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Don’t Tell Us Not To Get Angry

“The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us-the poet-whispers in our dreams, I feel therefore I can be free.” —Audre Lorde, Poetry Is Not a Luxury

By Salma Abdelrahman and Nicholas P. Whittaker, Contributing Opinion Writers

Salma: In a conversation with a co-worker this summer, we discussed the ways in which anger manifests itself in our own lives. The conversation veered towards discussions of fights with family, shortened tempers, rage, and how these emotions can be crippling and debilitating in times where cool-headedness is more productive. In the middle of the conversation, I reflected out-loud: “I don’t really think I experience anger that often…”

At this point in the summer, this answer was not far from the truth. I did not experience crippling and debilitating rage often. If cool-headedness was the best way to approach rationality and productivity, then cool-headed is what I would strive to be.

Nicholas: I remember having similar conversations, especially in the context of productivity. We live in a world where anger is devalued, because it isn’t productive—or at least that’s what we’re told. This is particularly true for black rage. In the face of Ku Klux Klan, Donald Trump, and that one low-key white nationalist in your section (we all know they exist), we’re expected to not be angry, and we convince ourselves that we are, in fact, not angry. We’re particularly discouraged from introducing anger into our emancipatory work, public service, and attempts to dismantle structures of white supremacy.

S: When I came back to campus sophomore year, I was able to examine my environment in the absence of those rose-tinted glasses that are handed to you at the beginning of your first year. I looked around and saw all of the ways that students of color are expected to break their backs and take time out of their day for the benefit of their white peers. And I felt enraged. I felt like throwing those rose-tinted glasses onto the ground, putting on hefty combat boots, and stomping until the glasses were nothing but an indiscernible pile of glass and metal on my dorm room floor.

But the glasses were metaphorical and I didn’t own any combat boots, so instead I emailed a few administrators asking to talk about my experience as a student of color on campus. When I expressed to them my concerns, I was met with several “I’m sorry that you feel that way”s and suggestions to seek out mental health support. While mental health support has been central to my survival, by offering this solution alone—without taking steps to dismantle the structures of oppression that lie at the heart of these struggles—administrators were asking me to cope with and accept injustice.

They were more concerned with my anger than what was causing it. They were more concerned with the perceived dangers of my emotions than the structures that caused my constant rage.

N: Like, y’all. We are so angry! Every day, we are forced to witness and participate in a world that has always and continues to dehumanize and degrade us. How can we not be mad in a world filled with thousands of Marsha P. Johnsons and Tamir Rices and Erica Garners, and thousands of David Dukes and Donald Trumps? The grinning, shuffling Uncle Tom who welcomes their oppression with open arms? That doesn’t exist.

We don’t enjoy living in a white supremacist state. It makes us furious. And our anger is a fundamental form of self-expression. It is powerful, humanizing, to stand up and shout in that section kid’s face, “You make me furious! Your attempts to dismantle my humanity enrages me!” To be angry is to be human.

And the first tool of that white supremacist state and society has been to make that anger the problem, has been to focus its attention on eradicating and suppressing our rage rather than dealing with white supremacy. At Harvard, in my student organizations, in my lectures and class discussions, in my conversations with friends, my anger has been neutered and disregarded. It has been made the problem. In so demonizing my rage, this world seeks to reduce me to that grinning Uncle Tom, to that inhuman caricature. But I am a human being, and human beings get mad. To disregard that is to dehumanize me.

S: And when I’ve expressed my anger, I’ve received paragraphs from people I work with, lecturing me on the dangers of anger. They ask, “Don’t you think that anger fuels hatred?” No! It is hatred—interpersonal and systemic—that fuels anger. It is the expectation that I am here to teach rather than to learn that causes my displeasure. It is having central tenets of my identity come under constant scrutiny that fuels this rage.

And if hatred fuels anger, then our anger is a signal that something is fundamentally unjust about the systems we’re interacting with. Our anger tells us something has to change. Our anger leads us to meet with administrators, draft legislation, and push for solutions. Our anger is productive.

N: Our anger has the power to change the world. Stop telling us not to get angry. We’re going to be angry until our black skins can live in this world without being torn apart.

Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator living in Leverett House. Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 is a Philosophy concentrator living in Adams House. Their column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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