Disclaimer: In this post, I’m going to write first in a general way, as if I actually know something about this topic, or might be able to find out more. And then I’m going to focus on how I think I might be able to de-weaponize my own tears, in conversations and confrontations about systemic racism and my own internalized prejudices. Will it work? I don’t know. But I promise to strive toward this.
We make tears when we cry. Science identifies three kinds of tears: basal tears which continuously clean and lubricate our eyes; reflex tears which help get rid of specks, eyelashes and teargas; and emotional tears (also called “psychic tears”). Emotional tears contain stress hormones, which perhaps indicates a chemical-cleansing function. Emotional tears are a form of non-verbal communication.
People cry for a lot of reasons: sorrow, shame, frustration, helplessness, joy, tenderness. Tears can flow during depression or after trauma. Emotional tears provoke emotions in others: compassion, sadness, frustration, as well as anger and resentment, especially if the other person’s tears are experienced as manipulative. Yes, tears can be manipulative too.
As a counselor, I do believe that expressing emotions can be a healthy thing. However, there are also times when it behooves us to be responsible for our own nervous system responses–including tears if we shed them–to let people know that they are not responsible for our comfort, that we do not ask them to do emotional labor in response to our responses, and that we are willing, with good will, to continue conversations through our own discomfort and self-regulation.
And one of those major times is now. It’s time for white people to de-weaponize their tears and other sympathetic nervous system responses so we can ALL get on with the task of dismantling systemic racism that has been killing people for centuries.
Why Are White Tears Harmful?
In her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018), sociologist Robin DiAngelo dissects the mechanisms that white Americans use, consciously or unconsciously, to (1) buffer themselves from deep engagement with necessary conversations about systemic racism, personal prejudice, and necessary reforms, (2) redirect the focus back to white equilibrium aka white power, and (3) put the other person in the wrong, most often BIPOC. These mechanisms includes crying. And this is f’d up. How f’d up? I’m not going to whitesplain.
Tears Weaponized for Our Genocide Poem by Kbeau2ful, May 28, 2020, YouTube.
About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women Tears by Awesomely Luvvie, April 17, 2018, at her website.
So. Let’s say you’re a white person who realizes it’s time (and if you don’t know this by now, please step up your game). There are conversations that are overdue. Perhaps there are important conversations in your past that were cut short by your tears. Maybe you feel badly about that. Maybe you don’t. But no one is giving you (or me) a pass anymore.
I can imagine crying during the course of a difficult conversation (about almost anything, really). Shame in particular is a very painful emotion and most people will do anything to avoid it. And tears can be part of processing that. Where tears become weaponized is when they are used to manipulate and avoid, when they are used to undermine or dismiss the substantial time and emotions that the other person or people in the conversation have invested in talking with you! If you use your tears to just walk away from the conversation, or shutdown, or center the attention on yourself and your needs, that’s textbook weaponizing right there.
• Historical Context: Self educate. Learn how the mechanisms of racism create life and death situations designed to pound away at Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color. Understand that the tears we white folks might shed at being confronted by our shortcomings and faults are AS NOTHING to the rivers of tears shed by people, families, and communities destroyed and killed over the centuries, right up to present day.
• Communication Context: I know I can be a bore about the communication tool known as the Johari Window, but honestly, I feel a lot of privilege and racism lives right there in that window pane (upper right hand) of “known to others, not known to self.” That’s where the “Clueless Family” lives (you know: Karen, Brad, and Becky…). And when some of that stuff gets shown to us, yeah, it can be painful to understand that yes, we really are those people. Now, it might not be our “fault” that the stuff is there (unless we are people who actively cultivate hate in our lives) as we white Americans have been swimming in racism and privilege for hundreds of years, but once revealed, we have a chance to work on these things, to examine them, disgard them, and vow to do better.
But that’s painful. And you might cry. Other people might be around when you do. Here’s what you can do to protect them from your emotions.
• Calming Skills: Prepare yourself in advance for the thought that you might have a myriad of feelings when dealing with issues of racism or a situation which has become racialized or when someone is calling you out, particularly if there is something you might have done that hurts another. Decide what you can do to acknowledge those feelings for yourself but refrain from giving way to your “flight, fight or freeze” sympathetic nervous system reactions. We can often choose receptivity over reactivity, but it might take some work. So practice some calming skills in advance, such as slow deep breathing.
• Think of Others: Remember that other people are also likely to be triggered by your emotions, so calm yourself for their sake as well. Remember, they’re likely not loving this. And if someone else cries, be compassionate and ask if there is anything you can do for them.
• Take Responsibility: If you have the opportunity, say something at the beginning like, “Please ignore me if I cry during this conversation. I do not expect you to take care of me and my emotions, and I intend to do my own work to calm my nervous system and work through emotions so I may give you my best attention and so we may have a constructive conversation.”
• Time Outs: In advance, establish a protocol for a brief “time out” if anyone involved in the conversation needs time to calm. Make sure you commit to a return to the conversation as soon as possible, preferably within thirty minutes. Do not let the “time out” become weaponized as a technique for avoidance.
• Emotional Repair: If needed, take the initiative in asking if it is possible to do emotional repair. Be prepared to hear no, and lump it. If you are allowed an opportunity, listen more than you talk, and again let the other person know that you are taking responsibility for your own nervous system reactions (and then do so).
If anyone has additional ideas on this topic, I hope you will add them to the comments section. Thank you so much for reading.
Doheny, Kathleen. Why We Cry: The Truth About Tearing Up. n.d. WebMD.
Geggel, Laura. Why Do People Cry? May 16, 2016. Live Science.
Waldman, Katy. A Sociologist Examines the “White Fragility” That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism. July 23, 2018. The New Yorker.