Classically Inclined

September 12, 2020

On Responding To Anger: Growing Pains

Filed under: Meta — lizgloyn @ 7:30 pm

With thanks and apologies to Sara Ahmed, without whom I would not even be attempting to write [like] this.

Something happened to me a few week ago. Someone thought I had got something wrong. What’s more, they thought I had got something wrong that I had tried very hard to get right.

This post is not about that incident. My personal encounter with the fallout of the Well-meaning White Woman’s Dilemma – do we act, write and speak about racism and colonialism in the knowledge that we are going to get it wrong, or do we remain silent and expect people of colour to pick up the burden yet again – is not particularly edifying, and is work best done more privately. This is a post about a process.

Earlier this summer, I read The Uses of Anger by Audre Lorde for the first time. Among all the observations that still remain insightful almost four decades after it was written, one in particular jumped out at me:

Most women have not developed tools for facing anger constructively. CR [consciousness raising] groups in the past, largely white, dealt with how to express anger, usually at the world of men. And these groups were made up of white women who shared the terms of their oppressions. There was usually little attempt to articulate the genuine differences between women, such as those of race, color, age, class, and sexual identity. There was no apparent need at that time to examine the contradictions of self, woman as oppressor. There was work on expressing anger, but very little on anger directed against each other. No tools were developed to deal with other women’s anger except to avoid it, deflect it, or flee from it under a blanket of guilt.

No tools were developed to deal with other women’s anger – or indeed for any kind of anger. Anger is not ladylike, not civilized, not appropriate.

But it is necessary. It is needed. We need a way of responding to it – but a way which takes anger as the gift that it is, that accepts the learning and the knowledge that anger gives us, and does not perform the kind of negation and willful ignorance that Lorde describes and that is so familiar, most of all in ourselves.

By ourselves here, I mean white women – not in order to centre the white experience, but in order to give us a way to respond when we are the last straw, to create the mechanism that Lorde sees is missing, when we are the thing that creates the feminist snap.

Responses to the thing that happened to me were instructive in terms of what reactions are readily available when we hear the snap we have created. Many of them share a unifying characteristic – a sliding off. Somehow we must become Teflon-coated, non-stick, so that the anger can slide off us. It is only one incident. There are plenty more people who do not think this, who do not follow this pattern. It is only one person, so that person can be weighed in the balance of other people and found wanting. It does not need to stick to you. You do not need to carry it forward.

Perhaps. And perhaps this is not good enough.

Those of us who choose to tackle the Well-meaning White Woman’s Dilemma by engaging with topics around racism and colonialism in the full knowledge that we will get things wrong must be prepared for the consequences.  It is, I think, important to acknowledge that standing in the path of another person’s anger hurts. As it should. It creates pain. We experience pain. We wish to hide from pain. No wonder the strategies used to comfort us are designed to make us impervious to the pain.

We need a way to respond to the pain which does not become weaponised (as a white woman’s tears) and does not become a way of targeting people speaking truths to us which we need to hear, but at the same time does not require us to pretend that the emotions we feel do not exist. Repression is not a healthy strategy.

My child is currently going through a growth spurt. Shooting up in that way that small children do, to become taller, stronger, healthier on their way to their adult selves. There are complaints – “my knees hurt”, “my legs hurt”, “I’m achey”.

It’s growing pains, I say. It’s just growing pains.

The experience of standing in front of someone else’s anger, of letting it touch you, of not seeking to avoid it, is a growing pain.

I am having growing pains. I will grow through this pain. This pain is what enables me to grow.

The pain of growing through is necessary. Growing through the pain is necessary. The pain is what makes us grow.

These are my growing pains. Through this pain I am growing. Growing in my ability to be anti-racist, in my ability to be a white ally, in my ability to not make mistakes as often, or at least not to make the same mistake in quite the same way.

I can endure the growing pains because I know they are part of maturing, of being a better human, of accepting and responding to the gift of anger. Of letting it stick.

To label an experience and feel that is sufficient is not enough. The enduring of growing pains, the conversations with friends who can support you, the reflection on what action may be necessary and what the next steps look like, must also be done. These kinds of growing pains, unlike my child’s, require work in response to make sure that we do grow past this particular pain, and do not find ourselves encounter the same kinds of anger over and over again.

After each growth spurt there is a pause. Then there is another spurt. A new growing pain, which manifests in a different place. A new sign of work to be done. A new area which needs attention.

These growing pains are never going to disappear, not completely. There will always be ways to improve, to do better. There will always be new ways to grow.

The trick is not to flinch.

Have we already been having this conversation? Have I missed the obvious? Then forgive me. It was not obvious to me.

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