The recent arrest of Professor Gates in my old stomping ground of Cambridge Mass. sparked a national debate on racial profiling, the charge of disorderly conduct and class privilege. This bitch is more than a little pleased to see everyone from the President to my next-door neighbor to the sistahs in line at the grocery store discussing these issues. But I’m not pleased that one constant theme has been whether Skip Gates brought his arrest down on his own self. Some have said that he should have respected the police officer’s authority regardless of whether he was being wrongly investigated for breaking into his own house. Others have said that Professor Gates had every right to get angry with the officer when said officer allegedly refused to give his name and badge number while investigating Gates for breaking into his own house. Charges have since been dropped. As both parties plan a trip to Washington D.C. to presumably make peace over chips and beer up in the people’s house…blink…I’m pondering the privilege of anger.
When I was a wee bitch I had my first encounters with racial violence at school. Getting beat up on the play ground was humiliating…learning that my teachers wouldn’t step in to stop the assaults was terrifying…but no lesson has had a greater impact on my life than learning that I wasn’t permitted anger over injustices done to me.
My mother counseled me to find coping techniques…such as not playing out of the eye sight of teachers, not asserting myself when someone took my turn at a game and generally not drawing attention to myself. You know, the old back down and walk away method of crisis management.
I broke with that technique only once when a fellow student spat in my lunch. I went to a teacher who accused me of lying and spitting in my own lunch…and something inside me just snapped… the wrongness of it all was overwhelming…and I yelled.
Yep, I raised my voice and said something along the line of “I’m not lying!” followed by “this is not fair!” and you would have thought I had dropped my pants and taken a shit on a lunch table. As the teacher promised me that I had just opened up a whole can of trouble for myself, the girl responsible for spitting in my lunch yelled…uh huh, she yelled…that I was a stupid lying dirty black rat (oh, how memories linger…I can still hear her screaming that). But I was the one hauled into the principal’s office to face the music.
My mother had my back and defended me but the lesson stuck. Throughout the years it has only been reinforced. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called overly sensitive for speaking up for myself or intimidating for speaking my mind or irrational for expressing anger I’d be able to buy Skip Gates a damn brewery. Even now someone reading this is thinking…well how did she speak up for herself, what tone did she use to speak her mind and what did her expression of anger look like…’cause my behavior is suspect until proven rational.
I’ve spent most of my life holding my anger in lest I be called an angry black bitch and the last five years exploring the realty that I had been accepting the premise of a false argument while doing so. I had been fueling the lie that black female anger is wrong and that expressing anger is dangerous for women of color because it reinforces the idea that we are irrational and inarticulate with it. I’m very aware that black female anger is best understood as Madea-esque…as a black man’s comic portrayal of an out-of-control-yet-allegedly-endearing black female who “goes off” a lot and has an anger management problem.
Well, I’m no Madea…
…but I do get angry at the anger worthy shit that every one and their mother gets angry at but women of color are supposed to let slide or approach with calm non-threatening (translation – non challenging) tones.
I challenge…legally (wink) and non-violently. And I express my anger and frustration…and you know what, holding it in didn’t get me any further than letting it out and letting it out is way healthier.
When I read about Professor Gates’ arrest I knew in my gut that the charge of his bringing that action on himself was soon to come. It’s as predictable as the sunrise. Didn’t he know how to act? Didn’t he understand that his public expression of anger and affront was going to escalate the situation? Hadn’t he learned the lesson of Jim Crow…to keep your eyes down, your head bent and your mouth shut when dealing with the police lest you get yourself in trouble? And so it came to pass that grown people who know damn well they’d have taken a tone, raised their voice and probably yelled a bit if faced with the same situation actually managed to say that Professor Gates was arrested for not behaving right…for letting his anger show…for “forgetting his place”.
Now, as those involved plan a hops-based peace conference, I am left wondering what lessons have been learned and by whom.
Is the lesson to “act right” or you’ll get what’s coming to you…’cause Madea goes to jail in that one movie, right?
Or is the lesson to keep it real…to express frustration and anger lest those in power think you really don’t have a problem with being hassled for breaking into your own house after you’ve demonstrated that it’s your damn house or with being followed around a department store or with being ignored by sales people or with being ignored and then insulted by medical staff or with being followed while driving through certain neighborhoods or with being asked to show identification on your way to class or with being viewed as a suspect, criminal, vagrant, trouble maker and/or anti-social fiend over and over and over again until anyone in their right mind would want to holler and throw their hands up in the air?