Current Events

Understanding The Stages of White Tears Part II- The White Bystander

Disclaimer: Before I get into this blog, this is not about placing yourself or your loved ones in any danger. Please note, many of these incidents do not involve someone using a physical weapon but instead using tears and Whiteness as a weapon which can become deadly for the Black person involved in the incident. 

Last week I wrote Understanding The Stages of White Tears, highlighting Abigail Elphick and her encounter and strategic performance with Ijeoma Ukenta at Short Hills Mall. We see Abigail screaming, fake crying, chasing Ijeoma, and writhing on the floor during the video, all before calling 911. These actions are a performance to avoid the repercussions that typically come once these videos go viral. (You can read about the stages here.) While many people focus on Abigail, and rightly so, there is another aspect of this video that I must point out – the White Bystander.

Understanding the phases, we immediately see Abigail, although claiming she is having a mental breakdown, constantly looking around for others to support her behavior. At the 1:34 mark, she asks, “Why aren’t you guys defending me?” She is doing her best to put on a stellar performance, and she is expecting the bystanders to come to her defense. Within minutes (approx. 2:07) in steps, the first bystander telling Ijeoma, “Why don’t you step away from her?”

You can see Abigail move her performance closer to the bystander because she knows the White woman has taken the bait. If you watch the video from the beginning, you can see the bystander has been watching this entire incident unfold but immediately doesn’t address Abigail but addresses the Black woman. She puts the ownness on the Black woman to move away from Abigail when Abigail is the one creating the problem. The Black woman is no threat to Abigail; in fact, Abigail is the one that tried to assault her and is chasing her throughout the store. 

After passing out and writhing on the floor didn’t work, now Abigail must take it up a notch and continues to yell, “Get her away from me!” when she is the one chasing the Black woman around. She now finds Bystander #2, who asks her, “Are you by yourself?” Bystander #2 has bought into the act. Something must be wrong with Abigail. Is she here alone? Does she have help? At the outset, it looked like Bystander #2 was going to do the right thing, but she fails to see that she has already become complicit in Abigail’s performance. Bystander #2 turns to Iejoma and says, “Just put the phone down. She’s sick.” Once again, putting the ownness on Ijeoma. Abigail is not sick. There is nothing wrong with Abigail; she just wants to avoid the consequences of her behavior. Please understand, Black women are not responsible for the bad behavior of White women. It is not our responsibility to make White women feel better about abusing us. It is not our responsibility to make the abuse of Black women more acceptable because a White woman is crying. It is not our responsibility to understand a White woman is having a bad day so she is allowed to verbally and physically assault Black women.

What many need to understand in these incidents, the bystanders are a part of the performance. Abigail knows to sell the drama, she must get others on her side, which is why she is constantly looking around, even demanding, “Why aren’t you defending me?!” The reason Abigail knows this will work is because she knows that White women identify with her. They do not see Ijeoma, a Black woman, as someone that can be threatened or a victim. Because Abigail is a White woman, they see her as someone that could be their mom, sister, aunt, or daughter. They see Abigail as someone that can be the victim because, in Abigail, they see themselves. They never recognize what is happening to Ijeoma. In fact, they do not even see Iejoma. However, if a Black woman were chasing a White woman around a store, no one would coddle her because they inherently see Black women as aggressors. One of the first steps in dealing with these incidents is asking yourself, “How am I seeing this situation, and is my bias preventing me from seeing this Black person as a victim?”  

In another article, Dear White Women, Get Your Friends, I challenged White people to ask themselves, “If a White person was doing this, would I call 911?” If a White person I did not know was walking down my sidewalk, would I call 911? If a White person was moving into my community and I was unsure who they were, would I call 911? If a White person didn’t wave to me as they exited an Air B-N-B would I call 911? If a White person was in the swimming pool and I wasn’t sure they lived in the apartment complex, would I call 911? More than likely, the answer is no. So, the actions aren’t the problem. It is how you perceive Black people, which makes everyday, mundane activities seem sinister to White people. It has NOTHING to do with the actions; it’s the race of the person doing them. That is what White people must face, and that requires going inwardly and seeing some things in yourself that you may not be ready to face. 

