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“Black rage” and “self restraint”

Last week I received a compliment (of sorts) from a Twitter follower who found my level of self-restraint remarkable when dealing with a particularly odious and clueless post from a Men’s Rights forum. This person marveled at my ability to maintain a sense of calm purposefulness while examining and disemboweling an argument that was built on a factual foundation so shaky as to inspire epistemic vertigo in anyone who read it. This person confided to me that ze would not have been able to keep hir cool in the face of such an outrageously fallacious and inflammatory argument.

While my usual policy with compliments is to thank the giver for taking the time to say so, I felt a twinge inside me that was clearly the initial birth pangs of this post.

I am, if I can be a trustworthy adjudicator of my own behaviour, a fairly calm person by nature. Years of putting my foot in my mouth (and dealing with the social consequences thereof)  have engendered an instinct to think before speaking. My time spent on the internet has inculcated in me an instinct to keep my guard up and maintain a sense of ironic detachment from most things, particularly where race is concerned. Being the biggest kid on the playground meant that I had to learn quite early to control my temper lest I hurt someone smaller than me. I’m also profoundly secure with who I am and what I’m doing in my life, to the point where most of what happens on the internet is just occasionally-irritating noise.

All that being said, that’s not what maintained my sense of calm at seeing the word “nigger” twisted to defend the absurd ideology of the anti-feminists that make up – if not the bulk, at least a very visible plurality – the so-called “Men’s Rights” movement*. As I was first reacting and then responding to the post in question, I was very acutely of a meme that exists in the ‘memeosphere’ about anti-racists of colour. One that really applies to any person of colour (PoC) – but particularly black people – who speak up about any injustice or affront:

The angry black man.

Tied to the image/myth of the black man** as a dangerous and potentially-violent figure is the idea that black men walk around with a barely-contained rage that will spill out at any instant. To be sure, this is also tied up in a narrative about men as primal beasts who chafe at the restrictions that civilization place on them (a narrative that is exploited and cultivated by anti-gay conservatives and “Pick Up Artists” alike), but there is an element to black anger that nearly always enters into racial conversations, often accompanied by the phrase “race baiting” (which I have never heard anyone define consistently).

The idea is that black people are just so pissed off about racism, and of course have not “got over” slavery the way white folks have, that they (we) cannot discuss race dispassionately or ‘objectively’. Our opinions and contributions are therefore subjected to an extra layer of scrutiny, a “detriment of the doubt” if you’ll allow the phrase. Surely, the reasoning goes, a group of people so furious about “historical” injustices and harbouring (as we all do) a “deep-seated resentment of white people” as avatar of whiteness Glenn Beck so famously put it, cannot be trusted to have opinions that are worth listening to. After all, we know that anger makes people say crazy things like “racial discrimination played a major role in the housing collapse of 2008“.

It is by this process that black voices are pushed to the margins of the discussion, leaving only those who can be calm about racism to take part in the discussion. Never is there any discussion of whether the anger, when legitimate anger is expressed, is justified or evidence-based in any way. Similarly absent is the consideration that those invoking the “black anger” meme might be contributing to the problem. When similar behaviour is observed among non-blacks, suddenly it ceases to be belligerent (and therefore ignorable) anger and becomes something laudable – consider the hysteria over the New Black Panther Party*** versus what happens when a group of armed “Tea Party Patriots” converges on a downtown square (or even Washington, DC).

There are abundant parallels to be drawn where this process happens outside a racialized zone. Greta Christina titled her most recent book after the invocation of this technique by theists to disparage nonbelievers who speak up about the absuses of religion. An occurrence so common as to be more or less mainstream is this attack used to discredit women, particularly (but certainly not exclusively) feminists when speaking up about misogyny and gender-based discrimination. The implication is that the problems being raised are either trivial ones that would be easy to solve if people (read: the low-status group) would just calm down, or that members of the low-status group are bringing forth frivolous complaints wrapped in anger instead of supported by ‘objective’ fact.

