Stop Condemning My Bitterness, Start Condemning The System

On Policing Individual Responses to Societal Trauma

photo by Femi Matti

A few weeks ago, my husband, son, and I were in a minor car accident. We made it out without any physical injuries, and our car was largely unscathed. The other car, which hit us from behind, had its hood smashed in. We all pulled to the side of the road and tried to figure out what to do. A man who was driving by with a tow truck stopped as well.

“Should we call the cops and get a report?” The man who hit us asked.

“You can try, but they won’t come. They don’t come out here,” the man with the tow truck replied.

“Let’s just exchange insurance info for now,” my husband suggested— we’d had a long day.

They pulled out pens and paper while I paced next to the scene in an effort to console the frustrated toddler I was carrying.

“There go two cops right there,” the man in the tow truck noted. There were two cop cars stopped at a red light on the other side of the intersection we had crashed in.

“Should I wave him down?” the man who hit us asked.

“You can try if you want. They’re not gonna stop,” said the man in the truck.

The light turned green and the cops started driving towards us. Both men tried to flag them down. The first officer got closer until his car was directly next to the scene. He looked at us — he saw the curled up hood of the car, saw the men, saw me, saw my baby. He flippantly fixed his fingers into a peace sign, and drove away. The second officer drove by behind him without breaking her gaze from the road. I was baffled.

“What the fuck?” I said to my husband, “Did you just see that shit?”

“Doesn’t surprise me,” he said.

“I told y’all they wouldn’t stop,” said the man with the tow truck, “So do you want me to tow your car to my shop?” He asked, turning back to the man with the damaged car.

I stood silently, in awe. I don’t know how to silence the part of me that is shocked every time my humanity is erased, no matter how many times it happens. I know what to expect, and still, I expect to be regarded with respect and decency. The reality I’d experienced seemed entirely possible in this country’s climate and completely unfathomable, simultaneously.

We eventually got back in the car and drove off. It was then that I noticed myself shaking.

“You okay?” My husband asked, making sure I wasn’t hurt in a way I hadn’t noticed sooner.

“Yea, but I’m pissed about that officer. It’s infuriating that he not only didn’t stop, but that he went out of his way to make sure we knew he didn’t give a fuck about us. How can you drive past a pregnant woman, her baby, and a beaten up car, and not stop to check in? Can you imagine if we were all white? If I were a young white mother in need?”

“Yup.”

“And thank God none of us were hurt, but what if we were? What if I had hit my belly, or something was off with Miles? The officer had no way of knowing we didn’t need emergency assistance. Flagging for help implied that we needed it. He decided we didn’t deserve it, or that he didn’t care enough to help us. Miles is 17 months old and he’s just had his first experience with an officer not giving a fuck about his life.”

“Yea. Wow. Fuck.”

Now, before any of you reply that “not all officers” are like this, I want to say that there shouldn’t be a single officer comfortable enough to behave this way (or worse). The officer didn’t hesitate to do what he did, he knew that under our current system there would be no consequences for disregarding my family’s humanity. And that made me justifiably mad as hell.
 
I’m mentioning this anecdote because I keep getting comments and emails from white people about my anger, about my bitterness, in regard to racial injustice. I’m urged to accept the reality that sometimes my children and I are going to experience racism, and to make peace with the life that we have. I’m told that it’s merely a matter of perception, that the world isn’t as threatening to me as I perceive it to be, that if I let go of my bitterness I’d find a better reality for my family and myself.

I don’t buy it. I don’t believe that those comments are made in my best interest, but more so out of a discomfort with their own feeling that they’re on the receiving end of my anger. I think if they reformed their desire to quell my anger into a desire to quell the system that caused it, we’d all be better off.

My anger is functional. My bitterness is rational. If I am not outraged at the injustices faced by myself, my community, my children, who will be? If no one is outraged at my suffering, who will demand change? Yes, the fire that injustice stirs in me burns me. I suffer a lot of anxiety, I often feel despair, it’s difficult for me to enjoy many things. But my suffering has roots in societal trauma — trauma I am working to heal, work fueled by the same fiery anger that sometimes eats me up.

Fire builds and it destroys, as does my anger. My anger sparks a fierce determination in me, an urgent commitment to creating change. My anger is a maternal instinct — a fury which charges me to protect my children and to protect myself from the experiences which threaten our emotional and physical wellbeing.

And even when my anger exists in situations of injustice where it doesn’t fuel anything but my own suffering — where there’s literally nothing I can do to change what’s making me mad — it’s still a perfectly natural reaction to what I’ve experienced. What does shaming me for feeling do? Your discomfort with witnessing my pain doesn’t give you any right to tell me to feel less.

My anger, my bitterness, and my despair are valid reactions to trauma. Hell no, I don’t want to live in them constantly. It feels like shit. I’ve learned to selectively turn my mind off for the sake of survival. I have to regularly in order to create time and space for joy in my life. But the only functional way to eradicate these reactions is to eradicate the root — all else is a numbing, a demand that I don’t experience the natural human reaction to being dehumanized.

If you don’t know what it feels like to personally experience racial trauma — stop policing our responses to it. Listen. Don’t lecture. Practice compassion. Practice reflection without commentary. If my anger, bitterness, or sorrow makes you uncomfortable, focus on what you can do to help heal the social issues which contribute — and I’ll focus on healing myself.


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