I want to talk about anger today. This may seem contradictory to my last post on kindness and empathy, but it’s not. Because guess what? We can be kind, we can be empathetic, and we can also get angry.
Anger is an interesting issue, particularly for women, because we are socialized from the very beginning to suppress our anger.
It’s not uncommon for tears and anger to be paired for many women, and so we get called hysterical or told we’re out of control. Instead of accepting crying as a normal part of the experience of anger for some women, it’s labeled as weak or unprofessional. Most men don’t do it, therefore the assumption is that it shouldn’t be done (Note – I’m deliberately not delving into all the social reasons for why genders express emotions the way they do).
Men get to coach a sports team and scream at their players, all while being called good leaders. Men can throw tantrums on the court. Men can be testifying under oath, and rant and rave about the injustice of how they are being treated.
Put a woman in the same place, and see how people react to them.
Women are socialized to “be nice”. I don’t like nice. Niceness is about suppressing your own feelings to make someone else comfortable. And time and again, women bury what we’re really feeling in that desire to be nice. We allow others to violate our boundaries, because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. We’re told we have to take prioritize the needs of others, especially men, before ourselves. But our feelings matter, and we have every right to express ourselves.
And the same is true for so many marginalized groups.
Anger is used as a tool by dominant groups. It’s wielded as a weapon. Those with privilege get to police who is allowed to be angry and who has to be nice. And it works amazingly well.
White people are able to get angry and call the police for Black people simply existing in the same space. And yet recently a Black woman tried calling the police when a neighbor threatened her with a shotgun, and the police assaulted and arrested her instead.
Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim-American politicians in Congress, is being constantly harassed for speaking out. Literally every word she speaks is overanalyzed to a staggering degree, merely because she’s Muslim. There is not a single white, Christian politician who faces the same kind of scrutiny.
Over and over again, members of marginalized groups are dismissed or targeted. They’re told that their anger isn’t valid; that any anger is inappropriate, and unprofessional. That they need to sit down and shut up, and let the white men keep talking. That the comfort of those who are male and white and straight and able-bodied is the default, and everyone else should conform to it.
There was a video game released last year called Detroit: Become Human, about androids (i.e. robots) gaining sentience and fighting for equal rights with humans. Although it was wonderfully acted and beautifully designed, one thing that really stood out to me was how strongly the game pushed the narrative that anger is a bad choice. You can make the choice to fight, but the game highly emphasizes the idea that staying calm, even when your people are being shot in the streets, is supposed to be the morally superior decision.
What made it even worse was the fact that the game borrowed a great deal of imagery from the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. The androids rode in the back of the bus, they could use slogans like “I have a dream”, or symbols like the raised fist that is associated with the Black Power movement.
Media like this emphasizes the harmful idea that if oppressed groups just focused on fighting for rights in a “nice” way, then the dominant culture would happily give them more rights. That if oppressed people just would stop being so darn angry, than we could all live together happily.
The game doubles down on this concept by having the androids who follow the “peaceful” path gain the support of the government in their bid for equal rights, all within a matter of days. It completely disregards the fact that the real world has institutional racism and oppressive systems that hurt and kill people, in favor of a narrative that insists we can “all just get along”.
And the sad thing is that you see this narrative everywhere in our culture. Whenever members of marginalized groups get angry, people with privilege fall back on the “inappropriateness” of their message. “It’s not that I disagree with them,” they’ll say. “But they just did it in such an unprofessional way!”
It’s just one more way to keep power dynamics the same. Because if you make a bigger deal about how someone is saying something than what they’re actually saying, you don’t have to listen.
This is why I prefer the concept of kindness over niceness. Because I think that calling others out for oppressive and dominating behavior is kind. It’s thinking of the greater good. It’s prioritizing those who need advocates and allies. Kindness validates the anger of those who are suffering. And above all, when we fight back for what we need and deserve, we’re being kind to ourselves.
There are a lot of things I love about getting older. But one of the best is learning to not care what other people think. To not let other people’s discomfort hold me back from speaking my mind. And as I break through those limitations, I’ve learned to stop trying to hide my anger. There are things in this world we should be angry about. I’m going to be angry about them. And if someone doesn’t like that, too bad. They don’t get to tell me how I should feel.
I’m angry that every woman I know has a story of sexual harassment or assault, but so many people still worry about the impact of the MeToo movement on men.
I’m angry that despite thousands of people dying from gun violence every year, our country can’t pass common sense gun reform.
I’m angry that the Catholic Church has the utter gall to demand an apology for a joke on Saturday Night Live when they won’t take responsibility or accountability for all of the lives they’ve destroyed.
I’m angry that there are children who are still kicked out of their homes for being LGBTQ.
I’m not going to stop being angry about these things. I’m not going to stop talking about them.
Anger is not the purview of white straight men. Dominant culture will do everything it can to convince you that it is, but it’s a lie based on the fear of what will happen if they’re not always in control.
We shouldn’t be afraid of anger. Anger is necessary. Anger can spark change. It’s what we do with that anger that matters.
**Note: Right after I had written this, a friend sent me this article by Robin diAngelo for The Guardian: “White people assume niceness is the answer to racial inequality. It’s not.” It’s a very good read.