Black Educators Share Their Thoughts on What Happens When White Women Cry in Schools

In a recent article, Zachary Wright, a high school teacher, wrote, “As a White male teacher, whose goals are to not only teach, but also learn from my students, I need to be aware of, and need to name, the privilege that inevitably blinds me from truly understanding what it means to be Black in America.”

Thank you, Mr. Wright.

Fortunately, there is more and more conversation about social justice in education, and there is certainly emerging discussions about White privilege. Both are significant advances in the work schools are doing to serve children and families better.

There is also another trend.

                                                     THE CONTEXT

The language connected to social justice often lives in changing curricula for students and in examining White privilege but then comes to a full stop. To make further progress in the work connected to privilege and to accelerate the gains in social justice, we must also look more closely at the ways in which we actively manage and coach adults and adult interactions in school settings and education organizations.

A great place to start would be the ways in which we manage and engage with middle class White people, more specifically middle class White women working with Black children from lower income backgrounds.

“The White woman’s reality is visible, acknowledged, and legitimized because of her tears, while [the reality for people color] is invisible, overlooked, and pathologized based on the operating ‘standard of humanity.’ ”

Years ago, someone forwarded me a copy of a paper called, When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Color.  In the paper, the author writes about the “one up/one down” identity, meaning one identity is privileged and the other is oppressed.  “White women can be both helpless without the helplessness being a reflection of all White people and powerful by occupying a position of power as any White person.” In addition the author wrote, “the White woman’s reality is visible, acknowledged, and legitimized because of her tears, while [the reality for people color] is invisible, overlooked, and pathologized based on the operating ‘standard of humanity.’ ”

I remember feeling such relief when I saw this paper because I had been uncertain of how to navigate times when White women cried in schools. Back then, I didn’t have name for what I was experiencing though I knew that perceptions of race had something to do with it. Many of my supervisors had been White and male, and often, once a White woman cried, it seemed as if my managers pushed me to shift the focus from the needs of students and families (or even from staff of color) to the needs of the White woman.

And often I found myself compromising on what seemed best for children and families as a result of these conversations.

Years later, even as we attempt to increase the presence of Black men in education, this same dynamic exists, possibly more often that we would like to think. And why is this topic even important?

The majority of Black and Brown children from lower income environments have White female teachers. If we manage and coach White females and staff in ways that are more aligned with the perspectives of students, we will likely get to student outcomes faster.

It seems rare that we openly discuss how White tears impact leadership practices. As such, leaders can be ill equipped to respond in equitable ways to situations involving a White woman’s tears.

Examining this topic is an opportunity for schools, particularly those with a high percentage of middle class White female staff members serving Black students from lower income backgrounds, to bridge the gap between theory(examining White privilege) and practice (accelerating advancements in social justice with Black children).

To be clear, the issue isn’t that a White woman is crying. The average person has working tear ducts. Crying is not the problem. The problem is how education systems, schools, school leaders, and the managers of school leaders react to White tears and reinforce oppressive beliefs and behaviors, which then undermine the focus on serving children.

In the article Tears and Fears: White Woman and Social Justice, the author wrote, “While participating in a race intensive training, I started crying. A woman of color was providing me with feedback on my racist behavior. …As my tears fell, an African-American man came to my rescue. He is a dear friend and trusted colleague. However, my tears left him in a tough spot, forcing him to make a decision as to whom he should support, me or the woman of color? It was a no win situation for him. He chose me and had to deal with the fallout. But what consequences did I experience? None. Where was my fallout? The people of color were left to sort it out as I watched uncomfortably on the sidelines not sure of what to do”

                                             THE CHALLENGE

What if the racist behaviors being addressed were behaviours that impacted children?  The sudden shift to consoling the White female potentially derails the more important focus, which is how the racist behavior is an obstacle to social justice.

The impact on children is that because [White women’s] tears are valued much more than Black children, what’s better for White women takes precedence over the needs of Black children. So, things that need to be done for Black children won’t happen because of the White woman’s concerns. Children are pushed aside.

What happens when White women cry in schools?   Several Black educators shared their responses:

From a Black female high school Math Teacher: I know of White people who looked at other White teachers crying as being weaker. I was thinking, “Hmmm. That’s interesting.” I feel like the minute they cry, of course everyone may want to have sympathy, but I think White women feel entitled to that sympathy. I don’t think it registers or that they are conscious of it. I think they feel like “I am coming here. I am giving up my time. I could be so many places. I am here to support these children, and this is not the response I anticipated.”

White women are more supported empathetically and not looked at as weak. But looked at as, “How can we support here?”

Impact on children:  I feel like some children take advantage of it.  If Black students see a White staff member cry, they think she is weak. They don’t think, “Let’s support.” They think, “Let’s utilize this as an opportunity to run the classroom and dominate the situation,” and they end up learning less academically as a result.

