A personal admission: I am always a bit weary of how I am received when I talk about race in feminist spaces. I fear that I might be “causing a division in the sisterhood” as journalist Ruby Hamad describes in her debut book, White Tears/Brown Scars.
I am afraid of being divisive; for calling things out when most people prefer to sweep snarks or discriminations under the veneer of polite conversation. When I bring attention to a remark, I don’t do it to mark a line between me and white women (if I did, I’d be separating myself from 90% of my friends).
Hamad’s book was discomforting to read; the same sort discomfort I felt sitting through Robin DiAngelo’s lecture on White Fragility at Sydney University last year. Both activities lead me reluctantly to a source of great pain; it made me confront something I decided long ago to avoid, to look away from because I’d made the resolution that interrogating incidences of racism in my past simply deepens the wound.
I loved Hamad’s book for its unapologetic rigour and sharp threading of racial history in both the United States and Australia. Since its release last week, commentators have called it ‘incisive’, ‘courageous’, ‘a work of depth and scholarship,’ and ‘well researched and informative’.
On the same day the book was published, Hamad appeared on ABC’s weekly Q & A program to talk about white colonial history and the impact that legacy has left on minorities. I winced each time she was interrupted by American author Lionel Shriver (a total of 8 times; I counted) and by Tony Jones (5 times) as Hamad was the only woman of colour on the panel. Seeing this dynamic play out on national television left me irked because it indicated a lack of awareness from both Shriver and Jones of the realities of the historically disenfranchised and how that history dictates contemporary relations between members of different races.
In May last year, Hamad, an Australian journalist born in Lebanon, wrote an Op Ed in The Guardian implicating white women who use tears as a weaponised defensive against women of colour who bring up racial issues. In the piece, she crystallises the type of “trauma inflicted on women of colour; one that few seem willing to admit really happens because it is so thoroughly normalised most people refuse to see it.”
“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.”
Racial trauma is a term used to describe the physical and psychological symptoms that people of colour experience after exposure to particularly stressful experiences of racism. Similar to survivors of other types of trauma (e.g., sexual assault survivors), people of colour may frequently experience fear and hyper-vigilance, self-blame, confusion, memory difficulty, shame, and guilt after experiencing racism.
New York-based Asian-American platform, Plan A recently recorded a podcast titled
“Racial Trauma and Therapy,” where the hosts explored the extraordinary absence of racialised rhetoric and knowledge surrounding therapy models for people of colour in white-dominant societies.
“The history of racism involves tonnes of gaslighting; tonnes of institutions and people who try to downplay these racial effects on an individual level. That stress response can lead to weird states of mind,” one host says.
Like I said: it’ll come from the people you expect it from the least. It’ll take your breath away. It’ll hurt. But you’ll keep on going because the fight is the only thing left to do. And you’ll remember there is a wider world than twitter. https://t.co/MpQS2N5R3r
— Ruby (@rubyhamad) September 3, 2019
Hamad’s book is a powerful assessment of the institutional and cultural structures that have shaped the way we operate both as a society and individually. “White people set the standard of humanity by which they are bound to succeed and others bound to fail,” she quotes Richard Dyer, English academic and author of ‘White: Essays on Race and Culture.’ They do this through film, tv, art, and music: “It’s in popular media that our social world is both constructed and reflected back to us.” It is the “key site of power and hegemony.”
These are perceptions that people of colour like myself are burdened with each day. “Women of colour are living their entire lives in an abusive relationship with whiteness,” Hamad writes. “From the very beginnings of settler colonialism, innocence was forcibly stripped from black women through a pervasive process of hypersexualisation and exploitation by white men. They projected the responsibility for this feistihisation and objectification back on to the women themselves.”
Hamad agrees with Dyer that “the way people treat us depends on how they see us.” What frightens me is that my gender and race are the “decisive factor determining how others perceive” me. I will never be able to escape the physiognomy of my face.
Representation is deftly discussed and examined across multiple chapters in the book; Hamad’s analysis broadens to cover the way women from various cultures have been historically curated in western society. “White women pivot between professing sisterhood and solidarity with us based on gender identification, and silencing and oppressing us by weaponising their white womanhood,” she writes, whereas “Black women and girls continue to be regarded as less feminine, less innocent, less virtuous, and more promiscuous than white women.”
What of Asian women? Another harmful trope created by white supremacy is the ‘China Doll’. As Hamad notes, the China Doll is “submissive, eager to please, obedient and permanently pleasant.” I’m reminded of a piece I wrote last year in SMH about being fetishised and dehumanised as an Asian woman trying to date straight white men.
Of Arab women, Hamad says they’re subjugated to either the Pet or Threat persona: “positioned as helpless, repressed victims without agency, or we are Bad Arabs that must be contained. If we are not one, we must be the other.”
It’s that terribly lazy dichotomy which Hannah Gadsby points out in her stand up set Nanette. “For Picasso, women were either virgins or whores,” she told a packed audience at the Opera House in 2017. That wasn’t entirely true. The artist’s actual words were, “Women are either goddesses or doormats.”
These narratives were created by white men because they were the ones who historically held all power; institutional, cultural and political. But it’s here, in culture, where I am most frightened of my own ideas about the world. Reading Hamad’s book made me realise something I’d known long ago, but need to constantly remind myself year after year. It’s the knowledge of the truth that much of my mind is a cerebral museum of ideas shaped and determined by the western imagination; historically, this unique framework has been prescribed and governed by white men.
I have so many mixed feelings about this. For instance, I recently tried to watch all of Seinfeld from Season 1 for the first time. (I was born a little outside of its target audience when it was at the height of popularity). But I quickly found, mid-way through Season 2, I was unable to keep going. Each episode’s humour was predicated on making fun of some ‘other’ – women, Chinese people, Russians, Jewish people. I found it intolerable.
The characters who were given the most humanity, sympathy and depth were the four main characters – all of whom embody whiteness in a way nobody else on the show did. People on the side were always placed, as Hamad says, “on a lesser rung of humanity. Representation has real world consequences.” Domination of one group is always predicated upon the suppression of another.
The most important line in the book centres around sex; “Looking back over the history of race and gender, it is startling to see how it all came down to sex – to the regulation of sex in order to sustain structural power. White supremacy is economic and political domination through the policing of racial purity.” Let’s not forget that it was not so long ago that interracial coupling was a criminal offence.
In her review of White Tears/Brown Scars, Perth-based writer Rashida Murphy says “This book contains tough, unpalatable truths, but they are truths.” Maybe this world would be improved if we could find enough courage within ourselves to face these truths.
White Tears / Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad (MUP $32.99)