After you check your bias, affirm the Black person. These actions seem so outrageous that often even the Black person cannot believe it is happening. In the video, Iejoma says, “This does not feel real.” Let the Black person know, “I see what is happening to you, and it is real.”

Then do not feed into Abigail’s actions. That is how these incidents thrive. Abigail needs the audience because it will make what she is doing more believable. Do not indulge women like Abigail. Abigail is not the victim. Be crystal clear to her that you see and understand that the Black person is the victim. After affirming the Black person, immediately step in and firmly tell Abigail to stop. “Stop it. Your performance is not working.” You must be firm and direct. “What you are doing to this Black person is wrong. It is racist, and actions like yours have led to the death of many Black people. Stop it.” It is not enough to just say stop. Do not offer them any excuses. Do not say, “I know you’re having a bad day, or I know it’s tough out here, etc.” It is imperative you let them know that you are aware that their actions are rooted in racism. They know this; however, what will shock them is that you know this. The jig is up. This will stun women like Abigail because they know White people are typically on their side even when they are wrong, even when they are doing something blatantly racist. Inherently they believe, White people are supposed to defend White people by any means necessary. They will not be ready for another White person to support a Black person. But hold firm.  

After you defend the Black person and tell women like Abigail to stop, expect more anger and theatrics. However, it is not time to indulge, it is not time to soothe; it is time to speak the truth. This will probably lead to more tears and theatrics, but remember, this is all part of the performance. The fact that you have seen beyond their mask is shocking for them, and they will start the performance of a lifetime and will probably lash out in anger. “How dare you defend them. Don’t you see what they are doing?” More than likely, women that behave like this, have never had a White person firmly tell them the truth, and we often know the truth angers people who are not ready to accept and deal with the truth.  

Hopefully, following these steps will deescalate the situation. However, do not leave the incident. As I stated in Understanding the Stages of White Tears, these incidents will often end with a call to the police. It is imperative that you stay at the scene to give a complete account when the police arrive. We witnessed the lies in this video, “She’s threatening me,” when not one threat was heard. Yet, women like Abigail will hold on to the performance and the lies in a last-ditch effort to get someone on their side which is often the police. Because they cannot get you to side with them, they know the police are there to protect and serve White people, and the police will believe them. It is rare that the police step in and defend the Black person. In these videos of Abigail and Iejoma, no one stayed to defend Ijeoma. The officers spoke with Abigail, comforted Abigail, told Ijeoma to move, and largely dismissed the Black woman. Stay and give a complete account because the Black person will need witnesses.

As we continue to see these videos across the nation, know that this ONLY stops when White people step in to stop it. Black people alone cannot end this because Black people did not create this. These are not just White women having a tantrum. These incidents are rooted in centuries of racism. I understand that it often takes courage to step up when these incidents occur. However, know that you having the courage to say something is one of the first steps to ending this behavior. 

More Readings: Silence is No Longer An Option

6 replies »

  1. Thank you for articulating so perfectly why both the apathy of and the interventions by the white bystanders needs to be discussed. When I saw this video, I was appalled that nobody stepped in to defend Ukenta and that, when someone finally did intervene, it was not to address the white woman and her behaviour but to police the black woman. If some white people have still not learned the significance of the use of cell phone videos to record interactions by now then they are making an active choice to be part of the problem. For those bystanders to confront Ukenta and tell her to stop recording is a part of the problem and a reason why Elphick believed she had a sympathetic audience for her performance. White people need to become better allies by being more active allies, including in situations like this. I really like the “script” you provided for what a helpful intervention might look like.

  2. Stellar article, thank you for writing it. May I recommend a part III that covers how hard the police worked to do nothing when Ijeoma tried to get them to actually protect her?

  3. I loved both of your articles, and I am wondering if you are open to this idea of having these articles to be translated/interpreted in American Sign Language? Please let me know and we can continue this discussion.

  4. I appreciate the clarity of your suggestions for what to do as a bystander. I think sometimes people, me included, don’t know what actions make sense and try to just make it stop in whatever way is easiest, trying not to get involved. It’s good to give clear actions that will be helpful and address the obvious racism.

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