It is worth noting, and perhaps deserves its own post (though I am hardly the one to speak to this position), that the burden of “black anger” and “shrill harpy” is borne doubly by women of colour who can be easily marginalized by both white folks and men. This intersection of exclusionary factors may explain why there are so few women of colour participating in the atheist movement (and, to be sure, other political movements as well) – it’s exhausting when you have to shout all the time just to be heard at all, and to then have your shouting dismissed as ‘irrational anger’.

To be sure, I am not the writer I am because of my fear of dismissal due to “black anger”. As I said off the top I am dispositionally a pretty mellow dude. Rare are the moments where I want to cut loose with a string of profanity, suddenly realize that white people don’t like it, and so delete my rants and start over with butterflies and flowers. However, I know that when I talk about race, and particularly when I make criticisms, I have to moderate my tone and my manner if I want to avoid the all-too-easy dismissals that come with being a black voice articulating a problem. I think I have good ideas, and would hate to see them ignored because I provided some asshole with an easy loophole to duck out of.

And so, I wrote back to my would-be-complimenter on Twitter, it is a mistake to chalk my seeming ‘restraint’ up to some kind of heroic virtue on my part. It’s not virtue; it’s self-preservation. I avoid anger for the same reason I correct typos – because failure to do so undermines my argument and provides a cheap and easy target for those who would rather sneer at my ideas than engage with them.

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*A name that reminds me of nothing more than the “White Rights” movement, which is simply the more civil (and whiny) face of various white supremacist groups.

**There is indeed a meme about the angry black woman, one that seeks to minimize and trivialize legitimate complaints and stigmatize ordinary behaviour as “angry”. More on this later.

***The New Black Panther Party is a handful of nuts who bear no resemblance whatsoever to the Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 70s, but made for a convenient bogeyman for racist conservatives to hold up as a national menace.

Comments

  1. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Thanks for this. Not enough is said about Black anger. It’s one of the things that has made US political discourse around Obama so F*n nasty. Of course they were nasty to John Kerry who was like the establishment republicans in virtually every way…save being for a little more health care and little (very little) less war. Seriously.

    And yet, what they did to him, as bad as it was, wasn’t anything like the skepticism Obama faces everytime he differs in a policy opinion from, well from anyone. The only reason he could possibly have to disagree is that he actively wants the destruction of the US’s good, good white folk. They can’t say why: he’s a secret muslim, he’s a rabid anti-colonialist, he’s an atheist, whatever. But the real reason for many is that (whether they even consciously realize it, and I’m sure many don’t) some white folk can’t imagine a Black man criticizing from a generous place. Its never constructive ccriticism working for a better US. It’s always and only illegitimate anger.

    Of course, if you really study the history of race in the US, I can imagine some whites are just terrified, thinking: if my family went through that, I’d be blowing people away. With the Harper’s Ferry incidents so rare and distant, I’m sure some people are just certain that some violent retribution must be coming. Every mention of historical context is, for these folks, simply an insistent reminder that the US isn’t “over” things for which they can’t imagine a non-violent response.

    [[Aside: is what I'm writing at all affected by listenting to "Walk Softly but Carry a Big Gun"?]]

    I can’t decide if I really need to be back in the states so i can be one more voice fighting this or if I need to be in Frickin’ Kenya to get away from this crap for about a decade.

  2. jesse says

    Crommunist–

    Liked this a lot. One response to the “angry back man” thing is to say, “You know what? I am angry and have a damned good reason to be angry.” That’s in a sense what the old BPP did. (And while I think they were a deeply problematic organization, that doesn’t make the premise they were operating under wrong).

