On Embracing Discomfort on the Road Ahead
Mary Turner was angry. After Hampton Smith, the white farmer who exploited the Georgia court system to help him dole out the specific cruelties of slavery and chain gangs, was shot to death, a lynch mob of white men rose up.
Mary’s husband, Hayes Turner, who worked for Smith, was among those who were lynched. A September 1918 Crisis account offers more detail: “Mrs. Turner made the remark that the killing of her husband on Saturday was unjust and that if she knew the names of the persons who were in the mob that lynched her husband, she would have warrants sworn out against them and have them punished in the courts.”
She thought she had a right, even though it was Georgia, a century ago. Maybe because she was eight months pregnant she couldn’t help herself.
The angry mob decided to teach Mrs. Turner a lesson: She was strung up to a small oak tree on a narrow road. Her ankles were tied together, her clothes were doused in gasoline and the clothes were burned from her body. As she writhed in agony, someone took a knife for gutting hogs and sliced the baby out of her. A member of the mob stepped on the baby’s head before bullets were fired into Mrs.’ Turner’s body.
Sandra Bland was angry. After a long history of battles with depression , Bland was pulled over by an officer three years ago in Texas just as she had turned a new page in her life, most of us were told. She was arrested and jailed, where it was determined she died by suicide.
Her family has settled out of court and as the years have passed and other Black activists have made headlines for dying by suicide — whatever you believe to be true about what actually happened to Sandra Bland — because of the stressors that come with doing the work that affects our lives. Sometimes, as in the case of Erica Garner or Venida Browder, our bodies just give out from being consumed and by trying to be strong.
There are different consequences for Black women when we get angry and decide to express it. We are stereotyped strong and magical and stoic, so sometimes we turn our rage inward or at people who look like us because our psychological wounds are so deep that a lot of us have not had direct access to power or real systemic change, so our rage has often not had a real outlet or audience.
When you have not existed to your fellow citizens except as the site of free unpaid physical, sexual or emotional labor, it turns out that you don’t exist them as fully human and capable of complex emotions, so that when you exercise them, even in the company of people who claim to see you, you are met with surprise and a different kind of weight to carry or manage.
This, too, is infuriating.
I have been reading Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, which I just finished, and I’m at the very great beginning of Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad. I turned to Dr. Cooper’s work in need of healing and recognition at the intersection of a number of my identities that were being left out of mainstream discussions of femininity and power before I remembered that I’d requested a galley of Traister’s book and was refreshed to see and hear her in conversation bring necessary complexity and analysis to the conversation.
Reading them and thinking about them in tandem gave me pause during the spectacle of what appeared from the outset to be Brett Kavanaugh’s inevitable confirmation to the Supreme Court. Whenever anyone said this or suggested it, they were shut down, silenced or policed; derided as hopeless and weak, unless this was said in the context of what work we would all be doing in the after. But this rush to the inevitable skipped a step that bears examination, which is the reigniting of a long tradition of white feminism that implicitly demands of Black feminists that we add our anger to the work — regardless of the consequences that only we absorb — that needs to be done to mitigate the wreckage already done and the damage ahead.
Other than contending with my own personal response as a single woman with a history of adverse childhood experiences who needs to tenderly and aggressively self-protect against trauma exposure (I learned this through trial and error in part because of my own stubbornness and just recently when I did not and ended up felled and sick for days, but trust me: Now it is Noted), in recent weeks and days I’ve watched myself fall into a kind of hypervigilant echo chamber loop of a traumatizing news cycle filled with assumptions that make no room for the lived realities of Black womanhood.
This is as true in 2018 as it was a century ago.
That is as a good place as any to begin with where my anger starts, I guess, or where it’s located. It’s not with white men, who are understandably distant from my pain and joy and the complexity with which I inhabit the world, but with some — not all — white women.
