More On Racism: Black Anger And White Guilt

There have been varying responses to the recent blog dialogue between Fabio Rojas, Tressie McMillan Cottom, and me over the existence and persistence of racism in the US — what one colleague aptly called a “blogstorm.”  (Just in case you are just tuning in, see Fabio’s original “post-racism” thesis, Tressie’s first response, my first response, Fabio’s response to me, Tressie’s second response, and my second response.)

Racism And Rage

Some friends and colleagues have cautioned me against participating in such public dialogue, fearing that I may face professional consequences.  Others have offered their sympathy, I suppose out of concern that I feel attacked or at least stressed by these conversations.  Friends, colleagues, and even relatives — mostly people of color — have cheered me on, knowing that this is a tough, yet important dialogue.  I have also heard that various anonymous commentators have criticized me for so publicly demonstrating my emotions related to the topic of racism.

Fabio also pointed out that, in my original post, I noted my outrage regarding his suggestion that America is now post-racist.  I have yet to address this aspect of his response, though Tressie hinted that there is something problematic about this:

Here, I will try to avoid being labeled as an “outraged” black woman by sticking as closely as possible to the logical argument Fabio as put forth.

And, concludes her post with:

Was that rational enough for me to not be the angry black woman today? Eh.

A relative with whom I shared my participation in Blogstorm 2013 also took issue with Fabio’s acknowledgement of my outrage.  I did cringe upon my first read of Fabio’s response to me: “A few days ago, Eric Grollman was outraged by my post on “post-racist” society.”  I felt that my rage had been spotlighted in a way that undermined my point and my entire participation in the conversation.

What’s Wrong With Rage?

Of course, I do not think that Fabio meant any harm by directly citing my own words.  But, the murmurs about rage and racism are worth further examination.  Regardless of Fabio’s intentions, why would I fear public acknowledgement of the emotions I experienced in the midst of this dialogue about racism?

Reading Audre Lorde‘s “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Anger” in Sister Outsider this morning provided some insight.  At a speech she delivered in 1981 at the National Women’s Studies Association conference, she noted that many white feminists offered rare, obligatory attention to racism in their fight against patriarchy.  And, when the few feminist of color participated, their displays of anger and rage made their white counterparts uncomfortable.

Considering the structural and everyday realities of racism, anger is an appropriate, even expected, reaction.  But, it appears that these emotions scare white people at all points on the political spectrum.  Why?  As Lorde suggests, that anger evokes guilt, particularly in white liberals.  To demonstrate one’s raw emotions regarding the oppressive reality of racism is to convey just how real, just how ugly, and just how damaging and constraining it is.

But white guilt “is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of actions…it is a just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, and the ultimate protection for changelessness (p. 130).”  Many liberal white people are uncomfortable seeing or hearing racism and the consequences it poses for people of color — hence, the anxious desire to declare America “post-racial.

A Personal Anecdote

On a number of occasions, (well-intentioned) white friends and relatives have asked me to lower my voice when speaking openly about racism in public spaces.  However, I am not silenced when I am laughing loudly and enjoying lighter topics of conversation.  Embedded in these requests is “please stop talking about racism, you’re making other [white] people [and me] uncomfortable.”   By openly discussing racist oppression, I am forcing those who benefit from it to stop pretending that racism and their white privilege do not exist.  And, good-hearted, liberal white people, in their disdain for racism, do not want to acknowledge their role in its continuance.

I have also, on a number of occasions, been criticized for being “militant.”  Again, these comments have often come from liberal-minded white people.  Their criticism is not that I take issue with racism, but rather that I do so without suppressing my anger.  What they want of me is to address racism on their terms: through mainstream social science; using “professional” language and demeanor; embracing all people, no matter how racist.  The irony!

For example, I was asked, by a white colleague during a panel on diversity in graduate school, whether I try to peacefully work things out with whites who offend or exclude me, or simply dismiss them as “racist.”  I responded by trying to push a conceptualization of racism as a system of oppression, as a system that structures every aspect and every level of society.  I noted that I assume all whites (who do not actively challenge racism) are racists, so, rather than getting hung on up playing the “who’s a racist?” game (which derails meaningful conversations), I can focus on the larger reality of racism.  Most of the white faces in the room contorted, likely just as they dismissed any and everything I had to say that day.

Another Manifestation Of Racism: Emotional Control

Thus, another manifestation of racism is how people of color respond and react to their oppression.  We are asked to speak in ways and on subjects that do not alienate whites.  When we threaten to directly name the persistence of racism, we are silenced.  Or, alternatively, our emotional displays are highlighted to undermine our perspective.  We are dismissed as “uppity,” “hostile,” “militant,” “angry,” or even violent.

That we are not free in how we feel about racism reflects yet another aspect of racist control over our minds, bodies, and souls.  (White) America listens when safe, non-threatening white men slip in discussions of racism into otherwise lighthearted conversations.

Embracing Anger

In order to fully understand racism, how it affects the lives of people of color, we must listen to and embrace how people of color respond – how they feel.  For, as Lorde notes, “[a]nger is loaded with information and energy” (p. 127).  To silence the anger that people of color feel, or to force them to speak in ways foreign to their own experience and emotions is to pervert the true reality of racist oppression.  This is a form of “selective hearing” at a minimum, pushing the message that racism is gone while ignoring the voices of people of color that say otherwise.  Yet, I would argue that this sort of control over how people of color feel and how they display those feelings is another prison bar in the jail of racism.

We are overdue for honing the creative potential of the rage that people of color suppress day after day.  For, the suppression of these emotions hinders our ability to move forward in eliminating racism:

Any discussion among women about racism must include the recognition and use of anger.  This discussion must be direct and creative because it is crucial.  We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty (p. 128-9).

In response to persistence of racism even in 2013: yes, I am angry.  My anger is a reasonable and expected reaction.  And, I stress that rage is not violent in its own right.  While it has motivated some toward violent retaliation, it also drives non-violent efforts to create change.

What else besides anger over the existence of inequality would motivate any action to challenge it?  Clearly, white guilt immobilizes.  So, maybe it’s time for more anti-racist whites to get angry, too!