White women are the embodiment of the ‘Damsel in Distress’ archetype, affording them one rather uncanny superpower: the power to garner sympathy. White women use their tears to advance themselves at the expense of people of color, a concept recently coined “white woman tears.”
“White woman tears” does not refer to all tears shed by white women; everyone has legitimate reasons to cry. It refers specifically to “crying and other expressions of distress by white women as a means of weaponizing the privilege inherent in whiteness and exerting the full power of white womanhood as a class historically designated as delicate, racially superior beings in need of protection,” according to Alexandria Bennett in “White Woman Tears: These Tears Taste Like Oppression.”
As early as playground days, I can remember white girls using their tears as a weapon against me and other people of color. Casual conversations would quickly escalate into waterworks, painting me as the aggressor.
A friend had a white roommate who refused to clean up after herself. After she left a banana to rot in the fridge for six months, my friend finally worked up the nerve to gently tell her to take responsibility for repeatedly leaving a mess. The roommate erupted into tears, saying she didn’t like her tone.
While “white woman tears” are typically shed over petty, day-to-day interactions, they can also have severe repercussions for black and brown people.
The strength of “white woman tears” proved itself in the chilling case of Dallas Police officer, Amber Guyger. Botham Jean, a black accountant, sat on his couch, watching TV and eating ice cream when Guyger, entered his home, fired her service weapon and killed him. Guyger repeated 19 times to 911 operators that she believed he was an intruder in her home, as she lived just one floor below him.
Earlier this week, CBS News tweeted a minute and a half long video of Guyger at her trial, breaking down in tears. “I wish he was the one that took the gun and killed me. I never wanted to take an innocent person’s life … this is not about hate; it’s about being scared that night.”
After watching the video, I was sure she would get a slap on the wrist, just as the uniform-disguised murderers of Michael Brown, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and countless others had been given before her.
“She’s getting off … Seen this movie before,” one Twitter user responded.
From her initial plea of not guilty to her crocodile tears, Guyger’s defense is primarily based on establishing herself as the victim. She and her legal team used a variety of defense tactics like smearing Jean’s character, even bringing minorities on the stand to somehow prove Guyger isn’t racist (though the release of recent text messages shows otherwise).
Her tears and her entire defense shift the focus away from the magnitude of her crime. Suddenly, because of her tears, we should ignore the obvious lapses in judgment she made that night? We should feel sorry that Botham Jean, a man in his own home, frightened her? Suddenly, we should sympathize with a murderer and not the victim.
Even immediately after shooting Jean, Guyger seemed more concerned with the potential repercussions of her actions, and not about the state of Botham Jean. “I’m going to lose my job,” she told the dispatcher, something that should have been far lower on her list of priorities.
Instead of caring for a dying man, she took the time to send texts saying, “I’m fucked” to her partner.
Guyger was given a sentence of 10 years and will be eligible for parole after five years. In addition to lenient sentencing, Guyger received forgiveness from Jean’s family, and even a hug and a Bible from the judge. She will likely be a free woman by the age of 36, while Botham Jean didn’t live to see his 27th birthday.
I can understand that what Guyger did was “a true mistake,” as suggested by her attorney, and maybe even a very small part of me feels sorry for her. But I cannot accept her blatant lack of accountability. Sure she feels guilty about her actions, but there is a big difference between guilt and remorse.
If the roles were reversed like she willed in her testimony, Botham Jean certainly would not have been afforded the same privileges, as we’ve seen in our country’s extensive history of racist judicial practices. He would have received a sentence far longer than 10 years. He would not have received a hug from the judge. And he certainly would not be given a platform to cry about the guilt of taking an innocent person’s life.
The case of Amber Guyger has left me and many other people of color feeling destabilized. It demonstrates the continued devaluation of black lives in our society.
“I feel like the anger people have towards Amber Guyger comes from feeling like she received the level of empathy everyone should receive in a court,” said The Daily Show host, Trevor Noah. “Everyone should be treated with compassion. They should still be punished if they’ve committed a crime, but we should still look at them as human beings. And yet, this narrative doesn’t seem to be afforded to black people in America.”
The very same criminal justice system that readily punishes black people to the fullest of its law fell for the oldest trick in the book: white woman tears. Amber Guyger was shown empathy that people of color seldom see in the courtroom. She is given a path of freedom and redemption denied to those born black.
Amelia Zohore is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. And What About It? runs every other Tuesday this semester.