Specifically, white women who have not and will not do the important work of looking closely at their own privileges and comforts and how the contours of those privileges and their addiction to being comforted, to having struggle eased and paths cleared for them — usually by Black women and femmes — both contribute to enraging Black women and our oppressions while furthering their own oppressions.
There’s nothing any one of us or any one group of us can do alone; but in coalition, we can be mighty. Maybe we will be. The segment of this coalition I’m most intimate with and know the most about, the one that sleeps with the actual power brokers and gatekeepers who still determine the course of our legislative future, for however a limited amount of time might be left are some white women.
This is where Mrs. Turner’s anger, her story and our present comes up again.
In her 1981 Keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” Audre Lorde mentioned that when Mary Church Terrell told two white women of Mary Turner’s plight, they immediately asked, “What did she do to deserve it?” (Emphasis mine.)
The consequences of Black women’s anger, you see, is always viewed as being our fault. Because we have always been viewed as objects, merely as catalysts, midwifes. When we try on humanity or agency, then, we are considered preternaturally, unreasonably, irrationally pissed off. I am one of the most soft-spoken people I know; reserved and introverted and possibly standoffish. The amount of times I have been called intimidating or filled with rage by a person in white skin feels infinite; Knowing what I know now about how often Black women’s posture is misread, how our grief, our fatigue and ways of being in order to get our needs met (but usually and typically to sacrifice ourselves in order to make sure others are comfortable) are usually just invisible would have been really helpful for not internalizing the racist and sexist assumptions delivered as “observations” from people who could not see the specific pain I was in.
A 2017 Advertising Age article described the pervasiveness of the Angry Black woman stereotype — 1,000 women across races surveyed cited the words “argumentative” (60 percent), “lazy” (46 percent) and “corrupt” (45 percent) when describing how Black women were portrayed in media. Some of this is because of Reality TV, which a lot of Black women watch endlessly, leading to high ratings which lead producers in Hollywood to create more of these shows. Black people also watch much more TV than other demographics, according to Nielsen, the article went on — 57 hours more per month than white viewers — an average of 213 hours per month .Black women watch 14 more hours of TV a week more than any other ethnic group. We are 59 percent more likely than any other demographic to watch reality TV programming.
This is likely a reflection of class differences and access. No shade.
But what matters is that popular culture representation shapes cultural attitudes across demographics. In that same article, there is this quote: “An average white American’s social circle is typically 91 percent Caucasian, according to U.S. Census data and research from the Public Religion Research Institute.” This means that what white people, what white women who say they are fighting for all of us, truly think they know about Black women is actually likely coming from one of two places: social media or television.
Since neither of these places allows for the full construction or expansion of Black women’s lived experiences, even the most well-meaning, woke white women fighting on our behalf experience us, our feelings and our humanity from a remove. This is why Always Another Country author Sisonke Msimang says Black Girl Magic is a trap:
“We are living through a difficult global moment. There are many forces arrayed against the very people black girl magic was conjured to protect and defend. Perhaps then, it is time to accept that creating new possibilities doesn’t happen magically.”
When there is room for all of Black women’s complexities to be viewed without also having to take care of white women at the same time that we are trying to metabolize and process our own particular grief and trauma as equals in full possession of ourselves — and not only as purveyors of entertainment or inspiration — we can truly move forward.
The emotional labor, then, that felt implicitly required during a moment in which Dr. Christine Ford came forward and demanded that we all perform the experience of #BelieveSurvivors, even after seeing how Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement has been co-opted and erased time and again, was telling.
What was meant, but not said, was #BelieveSomeSurvivors.
Surely, white men would not ignore white women. Not this white woman. Not this time.
But yes, this time.
Any Black woman who has been paying attention — and we all have, because it could cost us, our loved ones, our friends, our chosen families, our biological families to turn away even if we don’t always have the energy in the moment to participate in social media performance of our heartbreak, our anxieties, our fears or our collective grief — could have told you that.
