“Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, co-optation. My anger is a response to racist attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes.” ... ”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; we must be quite serious about the choice of topic and the angers entwined within it because, rest assured, our opponents are quite serious about their hatred of us and what they are trying to do here.” ― Audre Lorde “The Uses of Anger”
Anger makes us uncomfortable, but let’s be real here, emotions in general make us uncomfortable. When someone cries we immediately rush to cheer them up but when someone is angry, we shame them for it. It’s a strong emotion that results from sadness gone unacknowledged. But is it wrong and more importantly can it be effective in bringing forth change?
There’s this widely accepted idea that the most important part of having a conversation on topics of injustice is to be respectful and calm in order to be heard.
Here are four common arguments in favor of respectability politics and why they need to be retired from the progressive movement.
1) If you’re calm and respectful, people are more likely to listen.
“I speak out of a direct and particular anger at a particular academic conference,and a white woman comes up and says, ‘Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you.’ But is it my manner that keeps her from hearing,or the message that her life may change?” ― Again, Audre Lorde.
Haven’t we ever stopped to wonder what it is that makes us so resistant to the idea that internal bias (for e.g., racism) still exists in all of us who carry white privilege? Especially when the vast majority of other races and ethnicities have pointed this out to us. Perhaps it’s because we’ve never experienced systematic racism, making us unable to empathize (aka privilege).
The very mention of privilege creates such a tension around topics of injustice that makes it nearly impossible for a privileged person not to feel personally attacked when these issues are brought up.
In an article on white fragility, Shae Collins writes, “Racial injustice physically, emotionally, mentally, and financially hurts us. Sometimes, it even kills us.” and “These emotions are legitimate reactions to our reality. They are not personal attacks on your character. They aren’t actually about you at all.”
We need to distinguish the difference between strongly disagreeing with someone, each person arguing their points with passion or anger, and personally attacking someone.
If anger within these conversations makes us uncomfortable, perhaps we just don’t understand why people are angry. That people in fact should be angry and if we aren’t angry about these issues it’s only because we feel they aren’t important enough to be angry over.
The fact that these conversations, accompanied by emotion are uncomfortable, is not a reflection on the problem with bringing emotion to a discussion. The fact that these conversations accompanied by emotion are dismissed is a problem with privilege and the stigma of having emotion.
2) It doesn’t affect you, so why are you so angry?
The fact of the matter is, if I don’t fight for the equality of all people, my access to equality means nothing because it won’t be formed in light of true equality, it will be formed in a hierarchy created by systems of patriarchy and white supremacy. It will be formed with the intent to protect the most privileged people from having to accept a level of change that makes them truly uncomfortable.
Every person deserves to have the same rights and opportunities as the most privileged people in society. Equality can’t come with stipulations. All forms of oppression are related and if we don’t address them all, we can’t address any.
Past movements for women’s equality have failed to bring real change for this very reason. Our dear Susan B. Anthony can be quoted as saying, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
So as white women were granted the right to vote in 1920, people of color were still fighting for that right in the late ‘60s. We have continued to support systems of oppression while attempting to fight only against those which affect us, making us as oppressive as our oppressors.
3) These are just opinions and everyone is entitled to their opinion.
The idea is that during these conversations, the most important thing is to keep the peace and not let anyone become uncomfortable or offended. Too often when a conversation starts to get heated, a mediator steps in and the discussion gets boiled down to a difference of opinion as to end the uncomfortable exchange.
You may leave a discussion “agreeing to disagree” and continue on in your relationships as if these conversations don’t affect you but is agreeing to disagree on issues of injustice effective in bringing change?
Instead of addressing how these “opinions” are harming the lives of those affected, the conversation is ended and rated based on the level of emotion and not on the validity of the points being made.
And you’re right to say we CAN boil it down to just having different opinions but the question is SHOULD we? The truth is that our privilege is what allows us to dismiss the suffering of real people and simply “agree to disagree.” We aren’t directly affected and we don’t have the experience to understand the anger, therefore we label it as disrespectful or inappropriate to get worked up over such things.
So yes you’re entitled to your opinion but others are also entitled to say that your opinion and position are harmful and morally wrong.
4) Revolution doesn’t bring change of heart.
The question is, does it really matter if someone (supporting or ignoring the oppression of other people) has a change of heart before change is demanded and brought forth? You would be hard pressed to find this method as effective throughout history. (I’ll wait.)
As Martin Luther King says in his letter from Birmingham jail, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” and continues with, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
The opinion that heart change is more important than social change is a veiled form of victim blaming. If your partner is beating you, in no way is it appropriate for me to suggest that you should treat them better in order for them to stop beating you. It’s also not appropriate for me to attack the way you’re handling your emotions before I respond to the atrocity of their beatings (let alone attacking the way you’re handling yourself at all).
It’s nice to believe that everyone is good at heart but sometimes our privilege is so blinding that we truly don’t recognize other people as human. People hold very tightly to what makes sense to them, any threat to the ideas they have built their morality upon is going to be met with resistance whether someone “asks nicely” or not.
Emotions are central to these topics. It’s not the job of the suffering to be pandering to respectability politics. It’s our job to unlearn the idea that we get to dismiss or take offence to the emotional responses of the oppressed. If we ourselves aren’t angered at the injustice, we have no right to speak against those who are fighting against it.
To put it simply we can do better.
More importantly, read up on the people quoted in this article who are much more intelligent and interesting than I.
For More From Marisa Peters read her blog Stream & Stone