Black Women, Let Your Anger Out

Chronic stress is killing us. We can’t keep repressing our rage.

Joshunda Sanders March 26, 2019

(Illustration by Noa Denman)

It is an infu­ri­at­ing real­i­ty that Black women are encour­aged to repress our anger even when we have so much to be angry about. When I sit weep­ing from anger in the office of a white male super­vi­sor gaslight­ing me out of my job, when I show up as a reporter for the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle at an Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day event and am direct­ed to the cater­ing staff entrance (despite wear­ing a press pass), when my mid­dle-aged white female super­vi­sor pas­sive-aggres­sive­ly jokes that she fears I will replace her as she nears retire­ment age and then pro­ceeds to fire me — I seethe silent­ly and am remind­ed that to be a Black woman in Amer­i­ca is to be con­stant­ly exposed to hos­til­i­ty inspired by one’s mere presence.

Channeling collective anger—supporting Black women’s civic engagement, for example—is an important first step in the foundation for building sustainable political power.

For years, I coped with this real­i­ty by smok­ing cig­a­rettes and drink­ing a lot. I avoid­ed feel­ing my feel­ings because I had no mod­els for what it would look like to advo­cate for myself with­out unleash­ing the rage I had sup­pressed for so long.

In her 1981 keynote at the Nation­al Women’s Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion con­fer­ence, The Uses of Anger: Women Respond­ing to Racism,” poet and Black fem­i­nist author Audre Lorde intro­duced a pio­neer­ing inter­sec­tion­al vision of anger’s use­ful­ness in cop­ing with racism, clas­sism and sex­ism. My response to racism is anger,” Lorde said. That anger has eat­en clefts into my liv­ing only when it remained unspo­ken. … Black women are expect­ed to use our anger only in the ser­vice of oth­er people’s sal­va­tion or learn­ing. But that time is over.”

While Lorde found some relief in express­ing her anger, it comes at a cost. I have always felt the invis­i­ble pres­sure of respectabil­i­ty pol­i­tics — the notion born in the Recon­struc­tion era and cham­pi­oned in the Oba­ma era that for Black peo­ple to be suc­cess­ful, to be wor­thy of the pro­tec­tions of white cit­i­zen­ship, we have to behave our­selves and assim­i­late to the dom­i­nant cul­ture. Or, to use Michelle Obama’s famous mantra: When they go low, we go high.

The con­stant refrain of respectabil­i­ty pol­i­tics, explic­it­ly or implic­it­ly, is that mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple must rise above racism and sex­ism and the emo­tions they inspire — such as anger, depres­sion and anx­i­ety — in order to gain favor from those in pow­er. As such, Black women have al-ways been dis­cour­aged from express­ing such emo­tions. In 2018, when ten­nis cham­pi­on Ser­e­na Williams open­ly expressed her anger at a noto­ri­ous­ly strict umpire, she was fined $17,000 and head­lines gen­er­al­ly por­trayed Williams’ rage as an out­burst” unbe­com­ing of a sports star.

Grow­ing up, I was encour­aged by my moth­er, even as a poor child in the Bronx, not to embar­rass her by throw­ing a tem­per tantrum like some white chil­dren I saw scream­ing at Sun­day Mass, for instance.

We nev­er want to give white peo­ple — who already view us as immune to pain, as con­sis­tent­ly and for­ev­er unequal — a rea­son to think we are irra­tional­ly upset, which is how anger voiced from a Black woman is usu­al­ly con­strued. But the catch is that nev­er express­ing your emo­tions makes peo­ple believe you don’t have them or your feel­ings don’t mat­ter. And it allows deeply root­ed bias­es about race and gen­der to persist.

In the decades since Lorde gave lan­guage to a lega­cy of right­eous rage, schol­ars and sci­en­tists have start­ed to pay seri­ous atten­tion to the dele­te­ri­ous effects of the chron­ic stress caused by endur­ing racism and sex­ism, which wears Black women’s bod­ies down over time. Quite lit­er­al­ly, this stress is killing us.

Arline Geron­imus, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, pio­neered research on the psy­choso­cial impacts of inequal­i­ty by iden­ti­fy­ing a phys­i­o­log­i­cal weath­er­ing” process, which accel­er­ates aging and increas­es health vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. It is spurred by chron­ic tox­ic stress expo­sures over the life course and the tena­cious high-effort cop­ing [that] fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties engage to sur­vive them, if not prevail.”

This high-effort cop­ing” man­i­fests in the body in bursts of adren­a­line com­mon­ly known as a fight or flight” response, when the ner­vous sys­tem kicks into high gear. In a 2017 paper, re-searchers Brid­get Goos­by, Eliz­a­beth Stra­ley and Jacob Chea­dle found that the dai­ly stres­sors that unique­ly affect Black women trig­ger this response with dele­te­ri­ous con­se­quences: Because stress response sys­tems are opti­mized to deal with imme­di­ate threats but can be harm­ful when con­tin­u­al­ly acti­vat­ed… the need to con­stant­ly pre­pare for and adapt to stress accel­er­ates wear and tear on the body (i.e., allo­sta­t­ic load).”

