Originally published on The Body is Not an Apology, reprinted here with permission.
I was once in an abusive relationship. Few people agree that it was abusive, because I left him after he’d hit me a couple of times. But they weren’t there everyday for a period of years when he cajoled me into having sex by saying, ‘your body wants me.’
I’d often reply, ‘but my mind doesn’t…’ I felt that this was somehow important even if I wasn’t 100% convinced. Not that it made a difference to the outcome.
He told me I overthought things, that my mind was not to be trusted. My mind didn’t know what I wanted (obviously, he could not be unwanted!). Since his seduction technique was the continuation of the permanent gaslighting I’d experienced from my narcissistic mother, I continued in what I thought was ‘normal’ relationship. For two years he abused me like this, taking me when he wanted, how he wanted. If our sexual encounters weren’t pleasurable he suggested it was because I was deviant, and even when they were I often felt that I did not consent to them.
It took me ten years to realise that I had been in an abusive relationship. Because to feel pleasure–even occasionally whilst being violated is also the source of excruciating shame and confusion. It traps you because an allegation of abuse is hardly believable, to others and above all to yourself. It is often easier to deny the pain and the shame than it is to admit and extricate yourself from an abusive but not entirely unpleasurable situation. It results in extreme cognitive dissonance where to admit the truth about reality would upset an entire world construct.
What does this have to do with white women or their tears? Everything.
The useful purpose of crying
Such a survival mechanism of adaptation to circumstance–which can include violently denying our own truth, suppressing our innate behaviours and emotions to the point where we maximise pleasure even in abusive but seemingly inescapable circumstances–is called ‘fawning’.
In adults it is an evolution of the survival mechanism from a time when as babies we could not fight or flee. And for babies to live, they must get the best out of their environment no matter how harsh it might be. At this age, crying is the predominant way to get your needs met. Crying also allows outcome analysis by trial and error. Does mother comfort you when you cry or does she leave you alone? After how long? In which circumstances? And at what times? As such it allows a baby albeit subconsciously, to identify which truths, behaviours and emotions are acceptable and which must be suppressed, changed or otherwise slain, to fit into the role expected of or allowed to us. It shows the way to fawn.
As adults, white women–especially middle class white-cis-het women–fawn very well. We adapt ourselves instead of causing a fuss, cutting and suppressing our truth, behaviours and emotions where necessary. We bind our own feet, metaphorically speaking, and although it hurts us sometimes horrifically, we are inclined to take pride in it over believing that we are in any way warped.
If we do use another survival mechanism, for instance ‘fight’, it tends to be of a subversive texture because anger is not acceptable in the white man’s world, unless it is of a white man. Yes, fawning even means that we tailor and suppress our other mechanisms. So it is that many white women retain fawning as their default and preferred survival mechanism because to mutilate and suppress oneself to fit the predetermined image has always been encouraged and rewarded by the establishment. In the extreme we are as tolerant as long-term kidnap victims believing that conflict, criticism and call out threatens our very survival. And because traditionally since our survival has depended on white men, this has been true. White men will not usually protect an angry white woman, only a docile one.
But if fawning is the only survival mechanism we are able to use, it makes us complicit and cowardly within patriarchal systems even though cowardice implies active choice and few of us are conscious of why we act the way we act. We are more inclined to adapt and perpetuate an abusive system than we are to fight against it.
I’m a white woman. I know us, understand us and love us. I have perfected the fawning survival mechanism to the detriment of any other. At first I did it unconsciously in order to survive–especially because good little white girls didn’t fight if they want to be loved, and I couldn’t run away. It didn’t even occur to me that I was growing up within an abusive structure, it was my ‘normal’. I was one of the lucky ones and for that I was told to be grateful.
Being called out used to trigger my deepest fears of abandonment and oh boy, did I cry. Crying also shielded me from the truth because it relieved the cognitive dissonance I lived with day in and day out. My growing consciousness detected the pervasiveness of abuse culture, it wanted to break free of it. But in order to escape I had to admit that I had warped and abused myself, that I had been abused by those I loved and whom I thought loved me, as well as admitting that I was perpetuating the same abuse onto others. I would have to admit that I myself had abused! Those truths were too awful and painful to accept. My struggle to deny the truth whilst coping with my own wounds created unbearable levels of stress in my brain and in my body, so I cried.
