Yes, still reporting from the heart of my anger, the anger in my heart. This is a difficult challenge for me, allowing myself to stay present in my fury. Staying present in my sadness and bewilderment has been easy. I have far more experience with that.
I have a long and troubled history with accessing and accepting my anger. This is a legacy of solid, good-girl training, a set of lessons that were reinforced by nice-black-woman training. While both courses of study have surely been extremely helpful to people with whom I’ve had to interact, neither has been particularly useful to me. I have learned to keep my mouth shut and my head down. I’ve learned to smile when I’d rather be doling out dope slaps. I’ve learned how to keep conversations well-oiled so that we’re able to move smoothly (ish) from safe ground to politically incorrect racist/sexist/heteronormative gaffe to safe ground. I’ve learned how to get along. Often at the expense of my heart and soul.
“Getting along” seems like a worthy enough goal, doesn’t it? If everyone could just make nice, wouldn’t the world would be a better place? I’m actually not so sure. In my life, “getting along” often means breaking my own heart over casual ugliness that I let slide simply to avoid conflict. Casual ugliness, the kind born out of and supporting a system built on my othering, on the assumption of my lesser status. Alone at home after these moments, they bubble up, replaying again and again as if some irksome sportscaster in the back of my head keeps saying, “Let’s go to the video tape!”
Maybe you’re thinking this is my problem, that I just have to stop dwelling on these things. Okay. How good are you at that? Let’s try some role-playing. In this scenario, you’re Italian.
You’re having a discussion about developing programming for young people to help prepare them for college and work. The conversation has been interesting and productive. And then someone says, “All this sounds great, but we’ll have to do something different for the Italian kids. You know how they are. There’s no way we can get them ready for college!” And then that person looks at you and says, “You know I’m not talking about you, but you know I’m right.”
You might brush it off in the moment so as not to derail the working session. But would you forget it entirely? Would you put it out of your mind only to find yourself ambushed by it as you’re about to make an important presentation? Do people really think Italians are troublesome or unteachable? Do people think I’m difficult, I have trouble learning? Do they think I can’t do this job well, that I was hired as a token or to meet a quota? What does my supervisor really think of me, of my capabilities?
Let’s regroup. How did that feel? Were you surprised that someone would say something so foolish and cruel about Italians? Could you see how a comment like that might bother you beyond the instant of hearing it? Can you imagine finding yourself getting angry about it at odd moments of the day? And can you imagine getting angry with yourself when you caught yourself wondering if some aspect of it might be true even when you know perfectly well that it isn’t true?
Sometimes, it’s really challenging to swallow the casual ugliness, to set it aside and keep things moving. Sometimes the casual ugliness has amazing dig-in-and-stay power. And maybe that’s because the ugliness is particularly ugly. And maybe it’s because I’ve heard these things so many times that I’m full, don’t have room for one more, so they keep hovering around my brain, keep poking at me.
And all that poking makes me angry. Leaves me with a simmering-under-the-surface anger that is almost constant, always one microaggression away from tipping me into the hot zone.
So, how to deal with this anger. I’ve never known. There has been so much pressure not to deal with it, to stuff it down, to ignore it, that I’ve never learned what a healthy response might be. Early in this blog’s life, I wrote about two instances from middle school in which that angry-making ugliness pushed me to violence. But here’s the problem: neither at the time of those incidents nor now do I think my response was inappropriate. Yes, I said that. Slamming John in the head with my book not only felt good in the moment, I was good forever after that moment — he never spoke to me again — and it still feels good now, almost 40 years later, to know that I shut him down so effectively. The same is true for my present-day feelings about Michael. Although I would probably respond differently today if the same situation were to arise (probably), I cannot find any fault in those long-ago responses.
But that kind of lashing out can’t be the all-the-time answer. Not just because I am a peaceful person at heart but also because a) eventually a violent response is going to get me into real trouble and b) violence doesn’t leave room for conversation, for change, and that’s what I want. Yes, hitting John meant that John stopped talking to me, and that was a change that worked just fine for seventh-grade me. But hitting John didn’t magically make him understand what was wrong with anything he was saying, didn’t make him change how he thought or felt about black people. More likely, it confirmed some other things he thought and felt about black people.
I don’t think it’s my job to change the minds of racists, but not all people who say racist things are racists, and lashing out closes the door on them looking honestly at their words and actions. My support for non-violent action isn’t as much about the fact that I’m a “nice” person as it is about my desire for real dialogue. So, violence. Not always the best answer.
And aside from being taught that my anger is “bad,” or “dangerous,” or “unladylike,” there is the fact that anger makes me a stereotype. Here I am, yet another Angry Black Woman. And my nice-black-woman training means I’ve tried to avoid seeming angry, being angry, precisely to avoid fitting and feeding that stereotype.
But there’s still my anger. I have a LOT of it. It’s here and it’s real. And avoidance doesn’t do anything for me. Except make me more angry.
The world is harder now. Cracking some wannabe bully in the face with my out-of-date history book worked in middle school, but there are no handy villains to slap around today. New times call for new tactics. Using my words instead of my hands has sparked some conversations, has felt right even if it hasn’t felt like enough. Staying public with this anger has shown me that I can be furious, that I can give voice to this fury … and the world continues to turn, nothing bursts into flame, no one drops dead. And that’s good. It’s at least a start.
My anger and I are on a first name basis today — finally, after all these years — and this feels like the start of a long relationship. I’ll have to keep my eye on my anger. She’s far more beautiful than I am and is incredibly seductive. But as much as she needs watching, I have no interest just now in reining her in. I’m getting comfortable with Angry Stacie. I suggest you do the same.
* Once again mining Rage Against the Machine lyrics for my titles. This one is from “Wake Up” … which is exactly what I’ve been doing these last weeks, rousing the sleeping giant of my fury.