Talking about race is hard. It often involves hurt feelings and misunderstandings. And the words and phrases we use can either push those conversations forward or bring them to a standstill. One such term: white tears.
The phrase has been used to gently tease white people who get upset at things they think threaten their white privilege. It's been used to poke fun at white people who think that talking about race makes you a racist. Or that Barack Obama's presidency marked the end of America. Or that it's a crime against humanity when a formerly white character is portrayed, or rumored to be portrayed, by a person of color. (Think Spider-Man. Annie. James Bond. Hermione. The Human Torch. Dorothy.)
Rather than spend time earnestly engaging with people who refuse to believe a fictional character could be someone who isn't white, it's easier (and way more fun) to just roll your eyes, dub their reaction "white tears" and move on.
"Sometimes it feels good just to make fun of racism and of racists," says Damon Young. He's the editor-in-chief of the blog Very Smart Brothas, a columnist at GQ and the author of the upcoming book, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker.
Young says that when white people use their emotions as a weapon against people of color, it's a form of white supremacy. One way to combat white supremacy is with humor. "Obviously there's a place for anger and outrage and protest and resistance and all those things," he explains. "But I think sometimes humor is a necessary tool, too."
Young knows that when he makes jokes about white people who lose it over Serena Williams winning a tennis match, or who think their college acceptance was stolen by undeserving people of color, the response will be — you guessed it — white tears.
Now he's got a strategy: "I just take a big bucket outside and I use them to make Kool-Aid. ... You've never had a better glass of red Kool-Aid than one that's made with white tears."
The first time I heard the phrase, I was a student at Pomona College. My professor was Valorie Thomas, who teaches English and Africana Studies. Thomas says she's been dealing with the topic in her classes for years.
Part of her job, she explains, is to teach students from different backgrounds to have productive conversations about race. And, like Young, she believes one of the most effective tools for doing that is humor:
"Humor is not a throwaway skill. Humor actually helps us to balance our emotions and to endure. There's certainly a kind of mean humor that's dismissive, and that's dehumanizing even."
Exploring questions of tone, or "to learn about the point behind somebody saying something" like white tears, she adds, can enrich the conversation.
White tears can be a pointed but lighthearted way of asking someone to set aside their defensiveness for a moment and take part in the conversation at hand. "It's basically satire," Thomas says. "So if you understand satire, and the use of satire, you get that when people say, 'Oh, could you stop with the white tears?' or 'Do we have to take time out in order to indulge the white tears?', what's really being said is, 'Could you stop the violence right now that is happening in the conversation?' "
In her classes, Thomas sees a familiar scenario: She will introduce a topic related to racism — maybe income inequality, or the disproportionate way that black children are punished in schools. Then students learning about these issues for the first time take it personally. They respond defensively, with a range of emotions: powerlessness, confusion, guilt.
She says it's normal for students to feel those things. The problem comes when those emotions prevent the lesson from moving forward. When a student starts crying, for example, the conversation comes to a screeching halt.
"I'm not denying that people have pain," she says. "What I'm saying is that you can sit with discomfort. And the discomfort of the conversation is not equivalent to the kinds of violence that are going on in the world, [which] we're responsible for as community members and allies and citizens."
Thomas knows that some people will be offended by the phrase white tears — even though it's meant as satire. To that, she says, "I do want the people who are offended ... to pause for a moment and breathe with it, and see if it's really damaging them and hurting them."
Then, she hopes, those people may begin to hear the term as a critique: "I mean, it can be a stinging critique, but it's an invitation to see other people's humanity."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When we talk about race, there can be hurt feelings, misunderstandings. And the words we use can either push those conversations forward or bring them to a standstill. NPR's Word Watch series dissects some of those controversial words and phrases. And today we talk about the term white tears. Leah Donnella of our Code Switch team explains.
LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: White tears, it's a phrase that's used to gently tease white people who get upset at things they think threaten their white privilege. It's been used to poke fun at white people who think Barack Obama marked the end of America, who freaked out when the biracial actress Meghan Markle became a British royal, who can't stand it when a formerly white character is portrayed by a person of color.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNIE (2014)")
BOBBY CANNAVALE: (As Guy Danlily) She's a foster kid from Harlem.
DONNELLA: Like in the musical "Annie" - here's the 1982 version.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNIE (1982)")
AILEEN QUINN: (As Annie, singing) It's the hard-knock life for us.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) It's the hard-knock life for us.
DONNELLA: And here's the 2014 version.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNIE (2014)")
QUVENZHANE WALLIS: (As Annie, singing) 'Stead of treated...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) We get tricked.
WALLIS: (As Annie, singing) 'Stead of kisses...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) We get kicked.
DONNELLA: They sound really similar. Right? Difference is 2014 Annie was black, which made certain people cry a river of white tears. The Internet is full of it - Twitter, Facebook, even YouTube. The first time I heard the phrase, I was a student at Pomona College. My professor was a woman named Valorie Thomas. She teaches English and Africana studies. And she says that white tears are a familiar topic in her classrooms.
VALORIE THOMAS: It's something that I kind of expect to come up in a way because of resistance to digging deeper and being uncomfortable.
DONNELLA: Conversations in her class can get heavy. In my day, we talked about things like police brutality, mental illness, institutional racism. And professor Thomas explained that white people who aren't used to having those discussions often feel a bunch of emotions - guilt, defensiveness, confusion, helplessness. And that sometimes leads to, you know, tears.
THOMAS: But when the discomfort comes around, then suddenly everything has to come to a screeching halt in order to care for that person.
DONNELLA: In other words, classroom conversations often can't move forward when someone is crying. Instead, the class winds up focusing on making that individual feel better rather than talking about the structural problems that come up in class.
THOMAS: And I'm not denying that people have pain. What I'm saying is that, you know, you can sit with discomfort.
DONNELLA: Professor Thomas says it's OK for people to struggle with talking about race, but it's not OK when their emotions derail conversations about important issues. So she tries to give students a bunch of tools to help them grow. One of those tools is humor.
THOMAS: I think humor is not a throwaway skill. I think humor actually helps us to balance our emotions and to endure.
DONNELLA: That goes for white people and people of color.
DAMON YOUNG: Sometimes it feels good just to make fun of racism and of racists.
DONNELLA: That's Damon Young. He's the editor-in-chief of the blog Very Smart Brothers and author of the upcoming book "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker." He says that as someone who writes about race, he has to deal with white tears all the time. But he has a strategy now.
YOUNG: I just take a big bucket outside, use them. And I use them to make Kool-Aid. You've never had a better glass of red Kool-Aid than one that's made with white tears.
DONNELLA: Young says the term white tears is more than just a dig at white fragility. It's a way for people of color to cope with the racism we have to deal with all the time.
YOUNG: When you're talking about ways to combat white supremacy, you know, obviously there's a place for anger and outrage and protest and resistance and all those things. But I think sometimes humor is a necessary tool, too.
DONNELLA: Professor Thomas says there are people who don't like the term white tears, even knowing its meaning, knowing that it's satire. To that, she says...
THOMAS: I do want the person or people who are offended to pause for a moment and breathe with it and see if it's really damaging them and hurting them.
DONNELLA: Or maybe, she says, there's a way in which to receive that as a critique. She says it can be a stinging critique. But more importantly, it's an invitation to see other people's humanity.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNIE (2014)")
WALLIS: (As Annie, singing) The sun'll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow...
DONNELLA: Leah Donnella, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.