Inside Story

Triple trouble

Books | Does gender and race fully explain the discrimination faced by women of colour?

Sara Dowse 4 October 2019 1364 words

Gripping: White Tears/Brown Scars author Ruby Hamad. Fairfax

White Tears/Brown Scars
By Ruby Hamad | Melbourne University Press | $34.99 | 232 pages

Ruby Hamad is a writer of Lebanese-Syrian descent who has written about a range of social issues in print and online. One article in particular set fire to the Twittersphere. Published in the Guardian in 2018, it focused on the seemingly uncontroversial fact that any recent gains for women have been unevenly distributed. Women of colour have rarely benefited, and they continue to be oppressed by race as well as gender.

Although the article was welcomed by women who had experienced the kinds of discrimination she described, other responses were nowhere as approving, to put it mildly. The piece opened up a sore left to fester too long. Feelings went so deep that one African-American journalist ended up losing her job. It was this stupendous outcome and others like it that spurred Hamad into developing her arguments further in this book.

Some readers will be squirming from the very first chapter, for Hamad’s main contention is that, far from being “sisters,” white women have played a large role in oppressing women of colour. And they continue to do so, she argues — even now, in #MeToo’s shining hour. Not only that, but when confronted, the accused routinely deploy their weapon of choice, which is to dissolve into tears, arrogating victimhood to themselves. The accusation applies to liberal women as well as to conservative ones, progressives as well as reactionaries.

But to state it this plainly and reductively is to do Hamad a disservice, for White Tears/Brown Scars is diligently researched, comprehensive and insightful. So much so it’s almost impossible to mount a countervailing argument. But I’m going to give it a try.

First, a few biographical details. I came to Australia from America in 1958, all of nineteen years old, married to an Australian who had been having difficulty getting work in the States and wanted to go home. I was young, excited and deeply anxious. I hadn’t been at all confident that I’d be allowed to accompany him. Australia was notorious for its White Australia policy and, being Jewish, I wasn’t at all sure that I was white. In the States at the time we definitely weren’t treated as such. While never discriminated against to the degree that blacks were, we faced quotas in certain schools and universities, and we were prohibited from living in certain neighbourhoods and joining certain clubs. Even after news trickled out about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was rife.

Because of Australia’s immigration policy, I had reason to believe that even if I could come, it would be much the same here. In retrospect — if you overlook my youth and the fact that in the decade preceding the second world war Jewish immigration had been severely restricted — this seems outlandish. Now, more than sixty years after my arrival, not only has the policy changed, but the “whiteness” of Jews is scarcely questioned. And in relation to Israel-Palestine, some Jews have been engaging in horrific discrimination of their own.

Still, as Hamad succinctly puts it, “Over the centuries, as the proponents and beneficiaries of colonialism, whites have set the standards both for humanity as a whole, embodied in the white man, and for femininity that is designed to complement the white male and is embodied in the white woman.” Rather than a biological fact, she argues, whiteness and colour are social constructs. That is not to deny their political implications, but this is exactly what she has found many white women do.

To back this up she has drawn on interviews with women whose experiences are so consistent that it would be hard to dismiss the pattern. Her sample is small — just over two dozen women of colour — but the consistency of their testimony, combined with an in-depth analysis of the history, taking in the slave trade and the supremacy of whites in all the settler-colonial nations, makes for a compelling case. Yes, the Greeks and Romans had slavery, but their economies weren’t based on it like those of the West Indies or the American South. Yes, Arabs were engaged in the slave trade, but it was the British who ramped it up. Everywhere she looks, Hamad unearths incontrovertible evidence. In short, it’s hard to think of a single statement she makes about white male culpability, or white women’s complicity, that I don’t basically agree with.

From the forced concubinage of slave women to persistent stereotypes that demonise black and brown women — it is all documented in the literature, disseminated through pop culture, or given in direct testimony that would, at the very least, be disrespectful to ignore. Still, I often found the catchy phrases Hamad uses to pinpoint those stereotypes — Lewd Jezebels, Bad Arabs, Angry Sapphires, and so on — disturbingly reductive themselves. And excellent as her diagnosis is, I can’t help thinking that she falls somewhat short when it comes to prescribing a cure.

My misgivings may lie in what we’ve come to call identity politics, and its tendency to sidestep the thorny issue of class. Though not dismissing class altogether, Hamad’s passion makes her downplay it, so all through the book I found myself caught up in a messy sort of dialogue, with her assertions on one side and a chain of “yes, buts” from me. Once again, this is unsurprising, given my own history. An old-time second-wave feminist, again and again I was wanting to point out that social movements, even at their peaks, are never monolithic. There were women in the 1970s who vociferously resisted feminism, who organised in groups such as Women Who Want to Be Women and lobbied at every turn against feminist proposals for reform. And we feminists were divided, often bitterly, among ourselves.

Broadly speaking, there were radical feminists, who were separatists, excising men as much as possible from their lives; socialist feminists focusing on the interface of patriarchy and capitalism; and liberal feminists, who saw little further than equal opportunity. There was inevitable overlap, but there are no prizes for guessing which feminism was tolerated when neoliberalism triumphed. I spent the better part of the next four decades wincing at the adjective “post-feminist,” as if the whole feminist project were done and dusted, and I was consistently dismayed when its vision narrowed to simply advancing up the ranks of a ruthlessly ideological, unregulated capitalism.

Even in the seventies we had seen that real power resides in the combined strength of all the groups disadvantaged by the system, if only that power could be activated. I guess this is what’s meant by intersectionality, but Hamad is troubled by that term, so long as white women are in denial. Yet the tactic of divide and rule has a long tradition, setting one group against another to deflect attention from those on top running the whole show. Its end point is tribalism, with its awful potential for tearing the world apart, such as we’re witnessing today. Neoliberalism champions competition, “giving a go for those who have a go,” but all the evidence suggests that humanity’s success as a species has depended above all on our capacity to cooperate in the face of our challenges.

At the end of her book a defiant Hamad rejoices that women of colour are finally joining together to deal with their persistent disadvantage. But when she speaks of their double oppression, I say it comes in triplicate — gender, race and class. It’s not just a question of lower glass ceilings or larger pay gaps or silenced complaints. We only have to look at the women cleaning our offices, schools and hospitals; caring for children, the elderly and the ill; or serving in restaurants and cafes to know that. Some are white, more are brown or black, but what they all are is poor. And until the new feminism embraces this reality, things are very likely to get worse.

But don’t mistake my rant for disparagement. White Tears/Brown Scars is a gripping book with a powerful, timely message. Ruby Hamad throws down the gauntlet, goading her readers into some fairly hard thinking, and I, for one, thank her for it. •