Every single aspect of our lives is impacted by the same hypervisible invisibility Dr. Ford described in her hearing for telling the truth about her experience and her motives. The realities and truths of our experiences — of our very humanity — have been invalidated since our ancestors were brought here in chains. In fact, I would argue that because we arrived here subjugated by white men, there are ways in which the white male gaze believes that its entitlement has the power to liberate us or not. The myth of white feminism is the extent to which white women are able to distance themselves from being bound up in this equation as property and not as partners as articulated well by Traister in Good and Mad.
In her keynote, Lorde said this:
“The angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying. When we turn from anger, we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar.”
To be a Black woman in America is to make friends with discomfort, and to embrace the subtle expectation of rage, the possibility that the trauma of it will come simmering at any moment. I can’t speak to white women’s experience, but I can say what I’ve seen since November 2016.
It’s like when you have a homegirl that has been married for years to a menacing, abusive douchebag that, maybe when you hated yourself you flirted with and thought had the potential to be better but, nope, he just got worse.
So you dump him, but she marries him, and he goes on to be wildly rich and shady. You give her the side eye and try to explain when you are not exhausted by your life and all the things in it you need to do to keep it going why this is going to go badly eventually, she tells you that she looks the other way because she gives most of his money to good causes and she is one of the good ones.
Over the years, you gently and compassionately try to tell her she deserves better than this, that she is educated and smart and important (Remember The Help, girl!) but she just doesn’t listen. The spirit and energy of 2008 Barack Obama and the fierceness of Michelle Obama and the affinity she has for Hillary Clinton and hope and optimism and comfort are her drugs of choice. She loses herself in that, in the cause. Menacing douchebag, in the meantime, is a powerful rich white man which means that he does not spend any of his time casting his pearls before swine, as it were, and he doesn’t give a single fuck about what any of those simple bitches wasting their time and energy on the Internet have to say about shit.
He knows that the real power is on the golf course with the other rich douchebags. In real time. He does not say a single word about who he’s voting for, but she already knows she lives in a house divided, in a red state, maybe it’s even purple.
Then when you and all your friends wake up in The Handmaid’s Tale Zombie Apocalypse Edition that makes you wonder if this is what Reconstruction felt like, she calls and tells you that he is smoking a celebratory cigar and she is outraged and devastated and goes, “I feel like he might not be a good person. What do we do now?”
In these moments, I have struggled to explain that I don’t have the energy to join the sisterhood of rage but I’m also not sure that my life is set up to absorb the consequences of the expressions of my anger.
Standing up to bullies is exhausting. It is hard to do at the office or in the classroom or in my inbox all day. Then I go online, seeking escape or respite to have a moment to relax and to see that a white woman who is the epitome of what a woman is supposed to be in order to be protected — someone who has the degrees, the experience, the age, the stature, the money, the resources — has been dragged in the name of cementing racial and gender and economic superiority back into the highest court in the land.
If you are without the supports of financial or emotional supports or privilege, this is a dangerous exposure to trauma that is unmitigated unless you also have the privilege or luxury of time to go investigate how to shout, hold a sign, or march about your agency.Vote, everyone says — but what do you do if you’re already exhausted and overwhelmed by life and you feel like one more thing is going to send you over the edge? What if trying to figure out how to get a car to the nearest voting booth which is 25 miles away in a rural place is the 30th thing on a list of past due bills, children that need feeding and your actual health needs?
What if you don’t have ID and you actually can’t vote?
What if you feel like you’re not strong enough to even call or text a friend to say you’re not even sure you’ll make it to Election Day because everything makes you feel like nothing you are or will ever say matters?
The answer is not just, “Feel better. We got this.” That is one part of the answer. The other part is acknowledging the complexity of all of these things together happening at once.
