I’ve been thinking a lot about what would be appropriate for me to write about for International Blog Against Racism Week.
I thought about collecting links about Canadian racism – because there’s this comforting little bullshit mantra we white Canadians keep repeating to ourselves, that Canada isn’t nearly so much of a racist country as, say, the U.S. is, which is false, because it’s not better here, it’s just different – but due to some health issues, I haven’t had the time to search for all the links I’d want to include. So I’ve decided to save that for next year, and prepare it in advance, because it needs to be said.
Then I thought about doing some sort of autobiographical piece, on how I noticed that there were people of colour in my world and when I started figuring out that there were differences in treatment, and how being raised by a well-intentioned liberal mother to believe that all people are the same, no matter what their race, religion or ethnicity (the good old colourblind approach to racism) might have made my behaviour different from that of some other people (because, when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, there wasn’t a lot of colourblindness going around, and I think, it may have been an essential step in the evolution of white recognition of racism and white privilege) but at the same time blinded me to the realisation of how important it is to recognise and respect difference, and to realise that saying “la-la-la, this is how I think it should be in a perfect world” does jackshit about how it is right now. But then I realised that this was that kind of shifting the focus of the issue away from racism and onto me, me, me, the well-meaning white person, that so many well-meaning white persons do so very well. So I’ll do that some other time in some other post when focusing on me is more appropriate.
Instead, I’m going to post an expanded version of some comments I made in response to an IBARW post about anger on oyceter’s journal.
On the Uses of Anger and the Resistance of the Privileged
I’ve been running into a lot of discussions of anger and how it is received when it is part of a protest against social injustice (such as acts or speech grounded in sexism, racism, ablism, heterosexism, transphobia, and other institutionalised systems of Othering, oppression, repression, prejudice, and privilege), especially when it is shown by someone who is a member of the Othered group.
It seems that it’s not nice for women to get angry about sexism, or for people of colour to get angry about racism, or people with disabilities to get angry about ablism, and so on. And when your inferiors aren’t nice to you, what do you do? Well, at first you ignore them, because as a superior person, you’re too nice to pay attention to their loss of proper subservience. Then you try to get rid of them – sometimes you even have to call in the servants to toss them out. You disparage them, talk to all your equally nice and superior friends about how horrible it is that all these inferior people are going around shouting and screaming and using foul language and sometimes even getting physical. You pass laws to keep them from acting up. You refuse to have them anywhere in your nice house, neighbourhood, workplace, playground, school, gentleman’s club, and so on.
It has been argued that this is why oppressed peoples should not allow themselves to be seen as angry, because then no one will listen to them, and nothing will change.
But then, one must ask, just how far does an oppressed group get by being quiet and polite and reasonable, and never, never angry? bellatrys has, I believe, covered this scenario very well. You don’t get far.
And yes, it’s very true that, if you then show your anger, you will encounter a great deal of resistance. But resistance is part of a process. If they are resisting, that means they have been engaged. They are no longer able to ignore, to pretend there is nothing happening. And that, I believe, is vitally important for change.
It is my belief that anger is important, that anger should not be set aside in the struggle for justice and for change. It is my belief that it should be harnessed, used to fire the spirit and support the body while you fight, even while it is controlled and channelled so that it feeds the message rather than rendering it incoherent. It seems to me that anger is how people respond when they are hurt, injured, mistreated, betrayed, belittled, excluded, done an injustice. It’s a healthy response. It means that you know something is wrong, and it has to be fixed. It gives you the energy to resist, to fight, to save yourself. Anger is not something to be denied. And using it effectively does not necessarily mean using it with violence, which is something that many people seem to think is true. Anger is energy – how it is externalised is up to you.
And yes, people who think of themselves as good people may – and probably will – get upset if you tell them by your righteous anger that they have at the very least benefited and been complicit in such injustices. In fact, they will probably go a lot farther than that. They’re going to resist. They’re going to call names, to excuse themselves, to say it happened a long time ago and it wasn’t their fault. They will argue that whatever is hurting you is hurting them too, to point out places and times where you, or your ancestors, or people like you, might have done something bad, or times when bad things happened to them, or their ancestors, or people like them (and all that might well be true, but some truths are not always relevant). And they’re going to be very, very hurt and dismayed at how angry you are, and how that’s just not like you, and they’ll try to persuade you that anger is not a valid approach, that you should be nice and calm and sensible and rational, just like them. They may even talk about how your anger is a sign that you’re not ready for, or perhaps not even capable of, being treated as equals.
But they can’t ignore the anger of the oppressed any longer. They have responded, and that is the beginning of dialogue.
(Time for a shift in POV and a narrowing of focus.)
Speaking as a white person in the face of anger expressed by people of colour, our reactions to anger are our problem. Not the problem of the people who are oppressed by the society we live in and benefit from, the people whom we indirectly and often directly oppress. We’re the ones who have to work though all the bullshit our privilege allows us to think and say and do. The anger of people of colour is what it is – the only honest response to what white colonialism, racism and imperialism has done to them. The fact that it is also a gift to us, if we chose to see it, is for us to understand and use.
Because people in power, people with white privilege - are, for the most part, not going to give up, or share, power and access, or let go of all the apparatus of lies and mystifications and covertly racist policies and all that shit that keeps us comfortable and unaware just because someone makes quiet, calm, logical, rational, nice arguments and appeals to reason. Because we can come up with just as many calm and logical arguments why it shouldn’t be done, why it doesn’t need to be done because the laws of god or history or the free market will do it in the right time and you’ll just have to wait for it, why it can't be done, at least right now, or why it wouldn't be right or fair or proper, or it would harm something important like the economy or national security or making whites feel good about ourselves, and all the other bullshit arguments. We have a million of them.
Most of us will not really be moved until we see and feel the anger of those we have oppressed, and understand it, and its consequences, in our gut. We are not going to change if we are asked nicely. Why should we? We have power, and privilege. It’s comfortable for us to stay that way. We might be poor, or women, or disabled, or queer, but at least we’re not people of colour – no matter how bad it gets for a white person, there’s always that little bit of privilege we can hold onto. (Of course, the intersectionality of oppressions means that many of you out there, regardless of your chromatic status, can say “at least I’m not a woman/disabled/queer/poor” – but this post is about racism, and we don’t need to fight about a hierarchy of oppressions, because there isn’t one.)
We’re not going to give this up without a struggle. We’re not even going to think about trying to give it up until we are forced to feel it. And we can’t feel a rational argument, or a polite observation. But we can feel your anger. And realise that this much anger has to come from something that hurts. That really, really hurts. And if we have any empathy left at all – and many of us do, it just that we don’t often engage it for people who we think aren’t like us – that’s going to eat inside of us, because we get angry when we’ve been hurt, and it will make us realise that you are like us, because you get angry when you’ve been hurt too. And then we, at least some of us, will start thinking about trying to give it up (in fact, some of us already have, and its because injustice makes us angry, pain makes us angry, and your anger made us understand that you are experiencing injustice and feeling pain).
Because it is about pain and empathy. This is why we make up myths about how certain kinds of people “don’t feel pain that way we do” or “don’t care about human life the way we do” or "hate our freedoms.” Because if we let ourselves realise that we're not the only ones who love life and freedom, and feel pain, that we're not special and refined and more evolved than all those other people we think are inferior, then we couldn’t sustain the illusion for ourselves any longer.
And that’s why anger will work, does work, has always worked. Constructive anger, anger that focuses the fire of justice on the pain that the unjust are trying to conceal, until even we can see how much pain you feel and how unjust we are.