There aren’t many recently invented terms in our cultural lexicon that I enjoy using more than I enjoy using “white tears”—the phrase created to describe what happens when certain types of white people either complain about a nonexistent racial injustice or are upset by a nonwhite person’s success at the supposed expense of a white person. It acknowledges white privilege in a way that manages to be hilarious, contextual and concise. And it rolls off the tongue (and the pen), too. It’s just as fun to say and type as it is to use.
It’s also surprisingly exact and precise. What better way is there to accurately and succinctly describe the type of negative response that often occurs whenever Serena Williams wins another tennis match? Or the state of mind that would lead Abigail Fisher to sue over not being able to get into the University of Texas? Or the reactions whenever a black person is cast in a treasured science fiction/fantasy saga, or when a black person is cast in a movie based on a book loved by white people—even if the character is described in the book as being black? Or Nancy Lee Grahn’s Twitter tirade over Viola Davis’ Emmy acceptance speech?
Or even what happened this week, as former University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe was caught on camera saying, “I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” as a response to a question about systematic oppression … and then, moments later, was heard saying, “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success” … and then, when he resigned, including the following in his speech:
This is not—I repeat not—the way change should come about. Change comes from listening, learning, caring and conversation. We have to respect each other enough to stop yelling at each other and start listening, and quit intimidating each other.
That’s obliviousness, defensiveness, hypersensitivity, narcissism, fabricated persecution and abject wrongness. His White Tears Bingo card is full.
But while this term is often used in the context of racially tinged humor, white tears—this obliviousness, defensiveness, hypersensitivity, narcissism, fabricated persecution and abject wrongness—are often the impetus behind more serious acts of racially antagonistic behavior. What’s happening at the University of Missouri right now is a prime example of that.
Although Concerned Student 1950 has a list of demands, ultimately it comes down to a simple request to feel more safe and more welcome on campus. Yet this relatively innocuous ask has proved to be so abhorrent and so offensive to those who believe that “Black people asking for better treatment” means “No one cares about white people! Why is the world allowing these black people to take things from the white people?” that it’s been responded to with actual death threats. Which would be absurd if it wasn’t so real.
In fact, if you look at America in a historical context, and trace even the most vicious and pervasive acts of racial antagonism to their foundations, their geneses, you’ll find that the same mindset behind the creation and shedding of white tears is behind many of them, too. The Ku Klux Klan, for instance, wasn’t created just out of boredom or a need to find creative ways to wash white laundry or even sheer hate. It was a response to the political and economic gains that black people—primarily black people in the South—made after Reconstruction. It was white people so upset that this still relatively small percentage of the population had made some incremental progress, and so threatened by that thought, that they created a terrorist organization to quell it.
These are all the ingredients found in the white-tears cocktail—the defensiveness, the hypersensitivity, the fabricated persecution—taken to their most explosive extreme.
Those images we’ve seen of fire hoses blasting through chests, and police dogs ripping through fabric and bone, and batons crushing skulls and collapsing lungs, those are all the result of black people demanding equal rights—not special treatment or even back pay—and white people believing that if black people gained something, they (white people) would be losing everything.
The thinking that permeates the mind of a police officer using lethal force to subdue a black suspect when a simple conversation would suffice? That’s not the result of hate. Well, it manifests as hate, but it was fear before that, and that fear came from a sense of fabricated persecution, of invented loss, of a belief that Something Must Be Done to Control Them. Ultimately, these are white tears, distilled.
Admittedly, sometimes I wonder if I’m being a bit too harsh with my characterization of white tears and my dismissal of the feelings of the people who are shedding them. White people, even those upset by nonexistent racial injustices, have feelings, too. But then I remember what can happen when those white tears go unacknowledged and unchecked, and then I have an answer to my wonder: Nah.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.