My Black Tears
When black women cry their tears are villainized as if they are in some sort of
rage—stereotypical angry black woman. When white women cry their tears are
victimized as if they are in some sort of trouble—stereotypical damsel in distress. The
exact same emotional response of tears somehow manages to have a completely
This dawned on me while I was still employed as a senior attorney with the U.S.
Department of Justice in September 2019. I had to attend a mandatory three-day
training out of state that I tried to get out of since I was still grappling with the anxiety of
attending a contentious divorce hearing the day prior. Like most black women, I pushed
through, smiled and exchanged pleasantries while trying to hold it together. After the
last day of training as we all were wrapping up, I overheard my supervisor coordinating
a carpool to the airport without including me. For whatever reason, feeling excluded
started a stream of uncontrollable tears. I tried to compose myself, but it was one of
those cries that had to come out. As I attempted to discreetly hold back the tears and
sniff quietly, a different supervisor asked me what was wrong. I let him know, entered
my Lyft and made it back home safely.
A week later, after returning back to business as usual, I unexpectedly received a
performance log entry for being “visibly upset” at the training facility. To say that I was
shocked is an understatement.
VISIBLY UPSET: Its meaning varies depending solely on skin color.
In reality, whether this occurs in the courtroom as a defendant, as seen in the Amber
Guyger sentencing hearing, on the tennis court as seen with Serena Williams, or like
me at work as a senior DOJ attorney, the responses to a black woman’s tears are so
vastly different than that of a white woman.
In October 2019, after being convicted and sentenced for the murder of Botham Jean,
Guyger’s white tears led to the black judge coming down off of the bench to embracing
Guyger and gifting her with a bible. Clearly her white tears equated to being viewed as
“visibly upset” in a much different way than my black tears, or any defendant’s black
tears in the criminal justice system.
In stark contrast, Serena Williams was penalized for showing emotion in the 2018 U.S.
Open; however, the same emotions by Aryna Sabalenka in the 2021 Australian Open
garnered sympathy and support characterized empathetically by commentators as
being “stressful” competing against Williams. In February 2021, after losing to Naomi
Osaka, Williams’ tears were reported as being related to a possible retirement
announcement, as opposed to just simply an emotional response to losing to Osako, the same person that she lost to at the 2018 U.S. Open. Interestingly enough,
Eurosport described her as being “visibly upset.”
The duality of the definition of being “visibly upset” is rooted in micro-aggressions based
on implicit biases, systemic racism, and institutionalized racism. Black women have
emotions and should not be expected to hold it all in. Unfortunately, often time we feel
as if we have to hide our emotions and remain unbreakably strong, out of the fear of
being retaliated against, viewed as angry, or worse—death.