As I’ve participated both publicly and privately in the race dialogue over the years, one of the most difficult aspects I’ve navigated is the role of anger in race relations. It’s not hard to see – the comments section of race-related articles demonstrate well the heated presence of anger in race relations. For those seeking to walk the path toward deeper cultural understanding, understanding the roots of racial anger is an area that we can’t afford to dismiss. As a white person, I’ve been surprised to encounter my own battles with anger and race, and I share from that experience here.
My first teaching job was in an historic black school in a Midwestern city, and it was a crash course in understanding dynamics of urban settings, race, and poverty. Being brand new to the professional world, it is highly probable that my youthfulness translated into a white-savioresque attitude à la Dangerous Minds, even though I didn’t consciously enter with this perspective. In spite of my intentions, I encountered two quite contrasting responses to my naïveté.
The first was from an African-American teacher next door who railed angrily into me one day for something I’d done that irked her. I don’t remember a word of what she actually said to me, but I clearly remember returning to my classroom in tears, feeling crushed by her anger and assumptions regarding my white ignorance. I’d tried to seek her insight out on previous (failed) attempts, and now she’d shut me down for good. From that point on, our relationship was one of icy glares and cold shoulders.
The other response was from another African-American teacher who kindly took me under her wing. She showered me with hugs as she gently taught me the basics of African-American history and urban culture. She took kids home with her when they needed a mama and brought them breakfast at school when they were hungry. All the kids knew that you went to her classroom first if you needed some extra love and I followed their lead frequently.
While Loving Teacher’s response felt better than Angry Teacher’s harshness toward me, both reactions taught me vital lessons in the world of race relations. Nearly fifteen years later, I cringe at my youthful self with a grateful nod to the lesson Angry Teacher taught me. After I got past the initial sting of the Angry Teacher’s reaction (which, I might sheepishly add, took years), I began to contemplate why she may have responded the way she did. She’d lived down the street from these kids and their parents and their pastors for longer than I’d been alive, and she knew a reality that I didn’t.
As I’ve reflected on it over the years, I’d guess that her anger spewed on me that day stemmed more from the continued systemic racial injustice that she navigated on a daily basis rather than from my specific actions. My young white skin and curiosity simply represented the cycle of systemic injustice that had reeked havoc on her home, and it (understandably) made her angry with me. For all the good I hoped to do in that context, it forced me to acknowledge that she was the one with the lasting influence and that I was simply an observer passing through.
I have often heard people of color express a similar anger toward the inequitable system that keeps racism alive and kicking, but living with my non-white family in a majority white setting made my experience with anger and race take a new turn. The longer we lived there, the harder it was for me to assume good-intentions when the bad-actions were so obvious. Over time, I grew angry with white-people myself.
I was angry that ‘my people’ wouldn’t embrace my family like they did people who fit into their pretty-little-cornfield-box. I was angry they didn’t care enough about the world-outside to understand people from it. I was angry they clammed up and smiled when they didn’t understand something rather than just admit it outright. I was angry they dismissed others’ perspectives with Christian platitudes just to ‘keep the peace’.
Over the years, I’ve asked people I hold in great esteem how they’ve managed to keep going through the anger that inevitably comes with interracial relationships. I’ve had more than one
day year when I’ve shut down on the whole thing. The last bout nearly did me in completely. But then, the air came as we surfaced somewhere near Los Angeles gasping for breath. We sat quietly vibrating in the shadow of the mountains and on the edge of the sea for over a year.
Little by little, I leaned on the wisdom from people ahead of me on this path to sort out the pieces of my anger over our experience in a land that did not understand its impact on those who were different within its borders. Since everyone processes these things differently, I’ll recap a few things I’ve been learning about processing racial anger along the way.
It’s ok to be angry. The nice Christian Midwesterner in me would disagree with this statement, but I’ve learned that denying anger only makes it sink deeper. Bringing it to light it in an appropriate time and place helps to shed light on what’s my responsibility and what’s not. In the process of walking with my anger, I’m also learning to distinguish between a productive anger that produces fruit and a vomiting anger just explodes ickiness over everyone.
Expressing anger is both cultural and individual. Personally, I rarely yell and scream when I’m angry. Instead, I grow very quiet. This happens to work great in my home culture where many shut down and numb out upon screaming-and-yelling. You can imagine my shock, however, to encounter people who ‘yelled’ at each other only to start a hugfest and productive conversation a few moments later. Everyone subscribes to unspoken personal and cultural rules regarding the expression of anger, but few of us follow the same exact ones. Letting go of my need to apply my internal rules to the rest of the world helps me to listen better when I encounter an anger expressed differently from my own.
Jesus is not a band-aid. It’s human nature to want a quick fix, but also equally human for that fix to be complex and layered. Sticking Jesus on the massive history of racial and systemic injustice doesn’t heal anything, it only makes Jesus look inadequate and small. While I’m a firm believer that walking with Jesus in our moments can give us the ability to walk alongside one another’s pain, it’s not the same as understanding others’ stories by listening to them with our ears and our hearts and our lives. To say that ‘the only solution is Jesus‘ implies that we don’t need to do anything but piously open our bibles and sing hymns and everything will get better. One only need to read the history books to see that this isn’t true.
Injustice is painful. I’ve occasionally caught myself whining, “Why me?” in response to our difficulties. But when I live in light of a global reality, I find that the more appropriate question is, “Why not me?” What better lesson for the middle-class-white-girl-with-an-education to learn? My privilege sneaks up on me so subtly that I hardly notice it, and coming face-to-face with injustice gives me a stark reality check on what the majority of the world faces every day. The quicker I accept this pain, the more humbly I learn to walk in it.
Forgiveness takes time. A former African-American pastor of mine recommended that I walk in the way of Jesus by following His words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” – even when “they” likely know what they’re doing because it still shows a better way. Another guide gave me permission to take time away to be imperfect and angry for awhile. When people hold those you love at arms’ length, it hurts, and I needed some private time and space to grieve this loss.
Savor the good moments. While the overarching flavor of our racial and cultural isolation was bitter, there were all sorts of sweet-and-holy moments, and plenty of individual people who, in spite of the prevailing environment, embraced us open-armed in their homes and their hearts. Pausing to sit with these gentle memories softens the anger and refocuses me toward grace and goodness.
These days, when I sit with a person of color, listening to them express the conflict of being the only one, wonder if they were chosen for their skill or their skin color, or sigh at the incredulous ignorance of a white leader’s words, what I hear first is pain, even when it sounds like anger. I hear sadness over what hasn’t changed and grief over the white majority’s lack of understanding of their inherent privilege and power. I hear weariness over walking the same path time and again, wondering if change will ever happen, if the majority will ever really care enough to understand.
I am, however, only one small voice and two small ears. What I say and hear is only a piece of the story. Like Loving Teacher and Angry Teacher, everyone processes the brokenness of our racial history differently, and each voice tells a story we need to hear – even the angry ones.
I’d love it if you shared your voice, too. We all have much to learn about this difficult topic. What does your story say? How do you walk along the path of anger in race relations?