Strategic white tears: An interview with Ruby Hamad
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;
Story

Strategic white tears: An interview with Ruby Hamad

Issues/Discrimination , Stories/602
28th Oct 2019
Strategic white tears: An interview with Ruby Hamad
An exploration of how certain performances of femininity are prioritised over others, and how this impacts upon women of colour.

The first time I came across Ruby Hamad's work was through reading a 2017 article of hers in the Sydney Morning Herald. In it, she talked about the double standards applied to Muslims and how media narratives are framed in such a way that Western lives are valued whilst Muslim or Middle Eastern ones are not. She is one of the few Arab voices in the Australian media writing and talking in a manner that challenges dominant media narratives. Her voice is definitely not mainstream and in many ways, that's what makes it so insightful for many of us but also threatening to others. Her recent book White Tears, Brown Scars fits that expectation and I had the chance to chat with her about it.

I'm really enjoying your book. I know that you wrote a piece in The Guardian which deals with similar ideas. In the book, you talk about some of the backlashes you experienced and at one point you even say that you emailed the editors at the Guardian in the middle of the night to take down the article. Tell me a bit more about that.

In terms of the backlash, it was terrifying. It came so suddenly and it was not limited to the Australian context. It also came from overseas which included big names in the conservative, alt-right intellectual dark web. I was just like this is it for me, my name was completely marred. They completely misrepresented what it is that my article is actually saying. I had this moment of panic. I just thought if I can make it all go away but of course, if we had taken it down, and I discuss in the book, they're not going to forget it. I just thought I know what this piece is, I know what I am and what I am doing and I stand by it. I am not apologising for it, and in any case, The Guardian would not have taken it down. And then the outpouring of support started to happen and that completely turned the tide for me.

It's not the first time you write things that are contentious, why do you think this piece gained so much attention?

There are a few factors. One being was that it was in the international edition of The Guardian, so it reached a lot of people it would not have reached in an Australian masthead. The topic was also kind of known or was known in communities of colour and among women of colour. But this was possibly one of the first times it was written in the mainstream, and not just the mainstream, but also in a white highly regarded liberal news organisation. Also, the outrage response had come from an interpretation that I was attacking all white women simply for being white. It was not interpreted as an analysis of power relations and how structural power can manifest in interactions which is what it actually is. It was taken as - well you're just picking on them because they're white. It is emblematic of that overly simplistic and reductive way in which we talk about race. So, I think these were the factors. It also made a lot of women of colour be seen because I did expand it to encompass all women of colour. We all experience this in varying degrees. 

The Guardian article was published in May 2018 and it seems like within a year you had this book published. Were the ideas for the book around before you published The Guardian article?

Not quite a year, but it was pretty quick and I am still working on the US edition. I had so many women say you got to turn this into a book so it was a seize the moment situation. I did get interest from publishers based on a quick proposal I drew up and I was kind of nervous. I was like how do I do this, I've got just under a year to actually write it and research it. Initially, I thought this can't be done but I thought well I've been writing about this almost for the last ten years and I just had to bring all that into one argument. Once I started it kind of stream rolled. 

One of the arguments you make in the book is that historically women of colour, or if we can use the term in your book, 'brown women' we're not considered women at all. They were used sexually or for work with no sense of agency. Is that sense of absence of agency something that you experience or experienced as a WOC, as a journalist, in your professional or personal life?

Yeah definitely. I say early in the book that the term 'women of colour' is not ideal. There is a danger of collapsing a lot of different experiences and different oppressions into one and I don't mean to say that all women of colour are brown. I feel that I fall into the spectrum of brown in that I am not white and I am not black. It's part of our inadequacy of vocabulary around this issue. But to get back to your question yeah absolutely. I start off the book by talking that women of colour no matter their racial background to various degrees were hyper-sexualised and objectified early on in the colonisation process. Once colonisation was entrenched and there was increased resistance from the colonised that's when the archetype sprang up like the 'angry black woman', 'the aggressive Arab', the 'dragon lady'. It was a way to neutralise their resistance. I definitely fall into that angry, aggressive Arab category. When I talk about how Arab women, in general, are kind of positioned, I used the phrase 'we're either pets or threats'. For a while, unbeknownst to me, I was more in that pet category in the media, and I when I started to feel like I was not being heard or disagreeing  a lot more with people I used to agree with then I felt myself become more excluded to the point that I was more a threat. An intellectual threat, I'm not talking about physical threat here.

Strategic White tears, what does that mean? How would you describe it?

It'?s exactly that. It?s a performance of victimhood. It's about reframing resistance, challenge and disagreement as an attack. So that whatever the other person, the woman of colour, is saying or whatever challenge she has, or even anger she had, she is immediately discredited because the white woman is playing the victim. Now I am not saying this only ever happens between white women and women of colour. It can absolutely happen between women of colour but I am looking at why is it that certain performances of femininity or womanhood are prioritised over others and that is really the seed. 

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