    I mean, I’m not even black, and for god’s sake I am amazed that black folks of either sex or whatever gender aren’t pissed off all the time. To my mind y’all have good reason to be. You should be. I don’t mean being outraged every second, but whenever a white person asks why PoC are angry, I say “what f-ing planet have you been on? Black folks and PoC have been taking it, and taking it, to Jesus-like levels for generations. A better question: why isn’t there violence every single day?”

    As a Jewish-descended person, I used to let Christians (the kind that self-identify as such and are usually born-again) have it with both barrels when I got the chance, especially when they talk about persecution of Christians. I think they were shocked that a Jewish person could get that pissed off :-)

    And the question above about violence isn’t just to be flip. It often leads to a better discussion of why we don’t have the kind of inter-communal violence in the US that you have in say, the former Yugoslavia, and point to times where it HAS happened — most white folks don’t even know that there were several black townships literally burned to the ground, residents murdered, in our recent history.

    It’s something I think about a lot, and whenever violence happens I always turn the question around like that because if nothing else, it helps me to think through the problem.

    But I understand what you are saying here, about the whole anger meme being used to silence people.

    Like the song says, tho: “Anger is an energy.”

  3. John Horstman says

    A name that reminds me of nothing more than the “White Rights” movement, which is simply the more civil (and whiny) face of various white supremacist groups.

    That was my first thought when I saw the phrase too! I initially assumed it was an ironic epithet applied to the group by the feminist crowd due to its obvious connection to “White rights”. I grossly overestimated the self-awareness of the members of the ‘movement’. If one slaps “rights” behind the name of a privileged group that doesn’t really lack rights, it’s going to come off that way.

    often accompanied by the phrase “race baiting” (which I have never heard anyone define consistently)

    My understanding is that it’s a form of trolling, doing/saying some racist shit in order to piss someone off and make one more marginal in the eyes of an audience. That said, I very much prefer to describe it as “doing/saying some racist shit”, since I don’t find the motivation to be particularly important in most cases when someone is doing/saying something really racist (deep hatred versus fear versus trolling versus rhetorical tactic versus whatever; the exception is genuine ignorance, which can sometimes be addressed with new information; I’m making an effort – often failing – to assume ignorance as my null hypothesis, since it strikes me as the kindest assumption and it becomes apparent pretty quickly if that’s NOT the motivating factor).

    It is by this process that black voices are pushed to the margins of the discussion, leaving only those who can be calm about racism to take part in the discussion. Never is there any discussion of whether the anger, when legitimate anger is expressed, is justified or evidence-based in any way. Similarly absent is the consideration that those invoking the “black anger” meme might be contributing to the problem.

    This; this! A thousand times this!

    Another thing you do that helps both your writing and ideas be good is a significant amount of self-critical analysis. This is a practice that’s sorely lacking pretty much everywhere I look. People are quick to question the biases and prejudices (real or imagined) of others, but fail to turn the critical lens on their own assumptions and biases. This is sad, because if one really wants one’s ideas to be good and to reflect reality, one must subject them to the same strict scrutiny as everything else. We may not be aware of our biases and thus it may take someone else to point them out, which I why I’ve come to a place where I take criticisms of my own thoughts and behaviors, especially when linked to concepts like privilege or positionality/framing that make it difficult to see those biases when we don’t already know about them, as really valuable opportunities to challenge and possibly refine or change my ideas.
    If we want our ideas to be the best possible, we must welcome challenges to them, and challenge them ourselves (the fact that someone isn’t doing this is a good indication that ze doesn’t really want to ever learn or form the best ideas ze can). That process is exactly how I came to embrace my theoretical perspective on feminism from a privilege-denying, difference-denying, everyone-should-be-treated-exactly-the-same idea of ‘equality’ that completely ignored the effects of context on the meanings/impacts of one’s actions. Anyway, I think this piece of self-analysis is another instance of that valuable process, and it makes some other great points in the process.

  4. says

    My understanding is that it’s a form of trolling, doing/saying some racist shit in order to piss someone off and make one more marginal in the eyes of an audience.

