White Women’s Empathy, and the Brown Lives They Decenter.

Feelings are funny old things aren’t they. They rarely listen to us, are susceptible to all kinds of factors, and especially for women, wind up defining us. Most women, in general, are likely at one point or another experience their emotions being cast as a weakness of character. But like most issues, when you dig deeper than gender, you’ll find there’s another experience entirely that relates to how emotions are used and responded to by white women, in comparison to women of colour.

Most commonly, WOC frustrations peak when we attempt to engage in a discussion about white oppression, or confronting white women about oppressive behavior, and their white tears derail the conversation completely.

More recently this week we have seen another instance where white tears have become a distraction, but in this instance (and it’s one I’ve come across often) – it’s the closely related case of white women’s empathy tears for brown oppression. It’s arguably more frustrating because it hinges on entitlement to feelings whilst still de-centering the most important conversation.


Here we have the very eloquent and impassioned Julia Whaipooti speaking to the rampant racism in the New Zealand justice system, pointing out that Maori with a clean slate are twice as likely to be pulled over and investigated than pakeha, are eight times more likely to use a taser upon Maori than pakeha, and are SEVEN times more likely to be charged than a pakeha who is in exactly the same circumstances. This of course sets Maori on a treadmill that ultimately sees us composing over 50% of the male prison population, over 60% of the women’s prison population, and 70% of the youth prison population. It tears families apart. It throws children into the state abuse system, which in turn leads to a far higher chance of being institutionalized, and having their own children removed too. We are talking about destroyed lives here. We are also talking about clear racism in a sector that is armed with weapons of deadly force, and then placed in Maori communities. We are talking about lives at risk.

What Julia is quite rightly pointing out is that this is not new information, and that Maori are NOT safe. She presents, with scorching eloquence, the truth of the matter that our people DO NOT FEEL SAFE around the police, and her most powerful point is driven home by the fact that there are many Maori women who would rather face violence from their own partner, than the violence of the state.

Powerful truths that we, as Maori, have to live every day, and that Julia Whaipooti laid out with such strength and resolve that it left the room in stunned silence. I wanna say that this was when I first felt really uncomfortable. Julia is a powerful and impassioned speaker, for sure, but the content is hardly surprising – well, it’s hardly surprising for Maori. So that’s where, in this segment, I started to keenly feel my Maoriness, and the media whiteness. Because you can bet your bottom dollar that very few Maori are shocked by those stats.

Hayley Holt, though, was moved to tears by the interview. It was a little confusing as to whether she actually felt entitled to that reaction, as she put it down to hormones rather than a rational emotional response to our oppression, but nonetheless, the media grabbed the moment, and the resulting headlines for this story were overarchingly NOT the obvious injustice of our system. It was not the families being torn apart, or the blatant racism exposed again by JustSpeak.



It was about Hayley’s emotional reaction.

White women’s tears were centered, brown people’s oppression was marginalized.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong, of course, with Hayley having emotions. It’s not her individual FAULT for having an emotional reaction to oppression, but it’s also completely understandable for women of colour to be infuriated with how this played out – and I wish to god more people understood what it means to women of colour when white women cry over brown oppression, because this does not occur in a vacuum, separate from every other instance in our lived history.

What we see, when we see white women’s tears, are all the tears that we are not allowed.

It reminds us of our sisters who have been numbed into tearlessness, watching their men get locked away and their children taken from their arms, but then further punished for showing unacceptable emotion when they face their state oppressors.

In white women’s tears, we see the all powerful call to arms that has rallied their colonial male counterparts to launch to their defence and attack brown women for, usually, just speaking our truth.

We see the unassailable weapon that has been used since time immemorial to silence brown truth and shut down important discussions about injustice against brown people.

We see a tool commonly used in the justice system to get white people acquitted, and brown people convicted.

We see a tactic that is rolled out every day around the world to avoid accountability for ignorant racism.

We see the spotlight stealer, the center of attention, the constant reminder that it takes a white woman caring about us to make our news worthy. The great white marginaliser.

Even the fact that I had to preface this with a note that absolved Hayley of personal blame, is a product of the fact that in this racially biased society, people will rush to defend her, reinforcing the fact that it should be more about about Hayley’s right to feelings, than the media bias that centered them. It’s a testament, in itself, to the distractive power of white women’s tears, that have, across history, flowed so readily, while the support has not.

Let’s hope that the shock and tears that flow as a result of this report, eventuate into more than media bait, and into real and effective support for the dismantling of pakeha systems of oppression over Maori. Call me jaded, (or call it generations of experience) but I doubt somehow doubt it will.

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8 thoughts on “White Women’s Empathy, and the Brown Lives They Decenter.”

  1. This is our reality as maori, living through these treatments today but yes it’s a fight for equality that we will never win.a

  2. Ngā mihi. Ruby Hanad’s book “White Tears, Brown Scars” critically articulates this phenomenon too.

  3. Kia ora Tina, thank you for this article and sharing your thoughts about what happened. It was a powerful reframe for me and I appreciate the time that went into it. – Jemma

  4. I Tautoko Jemma’s post above. That was a confronting read. but I like those kinds of ones! Every time it opens your eyes just that little bit more. No tears tho! Thank you for your perspective. It widens mine 🙂

  5. Thank you Tina -so well said. As a pakeha woman of many years I am well aware of the constant need to be mindful of the bias of the media and whose emotions are ‘allowed’.

  6. Thanks for writing this piece. I had no idea about how a white woman’s tears (or my tears for that matter) could be interpreted like this – and I totally see your point.

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