From a Black male Education Entrepreneur/Community Organizer: When White women cry there is a villain somewhere in the White imagination. History has viewed White women as prize possessions to be protected and so their tears have represented danger, terror, and death for Black people.  Men going to war with armor is the same as White women waging war through tears.

Impact on children: When White women are overwhelmed, entitled or offended, tears create the egg shells we walk on to avoid being the target. The school becomes more about accommodating them than about educating children.

From a Black female Education Director working in a school-based non-profit: People take pity on them. They are seen as fragile. Woe is the White woman. What can we do to make life better? Black women are received differently. I don’t think people look to rectify the situation if it is a Black woman that is crying. I think that White women’s tears are seen as more valuable. Think about movies that teach us about White fragility. The White woman is seen as a damsel in distress. They are told that they are important and that people need to tend to them all the time.

The impact on children is that because their tears are valued much more than Black children, what’s better for White women takes precedence over the needs of Black children. So, things that need to be done for Black children won’t happen because of the White woman’s concerns. Children are pushed aside.

From a Black male Speech and Language Pathologist University Professor: Can you imagine a grown Black man crying? When White women cry, people listen and look internally asking, “What did I do to cause this, and what can I do to make this ok? What did I do to contribute to this?  How can I figure out how to help?” When a White woman cries, people rarely think, “She is not cut out for this role.” They don’t want to be the person who made her cry. They ask themselves, “Can I provide her with additional support?” Those who resist doing this are disciplined or get pushed from their manager to look at the situation again.  We are taught at a very young age to run to her aid, and she expects it.

Impact on children: It becomes more about coming to her aid than about serving students.

From a Black male Instructional Leader and Director of Operations: White women are already viewed as saviors doing this great justice for people of color. So when they cry, you feel sorry for them when they hurt because you want them to be happy. You are trying to protect your savior. “How can I protect you?  How can I fix this?” For Black women, when they cry, if they are crying when they are frustrated or overwhelmed, it’s like they are lazy and are pushed to think about what they could have done differently to not be in that situation. The question for Black women is often, “What are you going to do to fix this? You’re tough.” When a White women cries, we feel like we can’t lose her because she is amazing. And people cater to people that are like them.

Impact on children: It allows White women to continue the savior complex and to not be pushed to see their racist and biased ways. If we use their tears as a crutch for racism or elitism, we aren’t going to see change with children because we aren’t forcing adults to change and recognize their flaws, flaws that are getting in the way of the best service to children.

“The negative associations thrust upon black people and black culture can color how we black people view each other. Blacks and whites receive the same narratives and images that perpetuate stereotypes of black criminality and flippancy while synonymizing white culture with American values.”

Compounding this phenomenon is the reality that this deference toward White woman can also happen when Black people feel internal and external pressure to side with the White person even when they don’t agree with her.

If you’re a Black person managing another Black person, consider this: In the article Black on Black Racism, the author wrote:

Too often, racism is seen as a social phenomenon that happens to black people. But it happens through black people as well. That is, the negative associations thrust upon black people and black culture can color how we black people view each other. Blacks and whites receive the same narratives and images that perpetuate stereotypes of black criminality and flippancy while synonymizing white culture with American values. It is to be expected that there will be an observable impact on black intragroup perceptions.

As a Black manager, you could be internalizing negative messages about other Black people and elevating the concern of the White woman above the Black staff person, even when you think the Black person is right.

In the article The Authentic Self: How Do You Know If You’re ‘Really’ Racist or Sexist?, the author writes:

In a 2007 study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, doctors with high implicit bias against blacks were less likely to recommend clot-busting drugs to treat heart disease in hypothetical scenarios with black patients. Meanwhile, real-world research finds that doctors are twice as likely to recommend these potentially life-saving drugs to white patients than black patients, so it’s possible that bias could partly account for the difference.

Presumably, the same could happen in education. Educators may very well may be less likely to see or to seek resolution for Black staff and children when they have a concern when that concern isn’t pleasing to a White staff member and may be more likely to work at “fixing things” for Whites when they have an issue. We need to reverse this.

SOME SOLUTIONS

Imagine this scenario: During a weekly team meeting, a Black male (Devin) reports what he is learning from student and parent interviews. His white female colleague, Nancy, disagrees with his interpretation and does so disrespectfully.

There are 3 Black men on the leadership team whose faces tighten at her response. The focus on student and parent feedback is derailed.  Later, Devin speaks to his Black male supervisor, Michael, about the exchange because he is fearful that if he speaks directly to Nancy, she will not respond well. Michael share’s Devin’s sentiments with Nancy.

Later that day, Nancy speaks to Devin about her conversation with Michael. She tells Devin that he should have come to her. During the conversation Nancy starts to cry. Devin feels uncomfortable. No one else is there to observe the interaction. Nancy reports Devin to human resources and to the principal’s manager noting that she felt intimidated and uncomfortable. After weeks of interrogation, Devin learns that he was close to losing his job because of Nancy’s complaint to human resources.

Let’s consider the ways in which this situation could have gone differently considering approaches in interpersonal relationships, team management, self-reflection, and systems management.

