Last week Several months ago because half of this post got buried in my drafts folder for ages before I decided to resurrect/finish it this week, Patrick RichardsFink published a post called Dear Straight People. It was about, among other things, microaggressions and the reaction of straight people to queer anger and frustration- which is, of course, something that can be expanded to speaking of any relatively privileged person reacting to the anger of any relatively marginalised or oppressed person. It sparked off a long and involved conversation over on Facebook, and, to be honest.. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I feel a lot of things about it. It seems to me that when we talk about this- and this is not the first conversation I’ve had this month on the topic- we talk past each other. We all speak from our own pain, reacting to the unfairness that we experience, and it’s tough to listen to others. Especially when, as we’re talking about anger, people are on edge. This post won’t be a conclusive statement or a manifesto on how we should all act towards each other forever. It’s about exploring what I see as some of the different threads and conversations going on, and trying to get to a place where we’re talking about the same things at the same times. I’m bringing in quotes and perspectives from earlier, not because I necessarily agree with all of them, but because I want them to be part of the conversation. Oh, and one note, before we start: Please don’t assume someone’s orientation or identity from what they write, unless it’s specifically stated in the text.
Do marginalised people get to express anger?
This is the most obvious question. Nobody disagreed with this: everyone accepted that marginalised people (we were largely talking about queer people but some referred to other experiences they have) get to feel upset, frustrated and angry, and that attempts to force us to be constantly polite are damaging and oppressive. Here’s Mona:
This actually applies to lots of minority issues, on different levels. (And I hope it is not perceived as disrespecting the original topic to mention this.) Many minority language cultures, for example, would do well with a bit of rightful anger, but all too often they are expected to remain polite in the face of everyday contempt and ridiculing.
This. I have a right to be angry. My anger is a perfectly natural and reasonable reaction. Why do my friends think I’m ‘too involved’ in something I literally cannot avoid, something I live every single day? I am allowed to be angry!
Okay. So we get to be mad. We get to have real feelings- that aren’t always pretty- about things that, as Maria said, we are forced to live with every single day. And as Mona said, it’s not just that marginalised people are expected to be polite. We’re expected to be polite when others are not. It is not okay that others get to ridicule us, hold us in contempt, spread lies about us, and make simple parts of our lives significantly more stressful, without backlash. Anger, then, isn’t just something that is ‘okay’. It’s a predictable response to intolerable situations. Constructive anger is fuel for our efforts to change things. And as for the anger we don’t or can’t channel into something productive, right then? I’ll leave you with Aoife B (yes, by the way, there are more Aoifes. Ireland is full of us):
People hurt, people get angry, people say things that they don’t mean, or don’t mean in that way. That’s being human. And we’re all human.
With that, let’s look into anger when it’s not necessarily constructive: anger as venting, anger as outbursts. Uglier kinds of anger. One thing before we go on: this is about anger. Not abuse. Not violence. Just anger and frustration. At no point am I going to condone any form of abuse by anyone. I don’t care how oppressed you are, you don’t get to be abusive, and you don’t get to use any kind of nonconsensual physical violence. Ever. End of story. Before we move on to the next question, let’s take a look at microaggressions, because this is where things start to become tricky. RichardsFink’s original post was about microaggressions and our responses to them, so let’s start from there for a little context:
Part of the experience of being marginalized is microaggressions — ambiguous situations where discrimination happens in ways that are not cut and dried. It’s been shown that these situations have a serious negative effect on us. It’s like walking around with the top layer of your skin abraded away, where something that wouldn’t bother you if it happens once in a while stings like a yellowjacket precisely because it keeps happening, over and over, and if you react to it, people who don’t deal with it all the time wonder “what’s their problem?” …People need to vent. People need to blow off steam. People in marginalized populations sometimes say things about the dominant culture in less than perfectly tactful ways. Say things like “many straight people suck, man.” Some even say things like “I hate straight people.” …if you say something like that in public, it makes straight people uncomfortable. And God forbid we should do anything that makes you uncomfortable, even for a moment, even if there is absolutely no way that anything we say can possibly cause you any damage whatsoever beyond that instant of minor discomfort.
Let’s summarise that: If you’re in a marginalised group, then you are likely to have to deal with all sorts of things every day that, taken individually, are fairly minor. When they don’t happen once, but ten or a hundred times, though? They become a big deal. If you’re wondering about the kinds of things I’m talking about, read a few of these. And then read a few more. And a few more. And more. If that doesn’t work? Picture yourself at work. You have something to get done. Someone pops to your desk for a moment to ask a question- no big deal. You answer and get back to your work. Now imagine that someone comes to ask you a simple question every five minutes for your entire work day (yes, I know this isn’t exactly far-fetched). A bit different, eh? Let’s move on to a tricky question.
Do marginalised people have a responsibility to ensure their anger is always proportional, directed at the right people, and fair?
Microaggressions can wear you down. They don’t call it the straw that broke the camel’s back for nothing, y’know? If someone has been dealing with microaggressions- be that constant questions at their desk, or constant comments about their appearance from strangers- all day, it’s not unheard-of for the 10th (or 100th) person to get snapped at. Even if they’re doing something entirely unrelated. And if you’ve been getting hassle almost exclusively from people of one group- say men, or straight people, or white people- it’s not uncommon to lash out back. Is this fair? Is it okay? Honestly, I don’t know. Katie says absolutely not- that while you need a space to vent, you’ve got to keep innocent bystanders out:
basically ….just because every person who has come into the office today has been rude to me. This does not mean I get to shout at the next person who comes in to the office and if all of those people just happened to be Men .. I am not going to assume that all of mankind are to blame I know they are not but some are the select few who were in the office today. When I go to vent about it later on de interwebs it is important to make that distinction for myself and others. Everyone has anger and I am not saying the authors anger is not justified I just don’t like the way they have chosen to deal with their anger by using it to defend their sweeping generalisations.
