But one day, Suzanne stopped returning my mothers calls. Christie stopped coming over too.

My mom struggled with depression and it was a hard blow for her. I was always protective of her growing up, and I remember feeling angry, blindsided and hurt. Christie was my best friend, after all.

After a long decline from early-onset dementia, my mother died two years ago. She and Suzanne had never reconciled.

A year later, my half-brother Todd died at the age of 52 from a heroin overdose.

When I was in town for Todds funeral, Christie got in touch and soon afterward, her mother invited me over for dinner. And over glasses of beer and wine, Suzanne told me a series of painful truths that helped unravel one of the central mysteries of my childhood.

In the same conversation, I learned that my brother was a sexual predator, and that my mother was a rape victim.

Suzanne told me that Todd and a group of his friends had sexually assaulted Christies half-sister, Denise, in our home. Denise would have been about 11 at the time.

Suzanne couldnt bring herself to tell my mom because my mom was fragile, dealing with continuous conflict between my father and my two half-brothers, and had herself been raped as a teenager by an ex-boyfriend.

Not knowing what to do, she decided to cut ties and stopped talking to my mother. Christie, meanwhile, said she felt pressured at the time into not talking to me.

After our conversation, I felt numb for days. I pushed it to the back of my mind and did nothing for months. But then the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke out.

It prompted me to asked myself some hard questions. There have been women in my life I could have treated better, and missed occasions where I could have stepped up to the plate to be a better man.

Then I thought about my mother, who started a feminist book club when I was a child; womens rights were important to her. What Suzanne had told me that my mom had been raped, and that her parents refused to believe her or act on it made sense to me, and I was able to confirm parts of it by talking to her sisters. What could I, as a man, do to seek a small amount of justice for the women in my life?

Ultimately, it was a tweet from @sansdn, a feminist Twitter user in Sydney, Australia, that spurred me to action.

San (@sansdn)

It’s easy as hell to call people like Trump and Weinstein monsters. It’s not easy, however, to critique the men in your lives the same way.

October 16, 2017

I decided to do just that.

First, I spoke to a few of Todds friends. I didnt tell them about Denises story, but asked if they could share anything about Todds relationship with women when he was young.

One friend jokingly told a story about how his girlfriend woke one morning after a party to find Todd on top of her, and that he had to pull Todd off her. Man, Todd could be crazy! he said, thinking Id laugh with him.

I didnt.

In his book The Macho Paradox, Jackson Katz argues that sexual assault is a mens issue. Men commit the vast majority of rapes, and men have a special responsibility to hold both themselves and other men accountable for how they treat women and girls.

Men have to think about what role they play, and how they can use whatever platform of influence they have to make it unacceptable for men to act out in sexist and harmful ways, Katz told me. Not because they are nice guys, helping out the women, but because they have a responsibility as men in a sexist society. If they dont speak out, and they dont use whatever influence they have, then in a sense they are part of the problem.

But, as San pointed out, its all-too-easy to do that in a tweet or a Facebook post, when the man in question is a celebrity who is being publicly shamed.

The real work begins where you can have most impact closer to home.

And so I reached out to Denise, and she told me that she wanted to tell her story. As she would explain to me later, she wanted other victims to know about the importance of speaking up quickly about sexual assault so they can find the support they need.

We agreed to meet in person at her home in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, not far from where I grew up.

It was time to go home again. I caught a flight the next day.

Whenever we threw cookouts at our home, the adults would gather at the backyard patio, while the kids would go off and play, sometimes in Todds room in the basement.

Denise isnt sure exactly how old she was when it happened, but as far as he can remember, Todd was about 15, and she was 11 or 12. She knew Todd and his friends, and trusted them. She recalls Todd as the leader when a group of his friends encircled her and pinned her to a chair.

I didnt know what to do. It was very scary. All I see is me on the chair and all their hands everywhere on me, Denise told me. I dont hear what theyre saying. I got to the point where I was actually gonna threaten to spit on them. They didnt like that, but then I thought I cant really spit on them cause then theyll get mad at me, so again I felt powerless.

Jared Goyette and his friend Christie. Photograph: Jared Goyette

She isnt sure how long it went on for, but the memory of the emotions she felt then is still raw, many decades later. Fear, anger, and guilt, because she thought that she had brought it on herself.

