By Laurian & Beth
Soulquarians rule and are always before their time.
In honor and celebration of Audre Lorde’s birthday, we continue our conversation about Lorde and the uses of anger.
Please see part one of our dialogue here.
Part two: Anger and patriarchy
Beth: Lorde believed: “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change” (1984: 127). A few months ago, I had a conversation about anger with a psychologist friend. Her view of anger is that it is adolescent; after a certain point, anger serves little purpose except to keep individuals from reaching their full potential as “well-adjusted” adults. In other words, anger is self-destructive. What is your response to this?
Laurian: My first and most honest reaction to that statement is “bull-fucking-shit.” Well-adjusted. What does that even mean and according to what criteria? I think that is a classic Western epistemological deduction, which is inherently disembodied. Like this idea that our minds exist separate from our physical selves and that our brains control everything. But let me back up to my thoughts about why that is a bullshit deduction. Anger may be destructive and if so, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with destroying things? All social change comes from a collective of people being angry about something. Without anger, there is stagnation. What if you’re angry with yourself and ashamed? I think it is quite productive to get angry about those emotions, because it helps you to feel through the experiences that go along with that. I believe that anger is layered and embedded in many things. I don’t think that anger stands alone any more than any other emotion. So to suggest that anger is childish in some way is to dishonor the beautiful process of being human.
B: To me, her opinion about anger seems like a patriarchal effort to deflate the political and social potentials of anger – not just what it reveals, but what it can do. My counter to her claim was personal: my anger–as a child–saved my life. It continues to do so. My anger is a weathervane. With it I combat despair when change feels impossible. But my personal experience with anger sidesteps that anger is also collective, it is historic, and it is a tool.
L: Yes, then the question becomes how do we go about using anger.
B: I think that for some women, anger and fear may be difficult to distinguish. As a child, I became angry as a result of the anger heaped upon me, because of fear, and as a way to save my own life. Now, to abandon anger is to abandon that child who survived. But I also understand women who are afraid to be angry. Afraid their anger will unleash and what then? There can be a cost to a woman’s anger because it might go against what is expected of us. Women’s anger is punished; just as women defending themselves from (male) anger is punished. I think here of Marissa Alexander who was arrested and convicted for firing a warning shot into the air to prevent her husband from killing her. I worked for many years as a domestic violence counselor and I can tell you that punishing women for self-defense is common.
For me, as a child, to express anger was to invite discipline, so I courted an internal rage until, over and over, I couldn’t hold it in. And each time I expressed anger it was also to break with patriarchal power and discipline. Lorde explains: “For women raised to fear, too often anger threatens annihilation. In the construct of brute force, we were taught that our lives depended on the good will of patriarchal power. The anger of others was to be avoided at all costs because there was nothing to be learned from it but pain, a judgment that we had been bad girls, come up lacking, not done what we were supposed to do. And if we accept our powerlessness, then of course any anger can destroy us” (1984: 130). Anger is allowed and anger is punished depending on many things including how race and gender work inside and outside of our families.
Whether anger is encouraged or discouraged carries over into many realms. Anger is also used to discredit social movements, for example. What can we do about this?
L: This might be my academic brain on the forefront of my response, but I think that we have to re-center the rage and anger that has existed in social movements that came before us. We have to reclaim the outrage surrounding the killing of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. We have to attach ourselves to the rebellion at the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street in 1969. We have to recall these events were tipping points for experiences that simmered or flashed, then boiled over. COINTELPRO waged war against radical organizations and movements because the dominant power structures knew anger and rage were powerful activators of organization. Lorde famously asked, “Are you doing your work?” And when people are angry, they start thinking about the when, where, and how of their emotions, that is part of “doing” their work. Anger can embolden the desire for justice. It makes people wonder why the state-apparatus legitimates violence for its own means, but when victims and survivors respond with outrage, its unacceptable and quelled. Anger has threatened, and continues to threaten, white supremacy as a patriarchal institution. Because power is dissipative and can flow from every imaginable place, anger is extremely useful. Lorde describes it as a survival mechanism in the face of daily assault and mental annihilation and as a mobilizing coping strategy.
Anger between women
B: What does anger mean between women, what can it do? How can it create even as it annihilates? Lorde declared, “Any discussion of among women about racism must include the recognition and the use of anger. This discussion must be direct and creative because it is crucial. We can not allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty” (1984: 128). Excavating honesty is to recognize that mainstream society does not “read” or respond to my anger as a white woman the same as it does the anger of women of color. This is an example of misogynoir, a term Moya Bailey coined to explain anti-black misogyny. Misogyny does not dehumanize equally but rather holds up white women as “normative.”
L: Excavating honesty. That is so incredibly painful and necessary. And I get angry that I find myself having conversations with white women who want me to hold their hands through that conversation. First is the idea that I have with many white feminists who want to argue that their white privilege is negated by their gender. And that this is similar to women of color. Uh, no.
B: I think this has long been part of US-based feminist movements: an attempt to center sexism as the primary oppression at the expense of race and class and other concerns. Lorde tells the story of white racism in the reactions that white women had to her, asking her to shrink her rage in order to make it more digestible to them – in other words to asking Lorde to make herself smaller so they could grow their understanding of racism, but from a comfortable place. I think white women asking Lorde to minimize her anger speaks to the protection, safety, and assurance that those with class or race privilege often expect without thinking. These types of privileged requests to people who are “othered” still underpin mainstream, white, western feminism. Like, we want to hear your story so we can appropriate it, cluck our tongues and tsk, tsk at it, or find inspiration in it, but not do the work necessary to change ourselves and to change what polices racism and discrimination in the world.
