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Image: Rogier van der Weyden, Wikimedia Commons

Mary Beard is no stranger to social media storms. The Cambridge professor, or ‘Britain’s best-known classicist’, has said she regards a prolific online presence is part of her responsibility as an academic. This means she has frequently drawn the ire of Twitter’s troll patrols.

In 2017, the historian who counts ancient Rome among her specialities responded to alt-right figure Paul Joseph Watson, who had mocked a BBC cartoon depicting a family in Roman Britain with skin tones ranging from pale to black by tweeting, ‘Thank God the BBC is portraying Roman Britain as ethnically diverse. I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?’ Watson was undeservedly assured in his mockery. Ancient Europe was far more diverse in its history than our current concepts of identity assume. Beard let him know about Quintus Lollius Urbicus, a governor of Britain who’d been born in what is now Algeria. This unleashed a barrage of abuse against Beard, whose qualifications were somehow deemed irrelevant. Twitter users who knew better dismissed her perspective as political correctness gone mad and accused her of trying to rewrite history, treating her to a torrent of aggressive insults ‘on everything from my historical competence and elitist ivory tower viewpoint to my age, shape and gender’.

But on 17 February 2018, Beard posted a tweet that ignited a different kind of storm, one in which she played a different role – though perhaps her past experience with trolls did not lead her to see it this way. In response to the unfolding scandal involving Oxfam aid staff abusing sex workers in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Beard tweeted, ‘Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us [would] not tread.’

It’s a particularly disappointing tweet coming from a history professor. The backlash was immediate, this time from people of colour. One of these critics was fellow Cambridge scholar Priyamvada Gopal, who took exception to Beard’s apparent minimisation of the brutality of colonisation. Gopal wrote a Medium post outlining to Beard why her tweet was being criticised, calling it an example of a ‘genteel patrician racist manner’ that is pervasive in academia and noting with disappointment that ‘this is the more progressive end of the spectrum’.

Twitter pile-ons can be so over the top that separating the wheat of legitimate critique from the chaff of abusive trolling can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility, so I have no doubt that much of the criticism levelled at Beard got unnecessarily nasty. Nonetheless, there are attacks and there is constructive criticism, and Beard seemed to make no differentiation between the two. Apologising not for the content or implications of her tweet but for attempting to inject ‘nuance’ into the discussion, she posted a teary selfie, pleading, ‘I’m really not the nasty colonialist you think I am…If you must know I am sitting here crying.’

This is where things took what is a now-familiar turn. Writer and academic Flavia Dzodan marvelled at Beard’s ‘white feminist tears’ and commented on ‘the extent of sentimentality people will go through, debasing themselves if necessary, in order to sustain their ignorance, bigotry or both’, and Anaïs Duong-Pedica described Beard’s tearful display as ‘a typical white woman’s move to innocence’. Others quickly came to the defence of Beard, namely white feminist journalists such as Helen Lewis, who claimed Beard wasn’t playing the victim but just being ‘honest’, and Hadley Freeman, who dismissed the criticism of Beard as ‘the textbook definition of bullying: mocking someone for showing weakness’.

These defenders really, really didn’t get it. In this context, Beard’s tears were not a sign of weakness: they were a reminder of her relative power. It is significant that of all the times she has been dragged on Twitter, usually by sexist, racist trolls, this is the first and only time – when her critics were women of colour – that she responded by publicly crying.

To put it simply, women of colour are both too racialised and too gendered to be taken seriously or treated with respect.

Most disappointing is that Beard clearly is intimately knowledgeable with how women’s voices as a whole have been silenced and marginalised from power. In fact, she literally wrote a manifesto on it: Women and Power, published in 2017. And yet, when it came to criticism even from fellow academics and feminist writers who warned her she was contributing to the silencing of non-white women by dismissing their concerns, she was unable to see past her own innocence and victimhood. Her tears made Gopal and other women of colour critiquing her seem all the nastier and more irrational – Gopal in particular became the target of vicious attacks. The entire incident demonstrates how easily white women can slip between their ‘one up’ and ‘one down’ identities.

When I first wrote about it, I did not know that this has been a subject of academic study for much longer than the topics of white women’s tears and white feminism have been in the public eye. In 2007, researcher Mamta Motwani Accapadi, then a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Houston, wrote a paper called ‘When white women cry: How white women’s tears oppress women of colour’ in which she argues that white women’s experience of gender is shaped by their race as much as that of women of colour. Just as black and brown women are caricaturised by the negative images governing society’s perception of their racial communities, so too are white women’s experiences ‘shaped by internal expectations and external perceptions of what it means to be a woman within each of these racial communities’.

