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  • Stop Your SobbingWhite Fragility, Slippery Empathy, and Historical Consciousness in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's Appropriate
  • Scott Proudfit (bio)

When Brett Kavanaugh had an emotional breakdown during his 2018 Supreme Court hearings, the televised event became a prominent example of that rare contemporary social phenomenon "white men's tears." This particular type of public grief closes down any discussion of inequality and privilege and brings to a halt any social movement to address these issues, as resources that should be channeled to those being oppressed are instead redirected to those complicit, or even active, in the oppression. The suffering of the powerful supplants the suffering of the disempowered. This specific emotional indulgence is reflected in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's 2014 play Appropriate, which culminates in the teary breakdown of the newly appointed patriarch of an Arkansas family struggling to come to terms with its inherited legacy of racial violence. Moreover, "white men's tears" appear in other recent commercial theatre productions written by playwrights of color (e.g., Young Jean Lee and Larissa FastHorse)1 and featuring exclusively white characters, in what might be a mini-trend on Broadway and Off Broadway prior to and immediately following the election of Donald Trump. These scenes of emotional manipulation specifically employed by white men suggest that the rise of our national leader has inspired some theatremakers to try to come to terms with "whiteness" and how, though it remains largely invisible, the white identity continues to define culture and politics in the United States.

"White men's tears" is a subset of what writers on contemporary race relations term "white tears," a common reaction by white people when experiencing [End Page 50] racial tension. Moreover, the phenomenon of "white tears" is only one expression of the larger social phenomenon of "white fragility" in modern US culture. In her 2018 book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo defines "white tears" as "all the ways, both literally and metaphorically, that white fragility manifests itself through white people's laments over how hard racism is on us."2 While these tears may seem to stem from pity, they are instead a form of self-pity. Race theorists such as DiAngelo have described "white tears" as the latest iteration in a long tradition of white women's displays of grief over racial injustice, recognizable in the United States since at least pre–Civil War Abolitionism. Historically, white women—especially socially progressive white women—when faced with racial conflict or racial violence, have presented themselves as suffering along with, or in place of, the victims of racism, drawing attention away from those actually suffering under this institutionalized system. Cultural historian Saidiya Hartman has described this problematic reaction to others' pain as the "slipperiness of empathy."3

Less common than the tears of white women, "white men's tears" are a particularly perverse example of white fragility in that they are shed by those most privileged within, and most benefiting from, the system of inequalities that supposedly prompts their emotions. For example, Kavanaugh's tears in his confirmation hearings put his own suffering center stage, displacing the grief of his accuser and of female survivors of sexual violence in general. The Kavanaugh hearings were, of course, more indicative of institutionalized gender bias and hatred than racial bias and hatred. However, they centered around a public display of self-pitying white male grief that offers a productive way into an analysis of Appropriate, a play that captures the significant dilemma facing race theorists and educators who have examined the twin phenomena of white fragility and white rage at the heart of contemporary US political culture. This dilemma is the fact that, when addressing white audiences through the arts, empathy (the supposedly altruistic motivation behind "white tears") historically has been considered the first step toward promoting social change, yet for some years empathy has also been understood to inhibit rather than promote such change.

Jacobs-Jenkins won the 2014 Obie Award for Best Play for two productions: Appropriate at the Signature Theatre and An Octoroon at Soho Rep. The more overtly avant-garde An Octoroon has received more critical attention than Appropriate.4 This is no doubt partly due to the fact...