Ruby Hamad's new book confronts the historical and contemporary oppression faced by women of colour, writes John Maycock.
But then the feedback on social media started.
After an initial onslaught of online abuse from across the globe (including white feminists) that nearly “crushed” her, Hamad decided to push back, defiantly posting a link to the song “I Won’t Back Down”.
Surprisingly, white women, along with men of all races, started posting back with encouragement and support.
But in particular, women of colour started posting revealing their own experiences and marvelling at how well Hamad’s “pattern was so predictable it worked like a blueprint” explained what had happened to them — they had fallen victim to the tears of the “white damsel in distress”.
However, a significant incentive came three months later when an Emmy-winning African-American television journalist contacted Hamad. The journalist revealed that she had been recently fired under circumstances that reflected much of what Hamad had set out in her piece. Two white colleagues had claimed that she “was creating a hostile working environment based on race and gender” – her crime, ironically – she had linked Hamad’s Guardian article on her private Facebook page.
Accused of dividing the “sisterhood” with her Guardian article, Hamad’s book White Tears Brown Scars puts her position into perspective. It is a response to her critics, a window into the colonial genesis of the gendered racism faced by women of colour, and, with her feet firmly planted in the ground. It is an appeal to white western feminists, and white people in general, to appreciate how this past impacts their perspectives and actions in the present.
Hamad shows how the stereotyping and victim-blaming used by white slave masters and colonisers (of both genders) across the globe – to justify oppression exploitation and crimes (read sexual abuse, rape and murder) against Indigenous and slave women – were held up as an example of what white women were not.
In doing so, mythological notions of womanhood were shaped in juxtaposition to women of colour – white innocent entitled privileged and supreme – creating identities, stereotypes and archetypes. One prominent example was the idea of the white damsel in distress versus the debased woman of colour.
White women enabled the men, and themselves, in this: turning a blind eye to the abuse of women of colour, they embraced the victim-blaming and the power it gave them
Indeed, for Hamad:
'This false binary created between white women and all other women is the seed from which white supremacy was cultivated.'
Ingrained into western culture, from public spaces to the workplace to the feminist movement – the latter the arena Hamad appears to be arguing in – privileged white tears reign supreme.
Or, as Hamad argues:
Women of colour are in an abusive relationship with … white women, who pivot between professing sisterhood and solidarity with us based on gender identification, and silencing and oppressing us by weaponising their white womanhood.
Though white women and women of colour may be allies in the ongoing struggle against the patriarchy, having knocked down the door together, women of colour can find that – due to the gendered racism inherent in white societies – another one now stands in their way. A door held shut by the white women who had only yesterday been allies.
Of course Hamad’s book is much broader in scope than this. She has taken a historical approach interwoven with the experiences of women of colour, including her own, and created a lens through which to interrogate contemporary and sometimes controversial issues.
For example, how is it that so many white women voted for Trump?
So too the power of white womanhood is more than just “distressed damsels” and “tears”, though you will have to read the book to get the full gist of Hamad’s thesis. However, Hamad uses various examples to reinforce the sentiments of her work.
She notes that a variation on the damsel in distress is the “damsel in defence” – Peter Dutton’s wife defending her husband in the media, making an “emotional plea for the hate to stop” towards her family. “He’s a really good man. He’s a really good father.”
Hamad writes the damsel here is:
'Whitewash[ing] [her husband’s] public record by presenting him as a virtuous father and victim'.
Hamad also puts the Yumi Stynes and Kerri-Anne Kennerley Australia Day brouhaha under the lens. Kennerley invoked the “Lovejoy Trap”, hijacking the discussion away from the Australia Day debate — “what about the little children, what have you done to help”, a trope that has been used to shift the goal posts for a hundred or so years to justify stealing children.
By the time it was all finished, white womanhood had re-written history. After running it through the mainstream media, white fragility had reared its head while righteous racism had given way to the damsel in distress — Kennerley had become the “virtuous white damsel” and Stynes had become the “angry brown woman”.
Ruby Hamad should be applauded for writing this well researched and informative book — though not just for the book itself, but also for the courage in putting it out there. Drawing a line in the sand against her critics and abusers – driving a stake into the heart of white western society – Hamad has not so much thrown a grenade into the arena, rather she has exposed an unexploded bomb set in the core foundations of western-settler societies.
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