By Faith Cheltenham
Delivered as a keynote address to the 2016 BlaQOUT Conference at UC Riverside on April 9th, 2016.
White tears is a term that has a startling effect on white folks. Developed over time to describe the phenomenon of white people being upset at the very act of discussing race, it’s evolved into a funny yet, extremely effective way to describe white people’s discomfort in discussing the very racism they perpetuate.
One of the earliest articles available online about white tears written by a person of color is the 2007 College Student Affairs Journal article “When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Color” by Mamta Motwani Accapadi. In the article, Accapadi describes a case study of a white woman bursting into tears when being pressed by a woman of color about diversity resources at the college that employs them both. Instead of working on the issues affecting students, the case study states that the rest of the meeting was spent consoling the white woman about her white tears.
So it’s white tears I immediately thought of last July, as I sat talking to Kathryn Snyder about white folks interrupting Black people to tell us about their own racism, when what do you know? A young Tearful White Woman (let’s call her TWW for short) interrupts us to ask, “Can we talk? Just talk as people? About race?” Her friends tried to pull her back and whisper in her ear but TWW was inebriated and loudly whispered back “No! I get to ask! I get to ask!”
I told her, “You can ask, but I am not required to answer you.”
See, I’d never met this particular TWW before, and neither had Kathryn Snyder, an amazing Black bi+ queer organizer everyone should know (that’s her on the right with the triangle earrings). We were all of us, tearful white people included, at the 2015 Netroots Nation convention in Phoenix, back in July where a whole bunch of Black folks experienced a whole bunch of racism. You know, like they do most months.
The kind of racism where white liberals you’ve never met before are suddenly touching your face without asking in their best petting paternalism, or the kind where you repeatedly turn a corner to find a Black girl sobbing but surrounded in love by other Black people. #YouOKSis? It was the kind of space where Black people were openly targeted, in this case mostly by Bernie Sanders supporters who were reeling from recent reports that Sanders wasn’t scoring well with Black voters.
Shit was going down, so it made sense that many white people would immediately turn to any Black person they could find to assuage their white guilt, express their privilege and stump for their candidate too. Like “Black voters” were a product to obtain, instead of listen to, and to harp on, instead of hear from.
An older, respected white LGBT advocate invited a number of LGBT people of color to his suite party and made it clear that people of color were welcome. So me and Kathryn showed up, and with a bunch of other people proceeded to have a great time. At one point we went on an excursion looking for supplies, and the elevator was really slow. As we waited, the full elevators would open and we would pose in different forms, much like we used to do when I was a young’un at UCLA.
Once when the door opened, I saw a few Black women I had seen before but not yet talked to. I called out, “Hey now, we’re up in Rm 512 if you want to hang with some queer people of color and some Black folks!” The women locked eyes on me, and that moment happened, the one where they were no longer surrounded by oppressive whiteness, discomfort, tone policing, and silencing. The moment when you’re not thinking at all about white tears? You know, the moment when you’re free?
The Black women in the elevator called back to us, “We’ll come back up” and we decided to skip going back downstairs. We went back to the suite and chilled, and Kathryn and I started talking about our Netroots Nation experience so far, in particular the ability of white folks to interrupt her at every moment to “talk about race” or tell her what Bernie Sanders had done for Black folks (#BernieSoBlack has more details). I was just telling her some of the things that had unfolded for me when I got a tap on the shoulder from the aforementioned Tearful White Woman.
Even after I expressed that it wasn’t my responsibility to educate this tearful white woman, she persisted. Kathryn raised an eyebrow at me and I decided that TWW did need to know something from me after all. As I finished a custom hand roll, I looked up from licking the paper and said, “Listen to me OK? This is really important.” TWW nodded bravely, visibly squaring herself for a barrage of statements she really needed to hear, but I only had one.
“I want you to imagine that every time you walk up to Black folks and interrupt their conversation, you are interrupting a conversation about Black folks being interrupted by white people.” As she opened her mouth to reply, I held up my hand and went all “you shall not pass.”
Stoic, I handed her my most recent hand roll. “Listen,” I said gently, “that’s all I got for right now, but you take this with my best wishes. Goodbye.” Her friends dragged her out my space and one stayed behind. Kathryn raised another eyebrow, and I sighed.
TWW’s friend quickly said, “Listen, I am SO SORRY her white privilege got all over you when you were just hanging out. We were on the elevator just now and she became convinced you were talking to her and telling her to come to room 512. We told her you were talking to the other women of color and told her about the need for safe space in oppressive white spaces, but she’s really new to social justice.”
I had tears of laughter in my eyes, at the ridiculousness of those white folks who ALWAYS insist that EVERYTHING in Black lives is REALLY all about them. And I had hope, simply because of the friend who had stuck behind to quickly explain, apologize, and make right. So I thanked TWW’s friend and wished them all a good night. As they walked away, Kathryn and I burst out into big ass belly laughs because sometimes racism IS good for a laugh.
White tears wasn’t a term I knew when I was in middle school and organized my first protest against my school’s “Jungle Fever” ball. See, I grew up in white town, white county, very white USA. My hometown of San Luis Obispo, California prided itself on its “slo-ness” in all things, from the ban on drive thru’s to its slow to evolve racial sensibilities.
