BY PEGI EYERS
To speak of how anger is perceived in our society is to be influenced by western thinking, and it is not rational to apply those same values to other groups. Societal taboos may be grudgingly accepted by whitestream folk, but what about non-western peoples? Often the oppressed (the so-called “racialized minorities”) live with excruciating anger every day of their lives, because of the racism, microaggressions, and human rights violations directed toward them. How can being treated “less than” or deemed inferior NOT create anger, when one knows to the bottom of one's heart, mind and soul that they are entitled to the same respect and benefits as everyone else? As privileged members of the dominant society, relinquishing our “white lens” means we admit moral absolutism does not exist, and that anger cannot be penalized across-the-board. As a concrete example, the family and community members of the many Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in Canada continue to storm the gates of the government for answers every day of their lives. How do we judge that kind of anger, or make it taboo, or tell them that they need to find respectable outlets for their rage?
As illustrated in the work of Rivera Sun with her book The Dandelion Insurrection: Love and Revolution (mentioned in Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community p. 399), perhaps holding the bright flame of anger in check with eloquent persuasion and powerful public speaking skills is the best weapon of all. And brilliant initiatives such as The Dangerous Woman Project @ the University of Edinburgh are working to further the acceptance of outrage in our public discourse spaces.
On a personal scale and in our day-to-day relationships, dealing with the anger of others is an issue that touches all of our lives. For progressive white folks engaged in allyship with First Nations, we may find ourselves on the receiving end of anger from First Nations acquaintances and community members. Yet the ability to sit with the anger of others is crucial to mending the fractured colonizer/colonized relationship, and for reversing the effects of white supremacy and racism that FN continue to experience. As much as possible, the best response is patience, compassion and equanimity, and to understand the arising of FN anger by turning the tables and imagining ourselves the targets of devastating cultural and individual genocide. What would our lived reality be like? How any Settler would expect that those who have been murdered, marginalized, criminalized, driven off the land, experimented on, ignored and oppressed not to harbour anger and negative feelings toward the oppressor is complete nonsense, and the repudiation of these honest feelings continues to perpetuate the racist agenda of the overculture and the invisibility of whiteness.
During the first two years of Idle No More I experienced being "called out" when engaged with the movement in person and on social media, as my mistakes were noted and commented on, and none too kindly either. Somehow I was able to move past my emotional response to the anger, and to deeply analyze exactly what the FN person was telling me. It may not be the same for everyone, but I truly believe that I learned faster and much more effectively from the anger-tinged interactions, and overall I am incredibly grateful for the “tough love” I received. Today I make fewer mistakes, yet when I am “called out” or “checked” I continue to use these exchanges as a learning opportunity.
Unfortunately many of us in the Settler Society, at the first hint of anger, block out the voices of people of colour and indulge in the nefarious practices of white fragility by “tone policing” or “blaming the victim.” Yet considering the history of Settler-Colonialism in the Americas, we do not get to judge First Nations, or tell them how to behave. As I was able to do, we need to be open to the anger as a learning tool and not take anger personally, as we move on to the next level. Overall, the role of the ally is to lighten the burden of the POC, not add to it by silencing, arguing, or shaming. An ally should listen and learn, support the actions of the oppressed group, and keep their "own baggage” to a minimum.
Plainly put, we need to reverse the white privilege of “sucking the air out of the room” with our own ideas, demands and emotional life. These bad habits actually reinforce white comfort and keep us stuck in a bubble of safety, and in the long run, end up diminishing the overall anti-oppression and anti-racism movements. Our inability to address our own societal conditioning and false belief systems, just re-centers whiteness all over again. For once, it’s not about us! As allies we need to be engaged with addressing the outrageous threats and challenges facing POC by taking responsibility, being accountable, decolonizing our thinking, and making changes to oppressive power structures.
As I closed off and walked away from the situation, I was left with lingering doubts, and questions about the effectiveness of Ally Theory. For example, at what point does the responsibility to one’s own human dignity kick in? Should an ally participate in an abusive situation to the point of martyrdom? Is this level of personal self-abrogation even possible? And even though we are aware of the history of oppression, is our responsibility to our own psychological health the greater force? In my own case I was able to move away from the person but not the work. Yet faced with extreme anger I can see how others may remove themselves from solidarity spaces altogether. Being an ally with a heavy heart is not a process anyone can continue in the long run. I have not been able to come to a definitive conclusion about this aspect of Ally Theory, but I am extremely grateful for the various opinions and responses of both activists and POC, who struggle with the same issues.