    Except that those who invoke the phrase almost always invoke the name of Al Sharpton, who doesn’t do anything that matches that description. If I had to guess, I’d say that ‘race baiting’ means that you’re raising racial issues where they are not relevant in order to garner the white-guilt-driven sympathy of liberals. Of course this goes back to the idea that people who DENY racism (or at least don’t experience it) are the best judges of whether or not it’s relevant, rather than taking the cue from those who understand it at a personal level.

  5. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I totally understand what you mean, not because I claim to be coming from the same position, but the very opposite.

    As a kid growing up in Ireland, I was pretty frightened of black people. They just randomly exploded into violence over nothing. I mean, TV told me this all the time. One particular image that has stuck with me is Denzel Washington in Philadelphia, beating the crap out of the white guy in the grocery/drug store.

    Now… I never met a black guy (nevermind a black woman) until I was 16, and even then I was in Northern Ireland at the time (y’know, outside the country). His calm, articulate (I know, I know, so help me, I have no better way to say this) and polite demeanour confused the hell out of me. He was co-running a weeklong drama workshop, intended to introduce high school kids from the Republic to high school kids from the North.

    So I understand what you mean. Every interaction I had with him (and other black men and women that I met later, a mere handful in total) were held up in contrast to this nonsensical image that I had as a child. And I am somewhat confused and angered that I even have this image in the first place.

    I mean, when I think of the Irish revolutionaries of the 1916s, I see in my minds eye angry, raging men and women. But I don’t fear their anger, it’s not directed at me in this image. But the mythical ‘angry black man’ is definitely angry at me, and it’s a rage I have been told to fear.

    I’ve never lived in the country where these racial tensions were (arguably) created, refined, honed and built on, yet I have to view the world, and my friendships, through this unwelcome lense. These cariacatures help… who, exactly? Yet they are thrust into the minds of the world to take root and fester.

    Obviously, the “burden” I have of deconstructing and removing this bullshit from my own mind is nothing compared to this shit being in your face directly, of having to deal with people who don’t even see the filter as bullshit, but prejudice all your actions and interactions through it as if their own had no input into the situation at all.

    At this point, with no point to focus on, and no solution to offer, I shall trail off…..

  6. Brian Lynchehaun says

    And for the record: I think it’s a given that I didn’t understand Philadelphia at the time of my watching it. Though Mr. T. did a good job of reinforcing that stereotype too…

  7. says

    Yeah, it’s funny. I used to claim my bad temper as an Irish thing. You’d think socialization as a white girl in the US would have trained me out of that. But it barely made a dent, partly because with my small size and skin color, I got in almost no trouble for yelling or being violent; people still have trouble understanding that I have that potential.

    The only thing that really controls my temper is how much I want to be effective in talking of social justice. So in that way, even though I don’t understand what it’s like to be constantly seen as a physical threat, I grok this post. WilloNyx was right, it is great.

  8. stakkalee says

    Another thought-provoking post. I keep coming back to the idea of ‘civility’ and how it intersects with themes of dispassion and polite language. A racist idea calmly promulgated with no swears is still uncivil, and active engagement with that idea, even in order to disprove it, still gives it a certain credence. Sometimes the only appropriate, civil response to someone saying something racist is to tell them to go fuck themselves, but then you might lose the opportunity to change minds (assuming there are minds to change listening in at that particular moment.) That’s one reason why I think community response to some of these problems is the most effective – it’s probably much easier for you to respond calmly to these ideas when you know someone else will be along soon to respond in a less restrained, more satisfying manner.

  9. olibird says

    Yeah, Brian.
    I remember those times too. I don’t know why I never had that threatened feeling actively that way, but I never quite did. It certainly wasn’t for want of trying by society though, I’d say, even if not actively. Ireland was pretty racist back then (and, sadly, still is).
    Thinking about it, however, it’s possibly more xenophobia than racism. It doesn’t get applied any more (in my experience from watching such interactions) to a PoC than it does to a Pole.

