I have learnt, that in many situations I must hold my tongue. Sometimes it is simply not worth it to speak. The phrase ‘worth it’ is so telling. Of course it means I have to choose what is ‘worth’ my time and energy and what isn’t. I have to measure the weight of how I feel about any given situation, against the weight of the response I will receive for vocalizing such feelings. I then decide which of my feelings I ‘value’ most. Some of them make the cut, but others don’t. At this point, I take how I feel, and then I ‘rationalise’ it. I wring it of what could be seen as anger or aggression and inspect it again for any stains. What I would comfortably describe as ‘Fucking stupid’ becomes ‘ignorant’, and ‘prick’ becomes ‘person who is actively unwilling to recognise any humanity other than their own’. Sometimes this can be a clarifying process, but sometimes washing my words of their emotion makes me feel like my point is no longer worth making. Also, ‘prick’ is concise, uses up less of the word count and everyone knows what I mean. Except of course those who are actively unwilling to recognise any humanity other than their own.
I, along with many other women, and women of colour in particular, have been commended on how rational, balanced and eloquent my arguments have been and continue to be. I never know how to receive this ‘compliment’, and I am often struck by the fact people are surprised by my ‘talents’—I have had much more practice at this than they have. Almost every day presents me with a new opportunity to be more diplomatic, rational and unemotional than I really should be. And yet, anger and aggression is what is expected of me. Of course I can be angry, and I can be aggressive, often with very good reason. And so, if dare to I ‘lose control’ I embody these things rather than feel them. I live on the precipice of ‘Angry Black Woman’. I could make a thousand salient, rigorous and insightful arguments, but anything other than cool intellectualism will undermine my purpose. And yet, I’m not here to bemoan these adjectives, I am angry, black, and I also identify as female. I am absolutely all of these things if we put these attributes together, I along with other women of colour become a caricature.
Occasionally, when I have forgotten where I am, and who I am talking to, I have watched my credibility scurry away from me in discussions where I have failed to ‘take the high road’ or ‘take the moral high ground’. Funnily enough, the only thing I feel has been ‘taken’ is the right to legitimately express my feelings. Women of colour are often denied the right to have outbursts of anger as we are held to different and characteristically precarious standards. It is easier for some to police our tone and lexical choices than it is for them to address the reasons for this anger. As Lorde writes:
To turn aside from the anger of Black women with excuses or the pretexts of intimidation is to award no one power – it is merely another way of preserving racial blindness, the power of unaddressed privilege, unbreached, intact.
It is easier for some to make us into a caricature than it is to examine their reasons for doing so. The anger of women of colour is uncomfortable, it is scary, and I would argue that this is because it is profoundly legitimate. Fear of it means that our anger is distilled, rinsed of impurities (read: nuance), fetishized, and applied liberally to television and film characters, used as the punchline in memes, transformed into something ridiculous, and eventually weaponised in order to discredit us. I may not ‘sink to their level’ because now, if I were to sink any further there would be no coming up for air, my anger would bury me alive.
Sometimes I don’t want to be patient, I don’t want to be measured, I want you to know how I feel and I want the luxury of that vulnerability. But women of colour are vulnerable in so many ways, as victims of racism, sexism, an even more aggressive wage gap, and sexual demonization to name but a few, that emotional vulnerability feels like a step too far. So we are held to a different standard, one which necessitates the muting of our emotions, our human responses, because not only do they make us vulnerable, but they make others uncomfortable.
This is not to say that the anger of men of colour, specifically black men is not treated in partially similar fashion. Of course, most are aware of the ‘Angry Black Man’, they too are constructed as dangerous and aggressive. Their anger puts them in an intense position of vulnerability, especially physically. And yet in the fight against racism, the legitimately angry words of men are more frequently centralized and platformed than those of their female counterparts. Women of colour often occupy a middle ground, their anger is both aggressive and threatening, whilst simultaneously becoming an easy object of ridicule.
White men have historically dictated the terms of debate. ‘Good debate’, as I have often been told, is one in which emotion can me set aside in favour of solid rationality – emotions notoriously get in the way of constructing intellectually stimulating arguments. However, those who define the rules of debate are often those for whom breaking them bears little or no consequence. We need look no further than the darling president of the U.S, his decision to call protesting NFL players ‘Sons-of-bitches’, whilst it gathered some criticism, was met with cheers. He still has his job.
And so, although our society demands my patience and measure, a privileged few are granted the opportunity to express a full range of emotions without the risk of being squeezed into the form of a character who bears little or no resemblance to their own. When asked how I remain so balanced, my answer is that I feel as if I don’t really have any other choice. But I wish that I did.