I need to write a much more thought-out post on this. Or possibly organize these into a series. But I also need to get this out there.
Last night, in a moderated debate among nearly a hundred students, I witnessed no fewer than 8 temper tantrums thrown by 3 white men. They were perhaps, not quite yelling, but they had unquestionable aggression in their voices and their gestures. There were also at least a dozen times when one of them interrupted someone else who was speaking, and was then given a “chance to respond”. This was after the fact that their perspective in the argument was very much white-dominated, with primarily men speaking, while the other side had no such skewed ethnic makeup, had been pointed out, after the dynamics of white supremacy had been named.
It did not matter. What mattered was the unconscious sense of authority that person after person ceded to these white men, as well as to the white men on our side though none were so full of temper. I do not mean to say that all white men who get angry will be granted that authority: a visible disability will drastically change that privilege, as will being misgendered or perceived as too feminine. But very many will. I do not mean to imply that men of color may not be aggressive, loud, obnoxious and take up space, but I cannot recall the last time I saw a man of color show that level of anger in public (outside of a ritualized, spoken-word-poetry context).
It is the subject of anger that, for me, throws my identity as a white woman into sharp, isolating relief. These people whose anger is given authority, whose voices are always “reasonable”: they are my kin. The reasons for my anger come from generations of resistance, but it is the resistance of others, directed at people like my family, people whom I have been taught to see as good, to see as the inventors, to see as “democratic” and wise and stable and peaceful. I feel the poison of their white masculinity affecting the poison of my own whiteness, in a country whose culture still resonates so deeply from our foundations on white supremacy, slavery and genocide.
I have had to learn for myself, to learn from friends and enemies and many strangers of color about racism, about oppression, about the dichotomy of “liberal” and “conservative” is mostly just about how honest someone is about not wanting an egalitarian society. I have tried to grapple more privately with what it means to passionately hate whiteness, to feel how some core parts of my personality do not fit white expectations, yet in so many contexts I have been predictably white: all while loving and accepting myself. I grapple with my desire to make people comfortable through my embrace, through my eyes, through my listening and giving–but not through my white skin. I grapple with what to do when people of color find me threatening and oppressive because of that same skin or because of my unconscious behavior. I try to use my natural love of many cultures as authentic, to celebrate my friends, to celebrate the beauty of people of all races, without appropriating, without seeing them all relative to myself, without taking for granted my permission to be in a cultural space that is not made by me. I am so grateful to Audre Lorde, because she wrote about celebrating difference in a way that has always come naturally to me, a way I can understand far better through her words, but a way that so many others find suspect for good reasons. I have always had a heart for people, a passion for justice, and a short temper, but it is only in the last five years or so that I have begun learning where my sense of justice belongs, and new ways of trying to align myself with it.
I was not taught to resist white men while I grew up. I cannot cut them meaningfully out of my life without cutting apart huge pieces of my soul. But neither can I make them align with the standards that I hold myself to. My whole life I have been told that my anger is illegitimate, is childish, is naive, or even if justified, is ineffective. They did not say it was “my anger”, they said it was “anger” in general. Yet when people of color, of any gender, act the way those men did, so many of them are seen as threats for their brown or black skin, or as a startling impossibility because East Asians are always expected to be deferential. I am not qualified to break down all the different oppressive perceptions that angry women of color are subject to, but I know they may be threats, jokes, or both; white women may be jokes, or we may be as children to be protected. We turn our anger to tears, and in so doing we oppress ourselves and we often harshly oppress people of color, both by appealing to the protective authority of white men.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to generalize: I know many white men, friends of mine, who are not angry people, who are in fact gentle people, even when arguing or attacked. A few of them, and at least one less gentle white man, have repeatedly and respectfully engaged with me on subjects of anger and social justice, and we are able to learn a lot from each other. My own father is a very gentle and caring person, and with enough persistence can always be persuaded to hear the perspectives of others. My mother has plenty of anger and is direct about it, but it is almost never a threat; so growing up, I accepted a “yell” as a normal, reasonable way of conveying the urgency of a command or an expressed need. I believe my parents are far more reasonable about gender than are the vast majority of straight couples, and that their quashing of my own anger would have been nearly the same had they perceived me as a boy. But I was not only influenced by them but by many others around me. And I cannot say that I find all the white men I care about to be so reasonable.
I find, too, that when engaging on topics of racism (either due to an article I share publicly, or due to challenging someone else’s stereotypes) a lot of white men show truly petty and cowardly sides. I would like to say I have no patience for that, but I have been told over and over again that since white privilege gives me a choice about when and how to engage with racism, it is my job to speak with exactly that patience that runs out in anti-racist activists of color, to deal with people who have so much social power that even a slight shift of worldview may be worth it. Yet, often my voice has far more authority in those arguments when I am commenting online, using this handle or some other gender-ambiguous one. Either way, I have slowly learned to hone my weapons for these conflicts, and learned when to walk away. I can polish my anger into icy rage, and I am learning to carve out poetry and bleed out bitter jokes when the rage fills me. I have a small but treasured collection of others’ anger that I admire, some which is carried in my head, and some online. (Comment with a usable email to ask me if you want a link to that collection.)
I still do not know why it is that, when one person is angry, others do not listen. I nearly always listen, though I may shut my brain off too early if I think I’ve heard the same thing too many times before. I know that many have traumatized reactions to others’ anger, but many who are most privileged do not; they simply are not used to a challenge to their complacency. And for those who are both privileged and traumatized, I hope to hear more about how they deal with that, because no matter how deeply run the scars of PTSD, they do does not give one license to ignore every argument about oppression. There is a lot to be angry about in the world.
I notice a dissonance between how I perceive white men’s anger these days, and how others do, or how I used to. For those white men who do speak up in anger, I see temper tantrums and weakness. I see their anger in the light of anyone else’s, and I ask: are they angry for reasons of personal oppression and care, or are they angry because someone else has challenged their worldview? When the answer is the latter, their anger is almost always, consciously and intuitively, illegitimate to me. Yet to others, the aggression is itself a convincing argument: if this person care that much, he must be right, and the listeners must doubt themselves.
As for me, I have learned to lessen my rage at times, but still in the process of figuring out a moral place in the world, I have so much rage that I must use it. Sometimes it is a protective shell. When I am harassed, I may have the same reaction so many others have. Confusion, slowness, lack of much reaction at all because it’s just so strange–and later, the endless replaying of “what I should have done”, the endless frustration. But when I know I am threatened, I throw all my too-small-to-give-blood body into a fight. I cannot have a fair physical fight with a larger opponent, so I fight unfairly–I attack heads, I scratch, I yell, I violate rules of social acceptability, all without being able to control it. Society has tried very hard to train passivity into me, and I have never had any of it–I recognize my privilege in even saying that, I have not been broken because I have not been physically or metaphorically beaten often enough.
Sometimes, my anger really is ineffective. I am laughed at, dismissed, told to “chill out”, and the icy polishing begins. I turn instead to stiff words and a steel spine, acting “reasonable” and polite but giving no quarter because I refuse to be walked upon. And someday my attacker will not be put off by the quickness of my reaction, and I will be seriously hurt.
But sometimes, I am the only person in the room who rams the seriousness of an issue into someone else’s skull. On rare occasions I have even been told my presence was a useful one because I would yell at someone spouting assimilationist rhetoric, or trans misogyny, or at someone so far from empathic understanding that no “reasonable” argument would get through.