    Oli

  10. says

    Staying calm never did me any favors in arguing with men. If you aren’t saying anything confrontational enough for them to label you ‘hysterical’ then they basically just ignore you.

    I really appreciate when dudes help out, they can’t be dismissed for the same reasons.

  11. says

    It’s a weird tightrope to walk, because I always worry that my “helping” is actually just pushing women’s voices more to the margins so that A MANLY MAN can solve the problem of sexism. I’m simultaneously torn between wanting to assist and realizing that more male voices aren’t necessarily the answer. I’d imagine white anti-racists go through some of the same internal struggles.

  12. F says

    And yet, what they did to him, as bad as it was, wasn’t anything like the skepticism Obama faces everytime he differs in a policy opinion from, well from anyone.

    Pfft. Obama gets it for promoting the same policies which conservatives have promoted in the past. He can be even further to the right on a policy, but it’s “socialist” or “dictatorial” because he’s Black and a Democrat. If he weren’t Black, the Grandstanding Other Party would take any of these policies as a win; a compromise of the sort they are used to getting from Dems. They really should be fooken pleased as punch with Obama as the Democrat President.

  13. F says

    the “White Rights” movement

    Yeah. This is one of those instances where “Mission Accomplished” would actually be appropriate. Before the movement actually began. Including the mission creep that allows whitefolks more privilege and rights than other groups.

  14. says

    I’m waiting for him to realize that they’ll cry ‘foul’ every time he does ANYTHING, so he might as well just do what he wants. Compromising won’t get him anywhere, but fighting for liberal principles might scare them into moving the goalposts back into the general zip code of sanity.

  15. jackal says

    Great post! I have always found your posts well reasoned, and not just because Canadian English follows the same rules as British English and therefore looks extra sophisticated to readers from the USA.

    I was aware of the “black anger” stereotype, especially in media portrayal, but I hadn’t given much thought to how it is used to police the way POCs express themselves, esp when speaking out against racial injustice. I empathise! As someone who is usually perceived as female*, I’ve learned to repress my emotions, least I feed into the “hysterical woman” stereotype. I’m really glad you brought up the race-gender intersection, and I look forward to reading the follow up post.
    ________

    *I’m a non-binary; I don’t identify as female or male. (I’m stoked to see non-gendered pronouns being use here on FTB! Personally, I tend to use they/their/them, but I’ll be thrilled if any set is accepted into general use.)

  16. jackal says

    I get the tightrope idea. Occasionally in small meatspace groups, I might know more about a specific issue that the PoC(s) (if any) present, so I’ll speak up while trying not to white-splain or dominate the discussion. But if I’m in a discussion that’s purposely assembled to talk about race issues, I tend to shut up and listen.

    As noted elsewhere, I’ve found your writing clear and insightful. Male voices aren’t the answer, but they are a necessary part of the solution, especially in the context of lending support to women’s voices, and especially in all-male spaces, not letting casual sexism go unchecked. So I hope you continue to write about gender issues.

  17. says

    I’m working on a polite expression to respond to racism. My current front runner is, “What a perfectly vile way to think!” Suggestions, of course, are appreciated.

    I tend to get very crisp and school-marmish rather than exploding. Unfortunately, the next level of astonished disgust at some people’s minds is dumbfounded silence.

  18. Brian Lynchehaun says

    I agree: how racism plays out in the US is quite different from how it plays out in Europe.

    It’s very different to how it plays out here in Japan too.

    But I think ‘xenophobia’ is a general underlying causal factor, for sure. The US is expressing that through its historical filter, while Ireland is impacted by that (through mass media) it also has its own filters too.

    Incidentally, if this is the Oli I think it is (Gaelcon, mutual friend of Mr. O’Brien), then holy sh!t this is a small world…

  19. olibird says

    Yes, same Oli. I may have had multiple reasons for replying to you ;)

    Incidentally, where do people think xenophobia and racism *don’t* intersect? Is one just a subset of the other?

