White Tears Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad

White Tears/Brown Scars

Reviewed by Rod McLary

In 1955, a young black American boy called Emmett Till was visiting family in Mississippi when it was claimed that he whistled at a white woman.  Consequently, he was abducted by a group of white men – including the woman’s husband – and beaten to death and dumped in the Tallahassee River.  His killers were acquitted of his murder; but, in 2018, the woman recanted her testimony and admitted that Emmett had not whistled at her.

Ruby Hamad in her often confronting and always challenging book uses this tragic event as an illustration of ‘the power of the white damsel in distress’ [78].  To assure readers that this power continues to exist today, Hamad uses another, but more recent, example where a white woman claimed that a twelve-year-old black boy ‘had sexually assaulted her in a New York grocery store’ and called the police [79].  Security footage later showed that the boy’s backpack had lightly brushed against her as he walked past.

In her Author’s note, Ruby Hamad explains the use of ‘white’, ‘brown’ and ‘black’.  “Black’ refers to African-Americans and ‘brown’ to other people of colour – that is, all those who are not white.  ‘White’ refers not only to skin colour – an imprecise description at any time – but more as an indicator of ‘racial privilege’.  She refers throughout her book to black and brown people whose exploitation and vulnerability to violence are justified by them simply not being white.    

The book’s major premise is that ‘the virtue and innocence of white women is used as a justification for the oppression of brown and black bodies in the rhetoric of our politicians’ [78].  Hamad traces back to at least the late-seventeenth century laws set up by white men [as opposed to women] which punished white women who had children by black men.  The women were either fined or subjected to years of indentured servitude.  No such law existed against white men who had consensual or non-consensual sex with enslaved black women.  In fact, any resultant children of those liaisons simply became more slave labour.  The situation was then that white men were free to pursue black women without penalty whereas white women were punished if they had sex with black men.

But of course, black men who had sexual relations with white women – always considered to be non-consensual – were persecuted and often lynched.  Hamad considers that ‘white women were integral to this spectacle of violence’ [72] – a view which is supported by numerous photographs of lynchings in which white women were not only present but smiling.  Hamad postulates that these white women are smiling because they know the lynchings are for their benefit – the lynchings were a demonstration of how far white men would go to protect their women’s bodies and virtue [72].  It is also an indication that white women were seen to be the ‘property’ of the white men and thus required protection.  Hamad is also a strong feminist.

The first part of the book’s title ‘White Tears’ is Hamad’s description of how white women [according to Hamad] respond when challenged by black or brown women.  To illustrate her point, Hamad speaks of an incident in a workplace where a white woman without permission continually touched the hair of a brown woman and ‘pulled the curls to watch them bounce back’.  When the brown woman asked the other woman to stop and complained to the HR section, she was told that she ‘was not a people person’ and was forced to resign [6].  The white woman doing the touching and pulling began to cry because she felt bullied and threatened.  Thus, as Hamad claims, ‘white tears’ are potent and have the effect of rendering brown and black women as aggressive.  The tears are coming from the eyes of ‘the prototype of womanhood; the woman who has been painted as helpless against the whims of the world’ [6].

Hamad believes that this view of white women being helpless contributed to the behaviours described above where excessive punitive responses were made when black men had or were believed to have had any level of sexual contact with white women.

One would expect though in more enlightened age that white women would assist black and brown women to overcome these prejudices and, in some cases, incidents of blatant racism.  But that is not the case.  In fact, Hamad believes that, in appearing to assist, the white women simply garner more kudos for themselves and further exacerbate the racism against black and brown women.  A particular example is provided to illustrate this point.  In early 2019, a young Saudi Arabian woman barricaded herself into a room in a Thai hotel.  Her purpose was to obtain asylum in Australia.  Ultimately, she went to Canada where, after landing at Toronto Airport, she was flanked by two ‘triumphant white women … to parade her before a rapturous media’ [125].  According to Hamad, she became a symbol for ‘the victory of the maternalism of white women’ [126] thus – in reality – reinforcing her diminished status because she is a brown woman.  It is hard to argue against that view.

In the final chapter of the book, Ruby Hamad throws down a challenge to white women – ‘will white women stand with women of colour as we edge ever closer to liberation?’ [218]

White Tears Brown Scars is a provocative and intelligent book which challenges the inherent – and often unacknowledged – racism in many [most?] of us.  Whether the reader agrees with the premise of the book is of course a matter for the individual but, agreement from the reader or not, Ruby Hamad has written a persuasive book which deserves to be read and thought about carefully.  The author draws on considerable research to support her arguments and there is an extensive bibliography.  An index would further contribute to the value of the book.

Ruby Hamad is a journalist and author who was born in Lebanon and raised in Australia.  She has written for The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, The Sydney Morning Herald and Meanjin.  Ruby is a PhD student in media studies at the University of New South Wales.

White Tears Brown Scars


by Ruby Hamad

Melbourne University Press

ISBN 978 0 522 87558 4

232pp; $34.99

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