Lucy has a similar perspective:
While I fundamentally agree with the idea that the minority group has every right to be angry, I disagree that this fact gives anyone a free pass to say hateful things about another group. I am queer. I would never say that I hate straight people. I might say “I hate when people do XYZ, which tends to go along with straight privilege,” but I’m not going to say I hate a group of people, and I can’t support those who do say things like that.
It seems that for both Katie and Lucy it’s important to acknowledge that even when acting in a particular oppressive way is associated with membership of a certain group, group membership isn’t destiny and we need to point out that privileged groups aren’t oppressive monoliths.
This ties into a closely related point: oppression is not a thing perpetuated solely by the people in a powerful group against those in a marginalised one. Oppression is a thing perpetuated by society as a whole. It is internalised by people regardless of group membership. Sexism, for example, is not defined as a system in which men and only men oppress everybody else. It is a system where men are privileged above not-men due to both overt and subtle ubiquitous forces and tendencies. The patriarchy isn’t men. It’s all of us. That’s one hell of an academic distinction, though, when you’re the one dealing with the patriarchal (/kyriarchal) bullshit.
I think that there are two conflicting responsibilities here. Most of us are marginalised people in some way. We’re going to get angry. While it is not always possible or practical (anger is messy!), channelling that anger towards worthy targets is a good aim.
Expressing anger, however, does have another function.
Anger as Visibility
Anger is visible. Remember how I said that oppression is a thing perpetuated by all of us? One of the ways this happens is by our common denial that we have anything to do with it. Homophobes are the WBC, and I’ve never stood on the street telling queers they’re going to burn in hell. Racists wear white sheets, and the only white sheets I have are on my bed. Sexists are… you get the picture. Extreme forms of discrimination are easy to see. We’re nothing like that.
Except, of course, that extreme forms of discrimination have to be nurtured somewhere, and I’m afraid that that somewhere is, to one extent or another, everywhere. When the status quo is oppressive (it is), then staying neutral just keeps things as they are.
The status quo needs shaking up. Anger- even messy outbursts of I CAN’T FUCKING DEAL WITH THIS SHIT ANYMORE WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING- shakes things up. Anger is a sign that someone’s been stressed to a breaking point. Anger reminds us that something is rotten. It knocks away a little of our complacency.
Of course we all should try to direct our anger in productive ways as much as possible. It’s not a disaster, however, when that doesn’t happen. And remember: this kind of anger doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s a response. As for dealing with that response..
What are the responsibilities of allies?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I despise the word ‘ally’. Don’t like it. I’ll go into why in a lot of detail in another post, but in short: supporting marginalised groups you’re not a member of is a thing you do, not a thing you are. That said, (almost) all of us have some privilege, and if we’re working against that we’re likely to encounter anger sometimes. Ugly, messy, lashing-out anger. Let’s not sugarcoat this. Receiving anger hurts. But that hurt doesn’t happen out of context. Sean had this to say:
Someone from a minority making claims about white, straight, able-bodied men might still do emotional harm but it’s not very likely to contribute towards further discrimination. I admit I do get offended when people make sweeping claims like “I hate straight people” because I do my best to be open-minded and inform myself on issues that minority groups face but I guess at the end of the day I can put up with the odd comment like that because society isn’t exactly oppressing me. (Italics are mine)
While as oppressed people it’s often a good idea to focus our anger at appropriate targets when we can, when we are privileged it’s our responsibility to.. deal with it. Take some breaths. If we need to stew and simmer (we’re only human!), be careful about where we direct that hurt. Understand that whatever anger we’re receiving is magnified many times by the other crap the person has had to deal with. Accept that it’s not fair. It’s not fair for anyone involved. Understand that the hurt and outrage you’re feeling is happening because of all the unacceptable things that the person lashing out at you has to deal with. Direct your hurt and outrage there. The more privilege you have in a situation, the more responsibility you have to not lash back. On this one, I’ll leave you with Ernest:
Immediately reacting to an understandable-if-hyperbolic-and-ill-considered outburst of “AAARGH GROUP X ARE REALLY ANNOYING TODAY” by immediately asking “you don’t mean me?” or “not ALL…” pretty much means that you are now included in the subset of Group X who are annoying them today. If The Generic You feels it’s necessary to pull someone up for something they’ve said while angry, do it when the urge to strangle has died down. If for no other reason, they’re much more likely to listen.
Let’s get intersectional
This is where it gets complicated. If the world were divided neatly into privileged and oppressed, we could all portion out how much anger we can take (and from who) and how much venting we get to do. It’s not, though. It’s messy- messier than our anger, messier than the hurt that leads to that anger or that results from it.
As people who are hurt and angry, intersectionality, I think, reminds us that other people could be dealing with things as opaque to us as our experiences are to them. There’s no such thing as the Last Acceptable Prejudice. All prejudices are the Last Acceptable Prejudices. While they all hurt us in different ways, the fact of that harm is always there. Vent if we need to, but understand that not-in-my-group doesn’t equal never-hurt, that not all things are visible to bystanders, and that this person might have a load of microaggressions of their own tipping them over an edge you never knew existed.
But I think that can be a positive thing, as well. If we accept both the specificity of our own experiences and the almost-universality of forces that grind away at our edges, it makes absorbing the righteous anger of others easier. We know what it’s like to need to lash out, and we can use that understanding to respond with empathy, solidarity and support.
Most of the time, anyway. I hope. It’s complicated.