Since Trump’s election, my social media feeds are full of people from traditionally oppressed groups (women, LGBTQ, people of color, religious minorities) posting about their anger at current events and people from traditionally privileged groups (white men, often Christian) shaming them for their anger. The policing of our emotions perpetuates a culture of silencing that allows racism and misogyny to thrive. Here is why you should stop telling us not to be angry and what you should do instead.
1. Anger is an appropriate response to oppression.
If you’re not angry, perhaps it’s because you don’t feel personally threatened. This may be because privilege is buffering you from having this direct experience. You don’t see a reason to be so mad? Your job, then, is to look more deeply at the reason we are mad. Your job is to understand. Do not advise before you fully comprehend what it is we are angry about. In fact, do not advise at all.
2. We already know.
You are not the first, nor will you be the last to tell what we already know: love is good, hate is bad, it’s not healthy to fixate on blaming, blah blah blah. Also, the sky is blue. We got this. We don’t actually need your advice.
3. We have already been shamed for this anger and all other anger we have felt.
You are not clever, original, or wise. All our lives we have been told that our anger is a problem, that we are immoral for having it — or, at best, impolite. The anger of marginalized people threatens the status quo. Black boys and men are criminalized for their anger, unless their anger is making someone rich. Unless we are emotional savants, we have internalized this shame and, in spite of this, are now bravely speaking out. By shaming our anger you are asking us to accept our oppression without making a fuss.
4. Shaming our anger takes the emphasis off of the thing we are angry about.
This is a Style-Over-Substance fallacy, a way to change the subject from what we are saying to what is wrong with us. While you may not mean it that way (not consciously, at least), it is a form of silencing we have encountered all our lives. You think our anger is disproportionate? You don’t understand why we are still so darn upset? Ask. You will undoubtedly discover that we feel very, very afraid. If you really listen, you will discover that we likely have reason to be.
5. It’s not okay police our emotions or how long we stay in them.
It’s simply not your place to tell us how to navigate our emotional territory – not yours, not anyone’s. You are welcome to tell us about your own experience of anger or share how our anger makes you feel. You are welcome to ask questions about why we are angry and what is underneath. But the assumption that we should not be so angry or should be angry but not for so long intimates that you know better than we do about our own experience of life. I promise, you do not – even though, sadly, we have been trained to think you do.
6. Telling people not to feel the emotions they feel just simply doesn’t work.
People can’t just stop feeling the emotions that they feel on command – that just isn’t a thing. We can investigate it, make friends with it, discover what lies underneath. Or we can repress it, shame ourselves for it, and pretend it isn’t there. But we can’t make it go away. The way forward is to process, not to deny. You can help us metabolize our anger by entering into authentic discussion with us. Or you can encourage us to shut-the-fuck-up and self-silence. Your choice.
7. Taking your advice hurts us.
You may see self-silencing as a form of self-control. It isn’t. When the shame we feel for speaking out is louder than the anger we feel about oppression, we collapse. This is why people stay in abusive relationships. This is why people don’t report sexual assault. The next time you shake your head in disbelief and say something like, “Why doesn’t she just leave him?” return to this paragraph, please.
8. Anger isn’t inherently destructive.
Anger is a secondary emotion, a primal protective mechanism from the fight-flight-freeze response produced when one senses threat. Underneath most anger lies a great deal of fear. Without the emotion of anger, people would not be able to protect themselves.
9. We’re angry because we care.
We are not mad because we didn’t get our way. We are not throwing a tantrum, we don’t need to be reminded to share our crayons. In healthy, balanced human beings, tantrums (“I didn’t get my way!”) pass quickly and are recognized as such (people with abusive or narcissistic personality disorders never move out of this stage). Righteous indignation, however, stems from care and concern for the wellbeing and safety of others and one’s self. This kind of anger generally stays until the threat has passed. If the threat is perpetual, it can be metabolized into action (the Civil Rights movement is an example of this). This is the energy that propels people out of abusive relationships, that gave Rosa Parks the confidence to stand in the front of the bus.
10. Our anger is not hate.
Hate is the hardening of one’s perspective into other-focused blame (conversely, self-hatred is the hardening of one’s perspective into self-focused blame). The antidote to this is to touch the vulnerability underneath the rage. You can help us do this by listening.
What should you do instead? The next time you feel inspired to police our anger, turn your gaze inward and do the work you’re demanding we expedite: show us what’s underneath your desire to dispense advice. Are you scared we’ll get carried away? That our anger will turn into hate? If our anger elicits discomfort in you, good! Dig into that discomfort. We have been well trained to tiptoe around your discomfort, and we have enabled you by doing so. This isn’t personal, we are not mad at you, specifically. We still like you. We still care what you have to say. The time has come for you to rise to the challenge of hearing us instead of chastising us for raising our voice.
The next time you feel inspired to police our anger, turn your gaze inward and do the work you’re demanding we expedite: show us what’s underneath your desire to dispense advice. Are you scared we’ll get carried away? That our anger will turn into hate? If our anger elicits discomfort in you, good! Dig into that discomfort. We have been well trained to tiptoe around your discomfort, and we have enabled you by doing so. This isn’t personal, we are not mad at you, specifically. We still like you. We still care what you have to say. The time has come for you to rise to the challenge of hearing us instead of chastising us for raising our voice.
Top photo: Twitter/Sebastian Murdock
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Molly McCarty is a nascent vegan, thrift store enthusiast, introvert, feminist, bookworm, and mediocre mother to many succulent plants. She is passionate about feminism, social justice, and mental health advocacy. She holds degrees in English and Writing from Portland State University and lives in rural Oregon with her partner and their 15-year-old chihuahua. You can see more of her work at The Rumpus and on her website thimblericket.com. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.