When the boys paused for a moment, she bolted out of the room, and to her mother. But she was afraid to say anything directly.

I just remember going outside, trying to get my mom to notice that perhaps something was wrong, but not making it so obvious that all the adults would notice. I didnt know what to do and it was an instinct of mine learned from society that I couldnt say anything about it, because I didnt want the grownups to get mad.

Her mother told her to go play back inside, back to the room. Denise obeyed.

There, the assault continued.

At a moment when some are rushing to downplay the alleged sexual assaults committed against young girls by Roy Moore, the Senate candidate in Alabama, its worth saying that what happened to Denise in the basement of my childhood home was a life-altering event for her.

The shame and guilt she felt in that moment lingered, and grew, and spread. At 11, she played piano, the harpsichord, the violin, and sang in the church choir, but suddenly, her interest in music faded. Her mother knew something was wrong, but couldnt figure out what had happened.

She was extraordinary, and that ended, Suzanne said. She had to be talked into going to choir practice or talked into practicing. She just went into this little cave of her own making. And I thought it was because of something that was happening at school. I didnt understand what the impetus was that began that.

Denise described her descent as a domino effect: Your whole perception changes about how you think people look at you.

Years would go by before she would tell anyone.

There was another person I had to talk to while I was home: my other half-brother, Chris. Im 35, and hes 51, a year and half younger than Todd. He would have been about 13 around the time it happened, and I needed to ask him what he knew.

We met a restaurant. When I broached the topic, he asked not to be recorded, and the conversation grew heated. Later though, we talked over the phone, and he agreed to go on the record.

First, he denied knowing anything about it. I have no memory whatsoever of seeing this go on, or hearing about it, nothing, he said.

He did not speak fondly of Todd, however, recalling a time when he tried to bring a girl home only for Todd to make a move on her. He remembered Todds attitude toward women as being very confident and aggressive.

Im telling you, the culture was different in those times. Todd was jock, handsome. Of course he always thought the girls wanted him. Boys will be boys, Chris said.

Chris generally had two lines of thought. On one hand, he said that if what Denise described did happen, there was nothing right about it. But he also continually tried to shift the responsibility back to her, recalling times she did things that he said could have been interpreted as suggestive. There may have been a little promiscuity going on. Right? he said at one point. (Again, Denise was about 11 at the time.)

The conversation moved to our mother. He began by saying that he believed the story of her being raped as a teenager, and that hearing what our mother went through had upset him. For a moment, after what had been a draining conversation, I thought that we had finally found common ground.

But again, he shifted.

I think that sucks, but the other thing I remember now Ive heard a couple of different people, throughout the years is that our mother was a little promiscuous when she was young, he told me.

My heart sank. I mean, really? This was our own mother he was talking about. As we went back and forth, I concluded that the tendency to shift the focus back to the accuser was reflexive and almost hardwired in him, as I think is often the case for men of his generation. This is something many women know and have known, but I was discovering it first-hand.

Some of my earliest memories are of Chris swinging me by my feet as a child. He loves his wife and they have a solid relationship. Hes my brother and I love him. But what I found in our conversation was a painful example of the kind of attitudes that made Denise and Suzanne, as well as countless other victims, reluctant to come forward. And if I were to stay silent about it, or just shrug it off as the kind of thing guys say sometimes, I would, in essence, be participating.

I choose not to participate.

Denise slowly began her healing process, and eventually got married and then separated. She has a daughter in college and a son in high school. Both live with her, and all three perform together at church Denise and her daughter Cassandra sing in the choir, while her son Colin plays in the bell choir. Her children were in the room as she told her story. She wanted them to be there.

What I hope people get out of this is, that they should not be embarrassed about it. They should tell somebody as soon as it happens, so that you can get the help that you need and you can start to move on from it. And you can move on from it, Denise said.

I would say a lot of me has been able to move on, but theres still parts of me that need to be fixed. Knowing that these things happen, I feel that I have been able to be very open with my children. Let them know that if anything happens to them, they can come and ask me and I will not judge them and I will try and help.

I think people need to know that there are people out there that will help them and support them, she said.

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