My fawning was largely invisible to myself and to everyone else. It appeared non-violent to the outsider and like the Stockholm syndrome became a pleasurable, if illusory, way to survive a world which accommodated me only if I were malleable and placid–or ‘rebelled’ in a manner prescribed by society. But rebelling within the system changes very little, and the more I suppressed myself in my suffocating environment, the stronger my consciousness experienced cognitive dissonance until the stress gouged holes in my systems and it became an anxiety disorder.
We’ve lived like this for centuries, melding graciously, but superficially, within our straight-jacketed roles, curling our hair, standing behind our great men who abused our support. In order to perpetuate such a system, they needed us to suck their cocks and do their dirty work. And we did. And we were rewarded. And we thought, loved for it.
Whilst understandable, this does not alleviate our responsibility for how we have perpetuated and continue to perpetuate abuse to those with less privilege, nor am I proud of our actions. But I am proud of the fact that we managed to survive at all, even when parts of us have been suppressed in an infantalised state. Survival, in a world built by white men for white men is alone a great achievement. And we are alive. But doing something just because we have had to in order to survive, does not excuse us or shield others from the consequences of our actions.
Why crying is harmful
So there are plenty of reasons to cry. And I’m not calling out crying as an emotional response because crying is part of being human. If you’ve experienced trauma then yes, you will cry. But you can be traumatized and still oppress, you can be traumatized and still pay that trauma forward. And this is what we have done, and continue to do. So here are a few reasons why white women need to stop crying at a call out by a person of colour–at least in public.
Consider that crying automatically infers to those around you that people of colour are the aggressors whilst positioning you as the victim of a hurtful behaviour. Crying at a call out reinforces the abusive stereotypes already in place. It perpetuates them.
It is almost unavoidable that the call out will provoke discomfort in you, after all it’s horrifying to realise that you have not only been abused but that you have simultaneously been complicit in abuse. But here’s the thing, you should be horrified! People of colour are not responsible for this. They should not bear the brunt of your horror when they have been suffering from it for years.
And whilst you have every right to grieve your own abuse, also try to understand that your present realisation is small compared to being on the receiving end–for centuries–of much greater and much more violent abuse. The place to grieve your own abuse is with other white women. The anger is not to be directed at the messenger, it is at the establishment who abused you too.
And if your crying is a call for comfort, remember that is not the place of the abused to comfort the abusers. Asking for comfort from the people your people oppress is in itself abusive.
That’s because it centres your discomfort to the exclusion of their pain. It becomes the focus of the call out and changes nothing. Don’t do it… or if you just can’t help yourself, speak up at the same time explaining that it is a gut reaction to relieve stress and that the call out is absolutely justified. Take responsibility for your reactions. They are yours after all. And consider that the ‘she made me cry’ paradigm is most likely to be a symptom of the victim mindset, it is disempowering to us. It keeps us down, it keeps us powerless.
Finally by association and by example, crying discourages call outs. And that’s a bad thing. We want call-outs. We need call-outs. Moreover crying at them diminishes the effort made by people of colour to teach us better. How gracious it is for them to take the time to teach us! If the call out is delivered angrily, control yourself and redirect your anger to the appropriate sources… use it as a fuel for change.
How to stop crying
C. S. Lewis (who was himself a pretty overt racist) once wrote “Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do.” I would say that you cannot stop crying if you don’t know why you are crying and obviously you cannot decide what to do if you can’t stop.
Are you crying out of guilt because your ancestors have been relentlessly cruel towards marginalised people? Then do something about it–reparations, sponsorship and amplification of minority voices. I guarantee it will help you more sustainably and more permanently than periodically siphoning off your white guilt in tears. Tears are only a temporary relief. You are not a child anymore, you are not powerless.
Are you crying because your vision of yourself as white charitable person has been upset? What an opportunity to examine and know yourself! Your reaction contains the gift of humility and of purpose. Find it, nurture it and use it to empower. Use it to become the person you thought you were. The person you want to be.
Are you crying because you have been abused? Take heart, there are circles of support provided to us and by us. Accessible to us because of our privilege. Find them and use them wisely.
Are you crying because you’ve discovered our present world is far shittier and more abusive than you thought? Are you crying because YOU are far shittier and more abusive than you thought? Ouch, that’s gotta hurt. So cry away but not in the company of people of colour–they know the truth already. Don’t beg them for forgiveness, after all you have albeit unwittingly, been part of a system which abused them.
And when you stop crying, as you will sooner or later, rally yourself because crying won’t change a thing. You are stronger than you think. Now is the time to grow up, grow better and stop your own cycle of abuse.