White women’s racial privilege is predicated on their acceptance of their role of virtue and goodness, which is, ultimately, powerlessness. It is this powerlessness – or, I would argue, this appearance of powerlessness – that governs the nature of White Womanhood. ‘Put in simple terms, male privilege positions the nature of womanhood, while White privilege positions a White woman’s reality as the universal norm of womanhood,’ Accapadi continues, ‘leaving a woman of colour defined by two layers of oppression.’

To put it even more simply, women of colour are both too racialised and too gendered to be taken seriously or treated with respect. So while the apparent emotional distress of a white woman sees onlookers flocking to soothe that distress, women of colour are perceived in a negative way that regards them as lesser women. ‘When a Woman of Color acts,’ explains Accapadi, ‘her actions at some level reflect upon her racial community, and she cannot centrifuge her racial identity from her womanhood.’

The power of the damsel is that she provokes the protective urge. Whoever is making her cry must be the one at fault.

By posting a close-up of herself literally crying, or at least appearing to be, Beard pivoted from her one down identity – woman – to her one up identity – white, and from her usual public role of feminist agitator to the ‘powerless’ role of the damsel in distress. Not only did she perpetuate the derogatory rhetoric about ‘uncivilised’ non-Western countries, but the moment she began crying, the entire tone of the incident necessarily shifted. It was no longer about what she had said or why it had upset many people of colour: it was about her feelings. Her innocence. Her victimhood. Her strategic White Womanhood.

It is presented as helplessness and sentimentality, but it is a power move. The power of the damsel is that she provokes the protective urge. Whoever is making her cry must be the one at fault (unless it is a white man – but more on that in the next chapter). At the same time, the reductive archetypes governing the representation of women of colour also kick into play. Angry. Scary. Cold. Aggressive.

This doesn’t mean the tears aren’t genuine, even if they are strategic. I have no doubt many white women genuinely feel they are being attacked simply by virtue of a woman of colour disagreeing with them. ‘White people are so rarely ever outside of our racial comfort zones and we’ve been warned all our lives not to go outside of our racial comfort zone, and we come to feel entitled to racial comfort,’ Robin DiAngelo explained to me when I interviewed her during her US book tour in the summer of 2018. ‘So if you challenge any of that…we can’t handle it, our capacity to handle that is basically zero. And I will lash out and do whatever I need to do to get you to stop challenging me. And if that’s cry, I’ll cry. I might not even be consciously thinking about that but that’s how it works.’

I would say there is barely a woman of colour alive today who hasn’t been on the wrong end of a white woman’s tears multiple times in her life.

In other words, the tears may well be genuine, but that does not make them innocent and harmless: the opposite, in fact. ‘As soon as I cry all of the resources are going to go back to me, and you (the person of colour) are going to be bad. And that’s why I think it’s a form of bullying,’ DiAngelo continued. ‘I bet you put up with way more racism from white people every single day than you bother talking to us about. And why don’t you bother? Because you’re probably going to get punished worse. So it’s just a beautiful form of white racial control. You stay in your place, and I stay in mine, then I get to claim you as my friend, my co-worker – see how I’m not racist? But (only) as long as you don’t challenge my identity and my position.’

DiAngelo is right, of course: I do put up with a lot more racism than I bother to point out – and I am someone who writes about racism for a living. In fact, I would say there is barely a woman of colour alive today who hasn’t been on the wrong end of a white woman’s tears multiple times in her life, and with far worse consequences than those faced by Professor Gopal in her challenge to Mary Beard. Gopal’s status as a high-profile academic, as well as her self-admitted privileged upper caste background in India, mean she isn’t subject to the same consequences as women with less status, although racism does make her job more strenuous than it would be otherwise.

It has only been in the process of writing this book that I have begun to gain an understanding of how pervasive this experience is for the majority of women of colour living in the West – how much it shapes, limits and mars their lives and, most frustratingly, how little recourse they have to seek accountability from those who do it to them.

This is an edited extract from Ruby Hamad’s White Tears/Brown Scars (MUP), KYD’s First Book Club pick for October. Read Ellen Cregan’s review, and Ruby’s Shelf Reflection column on her reading habits and the books that informed her own.

White Tears/Brown Scars is available now at Readings.