  20. mynameischeese says

    I endured Ireland with a Polish surname in my younger years (then changed by name) and it was a huge pain-in-the-arse. However, I’d still say that there is white privilege at work because a Pole can change their accent, stop wearing head-to-toe-camo and blend in to a certain degree and only face difficulty when someone asks their surname or, “Where are you from?” Whereas a POC, even if they are born in Ireland and they grow up with the correct accent and fashion sense and can give a satisfactory answer to “Where are you from?” will still be assumed to be a refugee at some point just because of their skin colour.

    Also, the Roma do get a lot more hassle than Irish travelers, so there is another place where white privilege comes in.

  21. mynameischeese says

    Yeah. I’m on the other tightrope. As a feminist trying to do anti-racism, I think that white people should do some of the “work” and should make sure that it’s not always a POC who has to “teach” white people. But then I also don’t think white people should dominate the discourse either.

  22. says

    actually @Crommunist’s post: This sentiment exactly! The Republicans will never compromise with anything Obama does, so he might as well go as progressive as possible.

  23. John D says

    Obama is no friend to men of color. He has again waved sanctions against nations that use child soldiers (overwhelmingly black boys).

    When the oldest nationally recognized black fraternity sent a letter to Obama imploring him to create a cabinet level office on men and boys as he did for women and girls, Obama promptly ignored them.

    Obama is trying to get himself re-elected. To do this he is cozying up to feminists and throwing black men under the bus.

    Feminists have several multi-million dollar advocacy machines at their disposal. Women of all colors are 56% of the vote. Black men are 6% of the population and probably far less than that of the vote considering imprisonment and disenfranchisement.

    This goes to show you that to concentrate power, often times you actually have a politician who contributes to the marginalization of people who look just like him or her.

    The is the focal point of where black oppression meets male oppression. Women of color are covered under feminist inspired programs that help women, men of color are not.

    When epithets like “men have all the power” are thrown around it becomes socially and politically acceptable to ignore the plights of men, even men of color, depressed, impoverished depressed men.

    Because it is mistakenly believed that all men always have agency, then if they are vulnerable or victimized it is perceived to be by their own dumb choices not external forces(because men have agency)and it becomes socially acceptable to ignore or even mock and insult vulnerable and victimized men.

    Think Sharon Osbourne’s laughing at a man who was sexually mutilated on The Talk to a tittering female audience could ever be gender reversed? How quickly would a nationally broadcast show be yanked (or sponsors boycotting) if a largely male panel mocked the sexual mutilation of a woman w/a largely male audience expressing glee?

    Because of this false belief that men always have agency and women (unless white and rich) never do, vulnerable women get sympathy and help, vulnerable men (men of color, impoverished, ptsd suffering war vets, etc..) get mocking and derision.

    This is male oppression. The gender binary creates both male oppression and male privilege and both female oppression and female privilege. The social safety net by far reaches out to women in a way it (seemingly purposefully) does not for men. 80% of adults in transitional housing are women and children. But you look up PIT (point in time) counts of on-the-street homeless of almost any county or city and 80 to 90% of the chronically destitute homeless are men.

    Tacking on “women and children” to any law, committee or bureaucracy is like the money shot in porn. It makes us feel better, and gives us a warm fuzzy feeling.

    Recognizing male oppression seems very counter-intuitive, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Studies in sentencing show that there is a male disadvantage in criminal sentencing about equally strong as the black disadvantage in sentencing.

    What black men are feeling is being in the crosshairs of both male and black oppression and that is a horrible place to be.

    Even a very liberal black male politician like Obama who has personally felt racial discrimination can and will ignore the plights of men of color to concentrate his power.

    What does that say to the idea of patriarchy that says all male politicians exert their power to the betterment of men?

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