By Beth & Laurian
This series on Audre Lorde centralizes anger as a way to discuss intersectionality, patriarchy and feminism. In this fourth and final conversation, we consider the benefits of anger for renewal and strength.
Beth: We have talked a bit about anger and fear – the ways in which social norms discourage women from expressing anger and how juridical systems punish women who defend themselves from the anger/violence of others. Anger takes on different meanings depending on where and how we express it. Lorde also asserts that anger, as a force “loaded with information and energy,” can be a tool of transformation.
Laurian: I deeply connect with the idea of anger as a tool because I think anger is one of the only emotions that would get the attention of people in my community when I was a child. Laughter was welcomed, so far as other people were laughing with me, but anger was the only time that people really stopped and listened to what I had to say, and reacted in a protective manner. Anger was THE defining moment of visibility. Somehow as a child and as a teenager, anger is what made people stop and take notice of my concerns. So anger was highly valued as a tool of communication. Anger legitimated voice. It affirmed my personhood.
But, when taken out of that home context and into the larger and overwhelming white dominated society, the reaction to anger is inverted. So even now, as an adult, anger is the first reaction that wells up inside of me when I feel conflicted about something. But depending on what sphere I inhabit determines how I express those emotions. These days I spend a large bulk of my time in white spaces, surrounded by white folks, particularly in my work day so I spend a great deal of time sifting through those emotions. Not only for myself, because I recognize the value of anger’s layers and depth, but also because it is required to be heard in the places I exist now.
B: I was raised to be submissive and to control my emotions, especially anger. I didn’t succeed and was punished for it. When we express anger as girls and as women, we simultaneously inhabit spaces that index what is expected of us as raced and classed individuals. Social ideas about women’s anger serve to dismiss or ridicule the causes of this anger. An obvious example is the stereotype of the “angry black woman,” which erases the potential anger of a black woman as a result of intersectional racism. Instead this stereotype naturalizes anger. Anger becomes an assumed biological trait (from the ever pervasive and erroneous assumption that race is biological).
This stereotype serves the purpose of reinforcing racist ideas that anger from black women is dangerous, inherent and thus in need of social control. For white women, gendered racialization is often about assuming meekness and submission – a classed assumption, too. If you are “white trash” or from a certain immigrant/ethnic background then and only then can you be loud and angry, but still an object of ridicule. Social ideas about women’s anger reference notions of femininity and masculinity, and thus ideas about race, class, culture, nationality, et cetera.
Anger as transformation
B: Lorde offers an example of (white) women who fear the anger of (black) women and how the anger that rises from this fear can strengthen shared goals, because “it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies.” Perhaps then, anger can be a way to deal the legacies of hate that still exist between women? To see where rage comes from in another person and/or to recognize that shared rage can be life changing?
L: I completely agree with this and would add that simultaneous to collaboration and cooperating, it is imperative to have closed conversations about anger. Some work needs to be done in seclusion and/or separation. If people of color, women, queer people etc. need to have their own spaces in certain aspects of society—whether its a workshop, a panel, a weekend, a month and dedicated location, they shouldn’t feel like they are being exclusive for doing this.
B: I hear you. At times, activist work is the work we need to do with ourselves too, in safe spaces whatever that may mean. Yet there is fear that “women only” or “trans only” or “PoC only” spaces can become exclusive. Perhaps this is sometimes the point, and sometimes necessary? Not in a way that is discriminatory, but healing? We certainly need creative spaces to articulate opposition and collectivity, for experiences to strengthen through shared commonalities.
L: This need for seclusion and/or separation can be really difficult for allies to understand, especially white allies. I think there are times when white people need to do anti-racist work in isolation with other white people. I think the default assumption is that working across race, across gender and across sexual orientation, makes organizing more progressive, better, stronger or more effective. But activist work also includes working within one’s own community. I think this is essential for wound care. Those spaces of nurture, solidarity and shared experience are where the translation of anger needs to begin.
B: I think there is a fear among feminists of being exclusionary given the shortcomings of prior feminist movements, thus the wariness around seclusion or separation. I applaud feminist efforts to be as inclusive as possible because it necessitates us recognizing our privileges and learning when to speak, when to listen, when to step back, when to shut up. Sometimes white feminists, or the feminists who hold the most social power in any given national/cultural context, may not learn that their experiences in the world are not universal. This lack of self-awareness indicates the pervasiveness of patriarchal indoctrination and gendered/raced/classed socialization. It also reveals how privilege functions in its very invisibility (to those who have it).