From a very early age, I withstood taunts of “Aunt Jemima”, pulls on my braids intended to show my “real hair”, and insults from students and teachers alike, with the favorite being “Buckwheat” due to my hair’s tendency to stand up so straight you’d think my follicles themselves were stressed. My daily school experience was of avoiding the kids who threw rocks at me only to come back from recess to fight with my teachers about their racist views.
By the time I was in high school I was writing about my experiences of race, inspired by Nikki Giovanni, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. I won an honorable mention from a USA Today writing racial justice content as a high school freshman and kept writing, hoping to create an invisible ring of protection that would keep my hope (and self) alive.
I battled race at school, but when I went home, I didn’t go home to a Black home that welcomed me, but to a biracial one ruled by a mentally unstable, racist, biphobic and homophobic white Pentecostal pastor. At home I faced abuse of a different kind, most of which I kept secret for many years until taking a hammer to my own wall of silence. And at home too, I protested. I protested and called the police. I protested and called CPS. I protested and called for help, and when I couldn’t get it, I called RAINN, a hotline that helped me find a teen homeless shelter to stay in until I could feel safe at home again.
These are the experiences of so many Black people: the loss of safety at home and abroad in their everyday lives, all-the-while experiencing the colonization of our bodies, appropriations of our culture, and the fragility of white people who refuse to dismantle their own supremacy in a world where it’s far too difficult to tell the difference between the GOP and the KKK.
My background led me to raise my voice consistently for those unheard, and those kept at the margins. I’ve done that with blogging, writing, slam poetry, reality show appearances, stand-up comedy, and Black and bisexual community organizing. Everywhere I go I’ve been standing up for oppressed people, because before I knew the words and the mechanism for my own oppression, I knew the feeling.
I knew the feeling of crying alone, desperate to end my own life because I couldn’t take another adult yelling the N word at me at 9 years old. I knew the feeling of being patted down and frequently profiled by police because that’s what walking down the street in San Luis Obispo, CA any damn day entailed. I knew what it was like to be raped because a boy thought he knew what a big breasted Black ten year old girl like me wanted. I have always known what it is like to be treated as a second class citizen in comparison to my peers.
Still, racism can always find new ways to surprise you.
Recently, I re-experienced the phenomenon of gaslighting racism which Black LGBT YA author Craig Gidney defines as a situation “where (mostly) (some) white people will twist themselves into logic pretzels to deny racism, even when it is obvious.”
We were about to begin #TheBlackPanel at #LGBTMedia16, an annual gathering of LGBTQ journalists, bloggers and media professionals. Our panel featured a rising star in discussions of race, New York Times columnist Charles Blow, alongside NBCNews.com contributor Danielle Moodie-Mills, and Vox.com’s Race and Identities editor Michelle Garcia. The panel was developed by myself, Sharif Durhams of the WashingtonPost.com and Matt Foreman of the Haas Foundation with the support of Bil Browning, founder of bilerico.com.
>We were the 2nd panel to go and as we gathered to get everyone settled, I turned around to find a wonderfully styled white woman invading my personal space to whisper to me how beautiful Charles Blow was and how much she loved him and could she have her picture right now, before everyone else because she was such a fan. Since we literally were about to start the panel, I asked her to wait and sit down so we could get started, which she did.
As we began the panel and started having a really good and profound conversation, from the podium I noticed a rise in concerning behavior from the wonderfully styled white woman (we can call her WSWW for short). After the panel had begun, she got up and walked over to the panel table and put her phone down to tape. After a few minutes, she began to look concerned for her phone and she began to quietly crawl forward. The whole time I’m watching her, like WTF, are you literally crawling slowly forward towards our panel?
And she kept crawling closer and closer. I admit it, at that point all I saw was WHITE PEOPLE.
I was furious with the general lack of respect and disregard for the panelists and for myself as a moderator. When, from the moderator’s podium, I asked her to take her seat because I found it distracting, instead of nodding and moving back to her seat she began to argue with me about why it wasn’t a big deal for her to be there, and why I should just let it go and why it’s OK to tape things because “look, we have a celebrity”. In those statements, I felt a disregard for my own work and a general slight to my own experience as a journalist and a person who’s worked with high profile institutions like the White House or Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York, a woman I’m proud to call a mentor.
While it seemed like such a small thing, coupled with her previous invasion of personal space and her comments on her love for beautiful Black men, it just read racist and real racist at that. However, it won’t surprise you that the only support I felt in that room for my desire to stay on topic was from my fellow Black girl queers. As I struggled to “keep my eyebrows on”, I thought about Black writer and The Nightly Show contributor’s Franchesca Ramsey’s run in with white queer women at The Sundance Film Festival and I took strength from looking Ashleigh Shackelford right in the face as she raised her eyebrows at Charles Blow for his apologies to the white woman of behalf of me, the Black woman who invited him to speak on the panel.
In those moments of racial microaggressions, and in the moment when white tears threaten the ability for Black people to even discuss race, we all lose.
