Getting Angry, Getting Results
By now everyone must have heard about the Henry Louis Gates/Officer Crowley debacle in which an African-American Harvard professor was arrested for disorderly conduct after being questioned by police when a neighbor saw him trying to break into his own house. Now, both Gates and Officer Crowley are headed to the White House to "have a beer" with Obama and chat it out.
With nothing to go on but clips and tidbits from the mainstream media, my visceral reaction was to blame Gates. After all, doesn't everyone (white people included) know not to mouth off to the cops if they don't want to be arrested? Even as a white girl, I get anxious on those unfortunate occasions when I get pulled over for speeding. Even if I think the cop was wrong, I make an effort to swallow my anger and be as respectful as possible. It may not feel as good as getting angry, but it usually gets better results.
Sharkfu's post, Notes from a bitch... pondering the privilege of anger..., has made me see this case in a new light.
When I read about Professor Gates' arrest I knew in my gut that the charge of his bringing that action on himself was soon to come. It's as predictable as the sunrise. Didn't he know how to act? Didn't he understand that his public expression of anger and affront was going to escalate the situation? Hadn't he learned the lesson of Jim Crow...to keep your eyes down, your head bent and your mouth shut when dealing with the police lest you get yourself in trouble? And so it came to pass that grown people who know damn well they'd have taken a tone, raised their voice and probably yelled a bit if faced with the same situation actually managed to say that Professor Gates was arrested for not behaving right...for letting his anger show...for "forgetting his place".
Sharkfu relates this to her personal experience as an African-American woman, and remembers those times when she "got angry" in response to discrimination and had to face consequences.
I've spent most of my life holding my anger in lest I be called an angry black bitch and the last five years exploring the reality that I had been accepting the premise of a false argument while doing so. I had been fueling the lie that black female anger is wrong and that expressing anger is dangerous for women of color because it reinforces the idea that we are irrational and inarticulate with it. I'm very aware that black female anger is best understood as Madea-esque...as a black man's comic portrayal of an out-of-control-yet-allegedly-endearing black female who "goes off" a lot and has an anger management problem.
Most Jews today don't regularly experience racial profiling and/or discrimination, so I understand if some might think my experiences cannot compare. I realize that getting pulled over for speeding is very different from being the victim of racial profiling, but as a Jew and a woman, I am not completely unfamiliar with discrimination. I have had my fair share of anger over cultural and religious ignorance, insensitivity, and blatant anti-semitism. And like most of us, I have learned to hold back my anger because, well, nobody likes an angry, Jewish girl. I am sure that any woman who has bumped up against the "angry feminist" stereotype can relate.
My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our elementary school, and I was very angry. I made a stink every Christmas. (Cut to me as a fourth-grader, marching down the hallway and shouting about the separation of Church and State.) I protested the Christmas tree in the nurse's office, refused to sing "Silent Night" or color in pictures of Santa, and chose to sit in the hall during ornament-making activities. (No, I do NOT have a Hannukah bush, thank you very much!) Let's just say that my Grinch-itude did not win me any friends.
As I got older I learned that keeping my mouth shut made me more likeable. I began to see my "angry self" as others saw me - a killjoy bent on destroying things that made everyone else happy. But I also was able to rationalize my change in behavior with the "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" philosophy. Now that I had friends, I could talk to them about issues upsetting me, calmly and non-combatively, and theoretically affect change in a more meaningful and productive way. I think most people grow to accept and believe this line of reasoning. After all, who wants to be angry all the time?
But Sharkfu's argument brings up an interesting question: when is an injustice so grievous that one should stop "politicking" and get angry? And if you do choose to let it rip, how can you be sure that anyone will take you seriously?
Sharkfu's use of the word "privilege" is telling. Would Gates' anger be interpreted differently if he were not an upper-middle class academic? The Gates incident may lead to positive changes due to its high profile media coverage, but plenty of people get angry each day without making the news. What do the rest of us stand to gain by getting mad?
I do not pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I am interested to see what you think. When have you chosen to "get angry," and did anything constructive come of it? Post a comment and weigh in!
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. "Getting Angry, Getting Results." 28 July 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/gettingangry>.