I teach about the intellectual foremothers of intersectionality and the Combahee River Collective Statement. I thoroughly teach Kimberle Crenshaw’s 1989 paper with my students. What I don’t hear is feminists accounting for the psychosocial stress of how intersectionality comes to bear on our lives in real life and the real ways these manifest as health disparities like heart disease and maternal death rates and complications, cancer and diabetes. How will we save one another’s lives as the hopes and myths and optimism some white women have held about the country they believed we were living in die? This is an urgent matter, not an intellectual exercise.
There are invisible supports — wives, husbands, partners, trust funds, institutions, day jobs, inherited wealth and privilege and just plain old white skin — that allow some women to be more free than others. This is the part that needs to be said, remembered and repeated. This is the caution that needs to be exercised as we go forward. It has always been true. It is still true.
Black women’s anger is rarely registered or seen or discussed as being of consequence because we don’t have anything, allegedly, that white men want. To the extent that the future of our American Christian nation is dependent on pure white men, the only women that ever need to have their emotions controlled or their rage managed are white women. In this way, it continually benefits white male patriarchy to divide feminists by ethnicity and to perpetuate divisive economic stereotypes that make white women feel that they will risk protected status and their very citizenship as white persons in their own right if they express any allegiance or solidarity with Black women.
Because mobilizing in the street it is a difficult thing to do, particularly for survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, it’s important to honor. But it’s also important to hold more than one idea at a time, and to confront white fragility and to speak honestly and with urgency about flaws that cast all women and femmes and feminists as needing to be invested on the same level and having the same things at stake. Being generic is a kind of emotional violence. It’s why colorblindness was never really a thing.
A lot of white women are, clearly, not quite ready to be uncomfortable; Not in the way that Black women have had to make peace with all these years. I understand it, as disappointing as it may be. But I will not continue to be vague or silent about the ways that this need for comfort works against what will save all of us. Black women know well the consequences that come with being targeted and undesirable as a result of waging war against the white supremacist patriarchy because we live them. White women will have to decide if they are ready to live with those consequences for real, too.
I think all the time about Ralph Richard Banks’ assertion that white follows black — the reason white media came for Black single women not long after the 2000 Census with all these warped narratives that we were supposed to be destroyed by our autonomy and crushed by solitude. It was supposed to be a dog whistle to scare the crap out of white women. “Hey, you think you can get educated and be the breadwinners and ‘Have it all?’ Look at these broads!”
But Black women did what we always do and we rose in our singleness, our solitude. We made a way. As the very fabric of our families has been battered by systems that have their origins in slavery, codified in legislation that begat the mass incarceration that continues to ravage us, we continue to find and shore up our spiritual, emotional, physical and intellectual resources.
We still have our faith, we still fashion our joy, our creativity and our womanism. We will not be deterred by the emotional violence of indifference or apathy, the betrayals of silence from those who call themselves allies. Joy is a revolution.
We did not and have not waited for change. We have gone and made some or tried. Trying to speak the truth as voices in the wilderness without support has killed our foremothers in the form of cancers that developed from suppressed rage, loneliness, behind the scenes infighting from our brothers who then decided not to choose us and on and on and on.
But still we rose. Still, we rise. Still we stand on the shoulders of those who loved themselves enough to fight for their own liberation.
In the end, I still wonder if the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after all of this exhausting spectacle and dredging up of pain, grief and rage will be the thing that will break the spell of those so enamored of our optimism, so in love with the idea of what we would like America to be that we cannot shake loose our attachment to what was.
What will become of the white women who say they want the world to be better for all of us, but will not gather their white sisters or relatives at the dinner table when they say deeply racist things because they are all bound up in the comforts of the patriarchy that oppresses us all? How will we reconcile the addictive nature of comfort and how comfortable narratives keep us stuck in the lie of solidarity?
Are we willing to be angry with one another in the service of understanding that discomfort might be the thing that saves us?
Audre Lorde also said this back in 1981: “But the strength of women lies in recognizing differences between us as creative, and in standing to those distortions which we inherited without blame, but which are now ours to alter. The angers of women can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.”