I believe I pulled it together, and we were able to continue a meaningful conversation that multiple people later remarked being deeply impressed by during the public feedback session. As we ended the convening, I tapped WSWW on the shoulder and asked if we could speak. We went off to the side and had a difficult conversation, certainly for both of us. She, like myself, is bisexual and had been deeply influenced by Charles Blow’s discussions of sexual fluidity. She told me others had apologized to her for my “crazy” response to her being a fan girl, and she said she was worried for me since I had humiliated myself by bullying her.
Photo Credit: Memegenerator.net
At that, a smile broke across my face, and I will never forget telling her “That’s OK, because you’re going to your grave having told a Black woman that she humiliated herself when she responded to your racism.” WSWW blanched at that, and swallowed hard when I followed up with a tearfully stated, “I call you racist to your face, and name your actions as racist”. As she teared up, she asked me how it could be racist just to bring her phone up to the panel. And I took her through the sequence of events from my perspective, and I asked her if she realized she had touched me, or if she realized she was in my space, attempting to lean across my body to reach Charles Blow, when we’d never even met before. Her eyes went WIDE, and she said, “Oh, my gosh. I totally invaded your space and I didn’t even think about it.”
We talked about her “Black friends” in Oklahoma, and I told her that having Black friends doesn’t mean you’re actually invested in the movement for Black lives. We talked about her “love of Black people” and how that can be misconstrued into fetishization if one isn’t careful, especially when you begin crawling towards them with puppy dog eyes during a panel about race in America. We began to laugh with each other and I realized I really liked her even though I didn’t think she’d ever had the opportunity to learn how to respect a Black person like me, and culturally exchange with them instead of culturally appropriate from them.
Image from Paying an Unfair Price: The Financial Penalty for LGBT People of Color report by the Movement Advancement Project.
That’s a responsibility, I feel should be left squarely at the feet of a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community that’s doggedly refused to dialogue about race in favor of reinventing racism in new flavors. I had to wonder if WSWW had been influenced at all by the #LGBTMEDIA16 keynote address the night before that found gay legend and filmmaker John Waters telling jokes about Freddie Gray’s broken back alongside Bill Cosby rape stories. In a rare move, the convening had asked the attendees to refrain from taking photos or video of John Water’s “address”, which was probably for the best, as I feel like someone could have lost their job just for listening to the atrocities that dropped from Waters’ mouth like little white nuggets of gay racism.
Experiencing that, even briefly since I walked out early, was a form of racial trauma visited upon the people of color in the space, and for what? Since you’re gay and white, you’ve been hurt and can hurt people too? Since you’re a white gay man, you know what it’s like to fear police so Freddie Gray’s broken vertebrae is a good punchline when you’re feeling salty? Since you’re a white LGBTQ person, you have no problem stepping into photos where people of color are already posed together, with nary a thought as to whether they want you in the photo too? Since you’re a white lesbian, you’re a “sister” to Black women? Since you’re queer, you can culturally appropriate Black culture with a “SLAY!” or “YASSSSS QUEEN!” or “GIRL, GET IT!”?
Oh no, I think not!!!
I call that racist too, and long past time for an end. It’s time for all people of color to see some basic levels of respect in the LGBTQIA community for who they are. So that means no more “Namaste!”, and it means dropping the “No Blacks, No Asians” from your dating profile. It means fighting just as hard for clean water for Native people as it does for the residents of Flint, MI, and shouting #Not1More to amplify the fight of Latinx immigrants. It means fighting #pinkwashing in all it’s forms and it ABSOLUTELY means acknowledging the existence of dozens of cultural experiences and peoples still fighting to be heard.
It also means that LGBT orgs should quit touting the numbers of people of color on staff, until the management reflects those colors too. When all the coordinators, service providers, and facility people are of color and all the management is white, it still looks like a plantation in my book! #GayMediaSoWhite that LGBT publishers shouldn’t bother counting the magazine covers with people of color on them, if they aren’t also counting the number of people of color on staff writing and editing in them.
Photo Credit: empathizethis.com/stories/prejudice-pride/
Until the day comes that the rainbow really reflects all of us, I will stand up against racism in LGBTQIA communities with whatever tools I have at my disposal. I will keep telling myself, and telling you too, that it is OK to cry, and BE MAD. We should be mad that our community does not support us!
It is OK to protest white LGBT people, in fact one might argue it is our duty as their fellow queer, bi+ and trans* community members. We must do what needs to be done to find some respect for our voices and our bodies, and make clear that the LGBTQIA community is one that supports freedom for everyone, and not just for some.
As President of BiNet USA, Faith Cheltenham helps coordinate bisexual advocacy, outreach and networking efforts for the bisexual, pansexual and fluid communities in America. Faith has been involved in LGBT activism since 1999 and has spoken at locations as varied as San Diego Comic Con, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change Conference, UCLA, and Yale University. In 2012, she was named one of Advocate magazine’s “Forty Under 40” and was appointed to the University of California’s LGBT Task Force. A longtime web/social media producer in her spare time, her clients have included Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, Macmillan and Scholastic.
*This piece is cross-posted and originally appeared here on Faith’s blog.