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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!

Topics: Anti-Semitism
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What a load of "blame the police" nonsense! Stuff happens and sometimes it isn't fair. This was not a big deal and Gates is the manipulator with a history of anti-white rhetoric attributable to him who made a racial incident out of it. At many points in our lives we all have to swallow anger and other uncomfortable things. That's life.

What normal person would honestly think the Cambridge police wanted to make an issue out of this? Are you aware that Crowley trains other officers in handling racially sensitive situations and that the black officers he works with have backed him up?

One would think that "Jewesses with attitude" would have more common sense and stronger character than to fall into the simpering whining about this issue that I've read here.

Did Miriam whine when she suffered leprosy? Did Esther whine when Haman wanted to wipe her people out? We Jews have lived among people with varying degrees of bad feelings and actions toward us. Instead of whining we sucked it up and built our own state. We helped build this great big beautiful country over 200 years ago.

Maybe that race-baiting fraud should learn from guys like Crowley, or from the Jews how NOT to incite people against one another.

A response worthy of a modern-day Uncle Tom.

By pretending the race incitement of Gates may be a legitimate response to his arrest for disorderly conduct, you as a Jew, strengthen the tendency of people who use their victimhood to justify their bad attitude toward Jews, whites, whomever. How about gratitude that a neighbor thought enough to call the police to protect his home? How about a sense of security because the police responded? How about courtesy because they risk their lives walking into potentially dangerous situations to preserve individual and public safety?

This arrest made front page news because Gates made it a racial issue and the president added fuel to the fire. It was reactive and divisive, not thoughtful. Thoughtful analysis would not be on the front page because it is, or should be, an ongoing process.

Swastika's are front page news because they are real threats and incitments, as would be a rope hanging from a tree. This can not be compared to police responding to calls about a possible burglary.

In response to Anonymous - First, I think it very appropriate for Leah and the JWA to blog about this incident. Why did it make front page news? Why does every Nazi Swastika sprayed on a wall make front page news? Because they are reminders of cultural beliefs that still exist outside of areas we want to explore. That is why they are important and the Press in this country understands that on a visceral basis, even as it gets sensationalized.

Lastly, on anger... we Jews learned well before the Blacks did, how important it was to avoid eye contact with 'the Man' if we wanted to walk away from encounters with Cossaks, Nazi Kapos, Spanish Inquisitioners, and so many more. I look forward to the day in this country when Blacks (and any anyone else, for that matter) can get angry in public and not make front page news.

My take on this case and the anger issue is a little different. I agree with Leah that there are times when it is pragmatic to stay cool, and other times when expressing one's anger is necessary. But I think the issue of who is allowed to get angry is paramount here. People in power are often allowed to get angry -- in fact, it's often seen as a sign of their power and invulnerability. Other people -- like black men, and women of all colors -- not only risk being completely dismissed as irrational and out of control when they express their anger, but may actually put themselves in danger. The danger element is what is not quite addressed here.

And of course, the people who are least allowed to express their anger are usually the ones who most deserve to be angry -- angry about their own experiences as well as the collective history that they carry around with them.

Now, I happen to think that the Gates/Crowley situation has gotten a bit out of control at this point. I understand that it has come to stand in for certain continuing racial dynamics in our society, but really, the injustice against Gates is minor compared to the injustice against so many other black men in America who do not have Gates' privileges. There's some way in which Gates' anger seems of the "Don't you know who I am? I'm a Harvard professor!" variety, but of course it shouldn't matter who Gates is. No one should be arrested in their own home for entering it and talking back to a cop. And frankly, I think Obama has more important work to do that mediate between these two.

But I am glad that one result of this episode is opening the conversation about anger, and I hope the lesson taken will not be that anger is unproductive, but rather that we should all have the right to express our anger and be taken seriously.

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Getting Angry, Getting Results." 28 July 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 1, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/gettingangry>.

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