When I was a child, I learned how to turn anger into sadness. Rather than being angry that I had to follow my mother’s rules, angry that my sisters wouldn’t share their toys, or angry that every teacher set impossible standards for me, I swallowed my outrage and got sad instead. Anger felt inappropriate.
For one, I was a child. I didn’t have the right to feel something so strongly, least of all to direct it at those with power: at parents, and older sisters, and teachers. And for another, I was a girl. Boys yelled and threw things when they were upset, but I was a girl, and I was good. If I was good, I could not be angry. And so, with that logic, I snuffed out anger and let it cool, until it became sadness. And I have carried that sadness with me all these years.
Over time, I continued to turn grievance into sadness. With each passing year, my anger became so foreign to me that I relinquished it to whomever opposed me because I had no idea how to wield it. I let an academic advisor convince me to drop out of a program, her words sharp and dismissive as she declared that my situation was hopeless no matter how hard I worked. I let old friends discredit and humiliate me until I became a fraction of my former self and heard the unmistakable din of clipped anger in their voices, because even my sadness offended them. Once, I even let a manager at a retail job convince me that my outfit was unacceptable and that I should know better, despite the fact that other girls with more acceptable bodies were wearing the same pair of leggings I had that day. And each time, I let someone else be angry, so I could be sad. I was good, and if I was good, I could not be angry.
I didn’t want to be angry.
I didn’t want to be an angry woman.
And as I got older, I didn’t want to be an ‘Angry Black Woman.’
Serena Williams, fined and ridiculed for her anger at an umpire at the US Open, is the most recent example of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ trope in full effect. The ‘Angry Black Woman’ stereotype aims to define all Black women with anger as overly aggressive and unbearably ignorant.
A product of slavery, this term normalizes a Black woman’s rage by suggesting that all Black women are angry, and therefore that our anger doesn’t mean anything. Though society scorns all women who lack the docile complacency that it prefers, historical perceptions of Black women as mammies and, in more recent years, other ‘sassy’ characters trivializes our emotions in a way that differs from those of non-Black women. Our rage is either too aggressive to bear or too comical to be taken seriously. In either case, it becomes something to mock, and so do we.
I’ve experienced this mockery in spades. I’ve been considered angry simply for sharing precise and critical opinions in a loud voice with a neutral expression. And, in contrast, I’ve added a smile and watched my opinions lose credibility because I was ‘sassy’ now. But all of this does not make me sad anymore. Now, it makes me angry.
Anger, like sadness, is our heart’s way of telling us that something is wrong. I believe they come from the same place, but simply brew at different temperatures. Sadness should come from things that need to be felt, things that are true and cannot be changed — loss, illness, and the like. But anger should come when there is injustice or unkindness.
When someone has been treated unfairly, they shouldn’t have to hold that in for any reason. Anger is a part of the human experience, an emotion that we all feel, that we all should feel. Anger is something that no gender or colour or age group gets to monopolize.
There are wonderful articles, and books, and speeches that discuss how women’s anger has been driving so much change in the past few years. There are movements, and protests, and challenges to ideologies that have maintained their legitimacy for centuries.
But it still isn’t enough.
There is still so much to be angry about.
Social movements are only possible because of the people who feel strongly enough to continue pursuing what is right. Even if you’re not a woman, you should be able to see the injustices that women face. And if you’re not a Black woman, you should learn to be aware of the extra challenges we face and so on and so forth until we are all angry for everyone, and the injustices that oppress us and those we care about, and even those we don’t know. Anger is just an emotion, and we shouldn’t be afraid to witness it or to hold it inside of us. Instead, we should welcome it with open arms and listen to what it has to say.
You can be good and be angry at the same time.