The angry black woman/man- I’d never heard directly about this stereotyped archetype but I know that I had an internalized template for it- one that could help me dismiss and invalidate black men and women if I ever experienced them as angry. Again, a tool I had gained living in a society where judgments and prejudice seep in and deposit spores in our brains, like toxic mold in old houses.
I had a friend three years ago, a black male psychologist, with whom I engaged in many conversations on race and identity and multiculturalism. He told me that he would not allow himself to publicly express anger or even frustration, or any affective state that could be interpreted as anger due to the risk of being seen as “the angry black man.” Dr. MB’s post, expressing her similar experience of this dismissed character of the “angry black woman” has sparked inspiration in me. I need to write.
When we classify others using internalized templates that boil them down to a one dimensional character we dehumanize them. We see the black man who gets ignored by the staff at a retail store become frustrated- and when he speaks out to assert his needs as an equal customer ready to engage in a money for goods exchange we (the majority) think “wow, he’s over sensitive, it’s not always a race thing. Relax dude… “ In an instant we have boiled down a life time of pain- being ignored, being looked over, treated as second class, discriminated against, and perhaps even a lifetime involving victimization at the hands of the majority in the form of hate crimes or racial profiling, or just daily constant microaggressions- into an explanation of “Just another ‘angry black man.’ Oversensitive.”
I’ve been taught and told in a number of settings that anger is a “secondary emotion.” This has meant that anger should be something which I pass over in therapy- in order to get at the real issue or feeling, which consequently must not be anger. I realize now that the concept of “anger as a secondary emotion” is an ethnocentric notion. It comes from a privileged male perspective- it comes from those who wrote the theories of my profession. For men in western culture, anger is socialized as one of the few acceptable affective forms of expression, and thus other feelings, potentially deeper feelings, are funneled and compressed and eventually expressed as anger. As a therapist I am to engage in the task of unpacking the anger to better understand and care for the original feeling that had not had an opportunity for expression. However, in our society anger is not a socially acceptable affective expression for women. When anger is expressed women are flattened into the one dimensional and demeaning prototype of “The Bitch”- the connotations inherent in this derogatory label lead to instant undercutting of her perspective- and so she learns her place. To be angry, to assert one’s self is to enter into “bitchood” where what you do, say, think and feel is inconsequential. For many of us that means that we stay quiet, but where does the anger go? How does it get funneled and compressed and eventually expressed?
I will never forget the day that I first knew I was angry- to be clear it was not the first time I had experienced anger- but rather it was the first time I could identify that what I was feeling was anger. My whole life had been filled with feeling “upset”- which meant for me a degree of self loathing, blame set aside for only me- in which the feelings I felt were a result of my inadequacy rather than a reasonable reaction to the inadequacy or carelessness of others. If I was “upset” or hurt it was my own fault and I viewed it as my penance for being born so flawed. These times often, if not exclusively, involved an interaction with “the other” in which I was treated unfairly. The resulting feeling was “upset.” If you’ve ever felt upset you will know that it’s a feeling that has no energy to it. It possesses a quality of despair and lethargy. You can’t do much with “upset.”
One day I had experienced some sort of injustice that left me feeling upset. I don’t really remember the circumstances but I do remember that ever-familiar feeling. I believe I was crying and talking to my husband about it when he clarified for me “you feel angry.” My immediate thought was “no, this is not anger. I feel upset.” But his words turned me toward a churning deep in the pit of my stomach. A wrenching, a friction that told me this was more than just upset. That was the first time, the first moment in my life, that I knew I was angry. And suddenly there was energy!
I realize now looking back at the many experiences in my life in which I felt upset- times I had been wronged, where I had been hurt and not afforded human dignity or respect- and I know now those were times of anger. But my anger was turned inward and the target became me.
This is not directly a result of the cultural mandate that I should be made of sugar and spice and everything nice- but there sure is a correlation. Parts of my propensity towards feeling “upset” are my own make up- however I was socialized in a culture that colluded with that propensity and threatened to label me a “bitch” if I stepped outside of my prescribed role.
I think of Dr. MB and my other friend feeling threatened by the label of Angry Black Person, and my own fear of The Bitch- and perhaps all three of us face the same threat of being labeled “overly emotional” or “too sensitive” by this culture if we express our fears of being dismissed for our anger. Anger which is often the primary feeling for women and minorities- the most important and true feeling, the one that gives life and energy to fight prejudice and discrimination. Anger: the feeling that is oft disregarded by my profession as useless and secondary and something to not dwell on.