Is that it hurts.
And it isn’t just the big, newsworthy incidents, involving racial slurs and risked lives that are upsetting. Snide comments leave a mark. Overall, various microaggressions can sting and leave irreparable scars.
As for addressing racism directly, it can be challenging when people think their words and attitudes are meaningless. In certain folks’ minds, their lack of physical aggression renders their behaviour harmless. After all, they haven’t raised their fists or used any slurs. Meanwhile, what some would refer to as benign behaviour is actually incredibly toxic.
Last month via social media, I noticed two different posts featuring public figures that touched on something Black people from all walks of life have endured. (Click the right arrow on each image to read what transpired.)
Black people have every right to be angry about racism. Yet over time I’ve been perplexed by the idea of referring to Black people as “angry” simply for being honest about our experiences. Why do people keep insisting on using this categorization?
When examining this question, I think it’s important to stress that racism is more than superficially annoying. It is frightening and painful. It is abusive. It is dangerous. It has the power to harm people not only physically, but mentally.
Given the impact that racism has, it’s hard for me not to theorize about why some white people honestly believe that Black people who speak openly about racism are evil.
Whether they want to admit it or not, when people call Black people angry for discussing racism, they are not merely expressing an ignorant idea. They are actually revealing just how much faith they put into racist ideologies.
Consider the history of racism. At its core, racist ideas were kept alive through an insistence on depicting Black people as abnormal. As explored in this article, to this day there are medical professionals who harbour incorrect beliefs about Black people’s ability to endure pain. And a source linked in that New York Times piece offers a disturbing reminder of that idea’s origins.
Years ago when Black people were enslaved and attempted to escape, drapetomania was used to explain their behaviour. It was, supposedly, an illness which caused enslaved people to want to run away.
In today’s society, among sensible people, this idea is ridiculous. Who would want to be held captive against their will? Yet the fact remains that historically, something normal — the desire to pursue one’s freedom — was regarded as suspect, simply because the people who experienced it were Black.
To a degree, this decision to regard a reasonable reaction as negative, and vilify people for having said reaction, almost parallels the lunacy of referring to Black people as “angry” for being honest about racism.
Anger is obviously not, in fact, a type of mania. But on the spectrum of emotions, it tends to be categorized as a negative one. This study’s findings didn’t surprise me. As a Black person who is also a woman, I know my identity places me squarely at the intersection of two groups whose anger is often taken less seriously than that of my white, male counterparts.
Overall, people need to recognize what happens when they claim someone is “angry” for discussing racism and its implications. I don’t think it’s difficult to make a connection between people historically disregarding Black people’s physical vulnerabilities, and their descendants’ attempts to dismiss our emotional expression. This dismissal is a form of restriction. Attempting to place limits on Black people’s emotional honesty is dehumanizing.
Think about how you normally respond when people whom you genuinely respect. Do you get upset with them for sharing the truth about what hurts them? Or do you take the time to listen, and allow them to safely share their reality?
Imagine, for a moment, how you feel in the moments after an ordinary argument. Perhaps you and a friend had a misunderstanding. Maybe you were upset because you didn’t get the chance to explain yourself. Suppose the person you fought with left determined to hate you, yet you know that you deserve better.
It’s upsetting enough, under normal circumstances, when people insist on believing the worst about you in spite of the facts. Imagine how agonizing it can be when folks insist that speaking openly about racism means that you’re “angry”. Even as a writer I admit that sharing my thoughts about the impact of these interactions feels a bit dangerous. (Just now, I wanted to write “infuriating” instead of “agonizing”, but I’m aware of how some people think. We live in an era where righteous anger is intentionally misinterpreted.)
The media also plays a role in attempting to limit Black people’s emotions. Certain avenues of entertainment uphold stereotypes. For too long, Black people were supposed to remain subservient — supporting or entertaining others — and nothing more. Those who failed to fulfil these stereotypical roles risked having their behaviour interpreted in a negative fashion.
One doesn’t have to go far to see what happens when one refuses to bow to expectations. Colin Kaepernick is still paying the price for demonstrating that he is more than an athlete.
And so it is in our personal relationships. There are some people who authentically accept Black people, and allow us to share our highs and lows. Yet there are also those who, when we dare be honest about painful experiences involving racism, move swiftly to silence or “correct” us. I have personally experienced this. In the end, I played along with my critic, just to survive their barrage of smug comments.
If you’re someone who is dismissive and depicts people who tells the truth about racism in a negative light, I wish you would reconsider your behaviour. If nothing else, this type of attitude should serve as yet another reminder of an important aspect of the true nature of racism: It’s not practiced by boogeymen, and some of you are more complicit in it than you may realize.
When you rush to complain or correct people simply for sharing some of the bitter truths that haunt their lives, you discourage authenticity. In fact, you reveal yourself as someone who wants to be coddled and comforted wth lies. Racism is a part of our society. It’s ugly, and it is very real. And it involves more than large, garish displays of hatred. It involves a system that needs to be dismantled, and habits that need to be changed.
Certain white people’s attitudes towards Black normalcy has tainted origins. Hence, from my perspective, racism has no hope of ending, unless individuals begin to at least do two things: First, acknowledge the fact that racist ideologies are deeply entrenched in our society. Secondly, work to dismantle systemic racism. People don’t only need to change policies and legislation in order to accomplish this goal. They can do simple things, like listening, instead of name-calling when a Black person shares how they’ve been impacted by a racist encounter.