New stud­ies are link­ing this high­er allo­sta­t­ic load” to the host of health issues dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly suf­fered by Black women: high blood pres­sure, heart dis­ease and dia­betes-relat­ed deaths. Research also sug­gests that allo­sta­t­ic load is asso­ci­at­ed with Black women’s inter­nal­ized and con­stant­ly affirmed sense of polit­i­cal and social pow­er­less­ness — and of the con­trast between that pow­er­less­ness and the Strong Black Woman stereotype.

The result of know­ing we are expect­ed to be strong while also being among the least con­sid­ered, low­est-paid peo­ple in soci­ety is height­ened lev­els of emo­tion­al dis­tress that include frus­tra­tion, anger and resent­ment,” write A. Anto­nio Gon­za­lez-Pren­des and Shirley Thomas in their 2011 paper Pow­er­less­ness and Anger in African Amer­i­can Women: The Inter­sec­tion of Race and Gen­der.” For her 2017 dis­ser­ta­tion, researcher Nao­mi M. Drake­ford stud­ied 210 Black women and found cor­re­la­tions between belief in the Strong Black Woman stereo­type, emo­tion­al sup­pres­sion and depression.

So what is to be done? If not even a celebri­ty like Ser­e­na Williams can voice her anger with­out being penal­ized, non­celebri­ties are cer­tain­ly at risk. If we take up space with our jus­ti­fi­able fury, the neg­a­tive con­se­quences are myr­i­ad, from employ­ment back­lash to rein­forc­ing stereo­types about Angry Black Women. If we sup­press our anger, we risk val­i­dat­ing a dif­fer­ent, dam­ag­ing car­i­ca­ture that paints Black women as feel­ing no pain.

There are some glim­mers of hope: The Drake­ford paper found that spir­i­tu­al cop­ing mech­a­nisms decrease the neg­a­tive health effects of adher­ence to the Strong Black Woman stereo­type. There are also some local health inter­ven­tions. In New York City, health offi­cials have start­ed racial sen­si­tiv­i­ty and cul­tur­al­ly appro­pri­ate health­care train­ing in OB/GYN and mater­ni­ty wards to stem esca­lat­ing mater­nal deaths, for example.

But ulti­mate­ly, the per­sis­tent prob­lem of bias at the inter­sec­tion of race and sex stems from a broad­er white suprema­cist cul­ture that has rein­forced notions of Black female infe­ri­or­i­ty for hun­dreds of years. Expres­sions of rage then allow racists and sex­ists to jus­ti­fy their bad behav­ior as exist­ing only in the imag­i­na­tion of the sur­vivor of their biases.

Health and long­stand­ing bias­es aside, there are a num­ber of polit­i­cal rea­sons Black women shouldn’t keep our anger bot­tled up. Lorde not­ed that sup­pressed anger undoubt­ed­ly helped white patri­ar­chal pow­er keep women silenced and angry at one anoth­er. In the male con­struct of brute force, we were taught that our lives depend­ed upon the good will of patri­ar­chal pow­er,” Lorde said. And if we accept our pow­er­less­ness, then of course, [express­ing our anger] can destroy us.” But chan­nel­ing col­lec­tive anger — sup­port­ing Black women’s civic engage­ment and increas­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Con­gress, for exam­ple — is an impor­tant first step in the foun­da­tion for build­ing sus­tain­able polit­i­cal pow­er. We saw this in the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, for exam­ple, which began with the shared out­rage of three Black women over the killings of Black men and boys.

But Black women’s expres­sion of anger and suf­fer­ing will not dis­man­tle white suprema­cy on its own; it is only the alarm bell that sig­nals the urgent need for change. Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, Stacey Abrams’ run for gov­er­nor in Geor­gia. She embod­ies the con­cept of speak­ing truth to pow­er, of express­ing anger appro­pri­ate­ly, but the man­i­fes­ta­tions of a racist and sex­ist polit­i­cal sys­tem (in the form of wide­ly report­ed vot­er sup­pres­sion) result­ed in her being shut out.

Allo­sta­t­ic load gives the med­ical establishment’s impri­matur to a fact Black women have long known: Life under white patri­archy is wear­ing us down. To the extent there are polit­i­cal or pol­i­cy solu­tions that could help reduce our chron­ic stress, they must include not only lis­ten­ing to Black women but hear­ing us.

Joshun­da Sanders is an author liv­ing in New York where she teach­es writ­ing at The New School.
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