L: Sometimes I feel like white women not only want to appropriate the sensibilities about racism but also tick off a box of progressiveness by being able to claim that they’ve stood in solidarity with women of color through those conversations. And that in standing in solidarity is this badge of honor. Kind of like, I can now proclaim that I have black friend and really mean it, because I can name that person. And I can feel it when it’s happening to me. Because I identify as a feminist, sometimes I feel like a white woman magnet. I often feel objectified by some white women’s curiosity. Last year I was having a conversation with a white woman colleague, when a white male colleague of ours interrupted our conversation and began talking with this woman about some funding she recently acquired. He wanted to know how she went about the application process so he could do the same. No, “Excuse me.” No greeting. He stood right in front of me (because you know, black folks are invisible to the white majority most times anyway) and started talking to her. She looked at me with surprised anticipation. Like I was supposed to say or do something. And in that moment, I made a choice. Instead of checking him for being rude/privileged/entitled/male, I wanted to test this woman. I wanted to see if she was going to say anything to him about his rude ass behavior. Because this woman identified so strongly as a feminist, I had expectations. And as a matter of fact, at the moment we were interrupted, she was chastising me about a cable show I watched because of the gendered violence endemic in the current season. So yes, I sat back to see whether she was going to call this man out about his behavior.
Guess what happened?
Our conversation got interrupted. My female colleague immediately delved into conversation with this dude. I paused for about 10 seconds, before walking away. And I watched them, noticing that when he was finished grilling her for information, he dismissed her by starting conversation with another man and ignored her. After she was dismissed, she hurried over to me, and launched into a disbelieving recap of his rudeness.
This is a moment where white women, especially white feminists, piss me off. I refused to do that performance with her. The one where we are both sooo oppressed by this MAN that we now soothe each another because of it. And when I said, Not only was he rude, you let it slide, you wanted me to say something. And when I didn’t [act my part as the sassy black woman], you remained silent. She blinked hard and then asked, Are you mad at me? I said, Yes. She blinked hard again. I thought, Oh shit, here come the white woman tears. Face red. She walked away. And it’s been a year since she’s talked to me. She never replied to my email (which I considered an olive branch) about getting together for coffee. I went off the passive white feminist script by admitting anger. And she couldn’t take it.
B: She expected you to speak her anger for her while remaining guiltless. Because white women are expected to be nice at all times—at least professional or middle class ones—and because it is difficult to assert space and power, to disrupt the social script. This loops back to the idea that anger is only destructive or unproductive. And you are telling us, like Lorde has told us, that the opposite is true: anger is human, necessary, and potentially transformative. We need to own, not deny, our anger for ourselves and for each other. Anger is not the sole purview of people of color—I would bet your white colleague was angry and is angry, but expected you to be the one to externalize a shared anger on her behalf. But certainly not to express anger with her! Those who walk away from anger and from learning from anger may do so because they are afraid of this anger and what it might mean about them. Lorde suggested that fear, in response to anger, leads to guilt and defensiveness, which become “bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures.” I think this brick building can happen not only between white women and women of color, but between all women across and within differences of race, gender, class, sexuality, privilege and opportunity. Women are not universal in their experiences, right, that is obvious, but neither are “racialized” and “classed” groups of people. I am thinking here of some of the most amazing and necessary work around colorism within racialized communities, or around working class values within poor communities. I am also thinking of feminists who are transphobic and who defend their positions with anger. We all need to work to disentangle fear and anger. Anger can result from the fear that when you genuinely respond to the anger of others, anger that comes from oppression or inequality, you must recognize your own privileges.
L: Thinking back to my colleague, I was angry because I wanted this woman who chided me for watching a misogynistic television show to really take a risk when it mattered. Instead, I feel like she performed a normative white feminine helplessness. As a woman of color, I don’t have that privilege. I want her to recognize her privilege, and to use it. Privilege carries power. It has voice and legitimacy in arenas where my words do not. If I had responded to that interruption, I would have done so coded as a black person. My standard of humanity would have been racialized. My desire was that my colleague would move from being a closeted faux ally to doing anti-racist work in our workplace. All of it is valuable and all of it can have meaning. And I freely own the fact that I am judging her for falling short of my expectations [What can I say? I’m a Virgo]. And I have fallen short as well. Lorde says that on the one hand, “Anger can be used to clarify our differences, but that in long run, strength that is bred by anger along is a blind force which cannot create the future.” I’m just thinking about what could have grown out of that moment, for both of us. And it could have been dope. It could have been dope for us to have a conversation about what went wrong for both of us in that moment. How we both silenced ourselves and why? How my anger made her feel. How my anger made me feel. So it actually was one of those (surprising) moments where I felt like walking through that with someone I was angry with. And in the end, it was a missed opportunity. Who knows, another manifestation of that might come around again and have a completely different outcome.
B: Which leads us back to the “excavating honesty” point. No one can do the work of using privilege except the people who have it. Excavating honesty is not simply about expressing how guilty or bad or threatened racism makes you feel as someone who does not experience it. It is not about asking others to dial down feelings and anger in order to make racism more palatable. It is not about mitigating oppression by claiming another one (let us stand together as women and ignore race; or let us claim we don’t have white privilege because we are from working class backgrounds). Excavating honesty needs to be about action despite our fears, for without action and honesty we lose these potential moments of transformation.
In part three, we will discuss anger and privilege and its relationship to academia. Check back again soon.