Maeve Higgins: The big problem with white vigilantism and white male tears

Maeve Higgins: The big problem with white vigilantism and white male tears

There are many ways to cry in front of strangers. Classics include a quiet sob on a bus, brimming eyes in a public bathroom, tears rolling with the credits in a cinema.

These days in the US, we are witness to a new version of crying in public, this time in a legal setting. It’s highly potent. 

I started paying attention to these tears in 2018 when they rolled down the pinched and furious face of Brett Kavanaugh during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to the Supreme Court. 

To me, his tears did not read as a natural reaction but rather a forced and artificial one. I wasn’t the only one. 

Later that week, New Yorker writer Michael Lista wrote that Kavanaugh was “blubbering like a child”; and went on: “His voice broke sharply up a couple semitones while his mouth curled down at the corners. 

“He scrunched up his nose and dug his tongue into his bottom lip, as he was deposed in an embattled bid to save his Supreme Court nomination. 

“If he would get to don his black robe, he’d do it weepily.”

Bria Swenson holds a sign in Oakland, California, following the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse. Picture: Noah Berger/AP

Despite the credible allegations of a high school sexual assault made by Professor Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh got the job. The tears worked.

Last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse shot three men, killing two of them and wounding the third, during a protest against police brutality.

Rittenhouse was charged with multiple offences, including first-degree intentional homicide. During the trial, his defence attorneys argued he shot the men in self-defence. 

On the witness stand, Rittenhouse choked up, stuttered, and began to cry as he made his self-defence case. 

He told the court that he feared that one of the men he killed, Joseph Rosenbaum, was trying to grab Rittenhouse’s gun to use against him.

Rittenhouse cried so much that the judge called a recess to give him time to recover himself emotionally; to me, his weeping jag looked fake and forced. 

On Friday, November 19, he was found not guilty. Once again, the tears worked. 

Immediately after the verdict, New York Democratic Representative Adriano Espailla said on Twitter: “Kyle Rittenhouse is living proof that white tears can still forestall justice. A murderer is once again walking free today — our system is terribly broken.”

Of course, these two very different men faced enormously different accusations, but their melodramatic tears of self-righteous pity somehow mingled together in the public imagination. 

And partially because of tearful appearances in public, both men successfully secured what they wanted, exactly what they felt entitled to. 

Defensiveness and self-pity

I first heard the phrase “Ugh, white tears” a few years back, muttered by a white friend about another writer we both knew who had been complaining that he could not get a comedy writing job because, in his opinion, most of the jobs were reserved for people of colour. 

In that context, the phrase “white tears” is a useful shorthand for the defensiveness and self-pity many white people feel when they perceive even the slightest loss of their enormous territory. 

In the case of that unemployed writer, he didn’t get a job because, although he is slightly talented, he’s a drag to be around. 

Looking at the TV writing industry, dominated by white people, it’s laughable that he thought his race was the obstacle.

In other contexts, white tears can be weaponised and cause real danger and actual harm. 

That is what alarmed me when I saw Brett Kavanaugh crying — and Kyle Rittenhouse too. 

MSNBC news host and commentator Joy Reid put her finger on this phenomenon: “In America, there’s a thing about both white vigilantism and white tears, particularly male white tears.”

She continued on a video clip on TikTok that has been viewed 1.3m times and counting. 

“Really white tears in general, because that’s what Karens are, right? They Karen out and then as soon as they get caught it’s extreme waterworks.”

‘Karen’ is a pejorative word for a racist white woman who uses her white privilege to control other people. 

White men can get away with that, too. And it has the same effect, even as the right tries to politicise the idea that masculinity is being robbed from American men by multicultura

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