  • Interpersonal Relationships:What if Devin had addressed Nancy in the meeting and shared with her how her statement impacted him as a team member and as a Black man?  How might this conversation help the team to consider the perspective of Black males (students, staff, and parents) in their school differently?
  • Team Management: What if Michael held a meeting with both Nancy and Michael to discuss the tension and note how privilege can disrupt important conversations about students and families?
  • Team Management: What if Michael had addressed Nancy in the meeting to model the ways in which he, as a school leader, expected staff to engage?
  • Self-Reflection: What if Nancy asked herself if her tears were connected to the needs of students and parents or to her own needs?
  • Self-Reflection: What if Nancy decided to not share her comment unless she could do so in a respectful, productive way?
  • Systems Management:What if the human resources team and the principal’s manager saw this as an opportunity to coach school staff on how to talk about and proactively respond to privilege when it manifests in the workplace and distracts from focusing on students?
  • Systems Management: What if the school used this situation, and others like it, as a case study to support staff to engage in ongoing reflection about how privilege is to be a tool to focus more on students and families rather than to distract from it?

So, what can education organizations, school systems, schools, school leaders, and school leader managers do to ensure that we are not allowing White women’s tears to slow the advancement of equity with Black children?

Self-Reflection: If you are a leader that has allowed White tears to dictate the focus in school conversations, prepare to be uncomfortable.  Change can be hard.But it is possible if the leaders and the leaders of leaders are actively engaged in modeling how we should think and talk about the needs of children and their families above the feelings staff may have.

Self-Reflection & Interpersonal Relationships: In the book Cracking the Corporate Code, the author presents different kinds of power. The three kind of power that are the most relevant to consider are a) Associative power which involves relationships with powerful people, b) Assertive power which involved the person acting as if they have the right to power, and c) Positional power which means the person has a role that gives them the right to make certain decisions.

In thinking of how schools respond when White women cry, it is helpful to consider how the “one up/one down” identity reveals itself through these three kinds of power (Associative: My White femaleness gives me greater access to those in power, particularly White men, Assertive: I am accustomed to being listened to above Black children and families, and Positional: My Whiteness is valued and therefore allows me to have a position above others in decision making conversations even when those others are my managers) and the degree to which this power is used to serve the causes of educational equity or to distract from it.

Team Management: In weekly check-ins and reflections, ask colleagues and managers to hold you accountable and managers hold direct reports accountable. Include the weekly discussion items a) As a person of color, am I acting in ways that show I have internalized racism? b) As a manager or colleague am I allowing White tears to distract me from what is best for families and students? c) Am I speaking up when I feel that I have been dismissed due to a White woman’s tears? d) As a White woman, am I working to be more conscious about how my privilege can be harmful or helpful to educational equity?

Systems Management: All educators need a training on the historical implications of how White women have been perceived in this country, why that is so, and the impact this perception has on interactions between staff, parents, and students so that students have broader access to opportunities.

In the article, Lessons I Will Teach My White Daughter, this mom wants “to start a conversation [with her daughter] about how exactly we raise White children to make different choices about how to live with and use their White privilege” and includes several historical considerations of being a White woman in America.

Systems Management: Offer differentiated trainings on privilege. One educator said, “White women need to go to a training about their privilege. Give them tools to combat their perceptions of disrespect. Respect seems to be a big deal. Teachers send students out of the room all the time for disrespect. White teachers need to give respect to get it and understand what respect means for the community the teacher is serving.

Self-Reflection: A teacher shared, “If there was more transparency in the classroom, I don’t think there would be as many tears. ‘I’m White. I know I have certain privileges. I am here to help you to pursue your dreams. I know that my skin color allows me to get away with things that you probably won’t get away with. I know I have biases. And I want to be honest about that.’ Like when a child comes in a classroom with braids, and the White teacher tries to touch the student’s hair, and the student has a problem with that. It’s ok to have a difference, and it’s ok to acknowledge a difference. I think White teachers that operate with transparency are less teary that the ones who aren’t transparent.”

Interpersonal Relationships: Allow the staff member to cry. Reschedule the conversation if need be but keep the focus on what is best for students and families. Ensure that all parties are aware of that unyielding focus.

Many schools and school systems have done the foundational work to examine elements of identity in ways that are truly transformational. If we really want to move in the direction of equity for Black children, education organizations, schools, school districts, and school staff have a responsibility to consider more deeply the ways in which we consistently manage and engage with adults in an effort to pursue exceptional educational experiences for all children of color in urban environments.

Examining our response to White tears is a great place to continue this work so that we minimize being distracted from focusing on what matters most, student and parent needs.

What do you think?

About the author

Kelli Seaton

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1 Comment

  • I try to reroute the energy from tears to positive actions for students. The tears came from sadness and frustration for all the obstacles the students faced. My black, female Principal made me realize that letting them see my sadness and frustration was yet another obstacle for them. There is plenty of time to cry at home.

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