It is exhausting to know that we still need people who are willing to challenge the privileged assumptions of others. It is even more exhausting to know that the work of challenging privilege often falls on those who don’t have said privileges. But challenging privilege is what we all need to do, and what building feminist honesty across difference usually entails.
Also privilege and marginalization are complex. Just because someone has privileges in some arenas of their life does not mean they do not experience marginalization in other arenas. Acknowledging privilege is not a denial of the ways in which we are marginalized and visa versa. I agree with Roxanne Gay that we need to be cautious with privilege policing, especially online. Contemporary feminism can be dogged by a fear of not being 100% inclusive of every possible voice at every moment, and for good reason! But this can lead to a self-conscious paralysis, a fear that what we have to offer isn’t enough, or that it is not okay to be in process, to be learning and growing. I think this expectation is also as a reflection of our consumerist/perfectionist culture in which the messy joys of trying and fucking up are not permitted. To mess up, or to be in process is to be undeserving of love – something that Lorde wrote about at length. Lorde’s goal of learning to love other women, other allies, and most importantly ourselves even as we are flawed, especially as we are flawed, is more important than ever. Not to say that people don’t need to be called out for their privileged, racist, sexist b.s.!
L: What underlies much of this again is that we all have to walk many paths at once. There are moments to listen, moments to speak, moments to reflect, and moments to act and it’s the challenge of being able to recognize what moment is unfolding before you while you are in the experience and being vulnerable, especially when there are internal and external conflicts going on. Resilience and vulnerability when one is being annihilated are some seriously heavy moving parts, especially where you strive to embrace the value of reason and emotion. Not to oversimplify the work, but Lorde is not asking that we sweep away difference, but to be truly revolutionary is to humanely see ourselves connected to one another. That means living through our pain but not being so “enamored” with our own suffering that we are blind to our “heel print upon another woman’s face“. But the cacophony of information has caused a paralysis for some people because there is so much work.
B: One thing that intersectional feminism, and decades of identity politics, teaches is not to speak for others, and not to presume our personal experience speaks for those who we may perceive to be like us. Our experiences vary even within identity markers. Difference exists within groups of like-minded or similarly experienced people. We need to examine anger between people with shared experiences as much as we need to examine anger across our differences. I thought about this while reading Eye to Eye.
Lorde wrote this essay to acknowledge the anger she feels toward and from other black women, and why – where this anger comes from. Could such an essay be written today? Do you think this exposé is still productive, still necessary? It is easy to think that this kind of consciousness-raising was the work of 70s feminism, that this work has been done. I am not convinced. I am not convinced that we don’t still need to start here, from this place of acknowledging how much patriarchy teaches women to hate other women, to hate ourselves and in turn hate others who are like us even perhaps more than we hate those who are different from us. Of course this process differs for women as we are all taught our places in the social hierarchy. Consciousness-raising needs to be done again and again because the lessons from society are still there, still teaching us to hate ourselves and to loathe the parts of others in which we see ourselves.
L: It’s never finished. There is no arrival. Lorde writes, “we all share a war against the tyrannies of silences” and that “with visibilities come the harsh light of truth scrutiny and perhaps judgment”. On the one hand there is so much noise and information coming from all different directions that I think many of us desire the bullet points and the need-to know information. That ‘single story’ is what Chimamanda Adichie rails against. We have narratives that require an ideological shift towards complex voice and lead us against white supremacy. Nothing can be presumed because every civil rights movement that has taken place in our society is sanitized in the dominant discourse, along with the people within. Harriet Tubman has become a caricature in a kerchief with a gun tucked in her skirts. Martin is flattened to a dream, Malcolm to militancy, Rosa diminished to a tired elderly woman. The Poor People’s part dropped from the “March on Washington” along with Bayard Rustin’s fundamental role in making it happen in the first place. But if we holistically reclaim the multiplicity of their work and resist the erasure of their complexities, we can take heart in the negotiated, angry, productive work that has already taken place before our conversation today. And be shored up by that rather than feel not good enough in the work we do now.
B: Yes, you are speaking about embracing the humanity of those who came before us. To understand the context of their struggles and the complexities of their choices is to understand our own. To see the messiness of their lives is to allow messiness in our own lives as we struggle and persevere. Without self-love we cannot make connections across difference. As Lorde tells us “self-empowerment is the most deeply political work there is, and the most difficult. When we do not attempt to name the confusion of feelings which exist between sisters, we act them out in hundreds of hurtful and unproductive ways.” To work against the erasure of complexity is to mark the difference between pain and suffering. Lorde taught us that pain is something that can be transformed into knowledge or action, while suffering is the reliving of pain without transforming it into something that can be used.