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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.