White activist, academic and early supporter of Idle No More, Tobold Rollo has identified that both the deference and dominant aspect of the Settler-Ally dynamic are two sides of the same privileged coin. Both deference and dominance allow allies to “recline at ease” in their privilege, and allow us to avoid any risk involved in critical engagement. “The strategy of renouncing one’s agency and deferring accountability is itself an egregious exercise of privilege, not to mention an insult to marginalized groups who continue to have their own agency distorted or denied. The luxury of suspending critical thinking and judgement, given that the groups to which we are committed still struggle against the institutional suppression of their critical capacities, is a slight against them. In short, inverting a personal structure of dominance to produce a structure of deference is just another patronizing failure to treat members of the marginalized group as full human beings.”
In Ethos of the Ally: Deference, Dialogue, and Distance Rollo makes the case that treating each other a full human beings through respectful disagreement will highlight the mutual worth of all people. The marginalized group or person is neither above, nor below, the ally’s critical thinking process and expression as rooted in their own lived experience. In short, disagreements can be a healthy precursor to mutual understanding, and exchanges based on realistic thoughts and feelings reinforce the authentic diversity that we need, as opposed to the homogeneity of silence and non-engagement.
It is helpful to remember that those experiencing oppression may communicate their truth with raw emotion, yet we don't have to receive it as a personal hit. Many POC have stated that their anger is NOT aimed at individual white folks, but at the entire system of systemic inequality. This is why we must not shy away from the anger conversation, and continue to focus on our goals. The bottom line is that anti-oppression and anti-racism movements are just and moral efforts to regain basic human rights, and anyone with a conscience or moral compass can support these progressive actions.
As for my own activism, I continue to remind myself that the anger is not about me, and to make an effort to set aside my habitual responses of self-absorption, defensiveness and/or retaliation. Instead of focusing on my own emotions or biases, I can consider what would diffuse the anger in the other person's life. What work can I do that would not add more of a burden to what the person already carries? Without a doubt, the only person I have any control over in this world is myself. And when faced with anger, it may take more equilibrium than I claim to own, more steely nerves than I admit to having, and more self-denial than I am used to offering to the other person. Yet there is a greater issue at stake. I must lay down the dysfunctions of anger and divisiveness that are the weapons of colonization, and make every effort not to perpetuate the imbalance and dominance that has given me the benefits I enjoy today as a white person.
Anger may be taboo. But outrage is outrage. No longer will we accept the conditioning we have received from Empire to keep our anger repressed, as we resist the dictum "a placid population is a controlled population." Centuries of oppression, discrimination, racism, microaggressions and treatment as “less-than” dictates no other response but rage. For privileged white folks, denying the anger of oppressed groups is dishonest, as well as reckless and irresponsible. In all its fearful, dark, liberatory and healing variations, anger IS the correct response to all that is wrong in the world.
Anger is appropriate when the earth is commodified for the capitalist agenda, which is part of ongoing colonialism and the genocide of indigenous peoples and people of color worldwide. Anger is appropriate when those with the most power in what they like to refer to as “our” movement - a movement that claims to want to stop the destruction of the earth - fail to invest in the painstaking, difficult, and lifelong work to truly act towards solidarity with the struggles of Native, Black, and other migrant/diasporic/settler people of color, we who are the most affected by climate change and the industries and systems that are causing it. We are all born into a society that grants us power in some ways and marginalizes us in other ways. It is how we all hold our privileges and power, and whether we hold them with integrity, that is at question here. What each person does with their privilege is up to them.”
Who Gets to be Angry? ~ Roxane Gay
Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair ~ Sarah Schulman
Why I'm Absolutely an Angry Black Woman ~ Dominique Matti
The Rage of the Privileged vs The Rage of the Oppressed ~ Bell Hooks
No, We Won't Calm Down - Tone Policing is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege ~ Robot Hugs
What’s the Harm in Tone Policing ~ Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
Speak Out! Dangerous White Woman ~ Pegi Eyers
I am Mad ~ Donna Henes
Making Anger Your Ally ~ Toko-pa
The Wisdom in Anger ~ Jason Morrow
Pegi Eyers is the author of "Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community," a brand-new book that explores strategies for intercultural competency, healing our relationships with Turtle Island First Nations, decolonization, recovering an ecocentric worldview, rewilding, creating a sustainable future and reclaiming peaceful co-existence in Earth Community.