A White woman clutches her bag a little tighter as she walks past you. You’re suddenly seen as the diversity expert at your company, even though that’s not your area of expertise. You actually have to ask people in your space to put on a mask, as if we’re not all in the midst of a global pandemic. If any of these experiences has you feeling as if your fuse has just about reached its end and you’re ready to blow (or at least give someone a piece of your mind), you have every right to name it and claim it: You’re angry!
But too many of us aren’t able to acknowledge our anger, much less express it because we’re concerned about how others might perceive us. At a time when we’re all searching for peace, the last thing we want to have to contend with is the “angry Black woman” label.
This noxious stereotype gets its power from centuries of efforts to quiet Black women, to diminish our feelings, dismiss our pain and keep us in line by painting us as hard-headed, antagonistic and irrational. We’ve seen this label applied to sisterfriends, colleagues and Black women in the public eye, such as Serena Williams, Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle, when they dare to speak up for themselves. As a result, some of us do whatever we can to avoid coming across as that woman, especially in spaces where White people make up the majority. And suppressing your anger or pretending it doesn’t exist can lead to chronic, deadly stress.
As Rutgers University professor Brittany Cooper explained in a recent NPR interview, “Whenever someone weaponizes anger against Black women, it is designed to silence them.” Cooper, who teaches women’s, gender and Africana studies and is the author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, added: “It is designed to discredit them and to say that they are overreacting, that they are being hypersensitive, that their reaction is outsized.”
With that description looming over you, it’s no wonder you may feel you need to tamp down your emotions for fear of harsh (or lethal; rest in peace, Sandra Bland) consequences. You may feel obligated to go along to get along. Or you might be responding to expectations to make someone else feel safe.
But in a world where people who look like you are murdered by police in the streets and in their own homes without a second thought, in a workplace that still pays you less that your white and sometimes less-qualified colleagues, or in an economy and health system where structural racism leaves you and your loved ones disproportionately vulnerable to illness and dying, there are lots of reasons to be angry.
For Tari Linnear, 47, a change management consultant in Atlanta, her anger comes from seeing Black people — and especially Black men — continuously targeted, and feeling somewhat helpless. “We have concerns about our men that white women don't have,” she says. “Before the pandemic, before the racial crisis, we still had that. I have anxiety and rage when it comes to just the thought of every Black man, every Black boy that something has happened to. I, of course, see my fiancé. I, of course, see the kids. I'm getting upset now. It just, it definitely triggers something in me.”
Anger is a part of a full range of emotions, and even though it’s a negative emotion (as are fear, anxiety and sadness), that doesn’t make it unhealthy. All emotions are useful because they convey information, and negative emotions help you recognize threats and respond to danger. So the question is, what’s your anger telling you, and what can you do in response?
Anger can tell you when experiences go against your values and beliefs. It’s often at the tip of the iceberg, an instinctive response to a situation that you haven’t fully processed and may not even be able to describe. If you go beneath the surface, you might find other emotions that clarify your anger: frustration, distrust, annoyance, isolation, betrayal. Pinpointing your emotion can help you determine and communicate your needs. As I tell my clients, let’s try to understand what’s beneath your anger, and then you can give voice to it.
Consider these practices to understand and put your anger to use:
- Pinpoint the underlying feeling. Try to identify emotions behind your anger: frustration, hurt, confusion, disappointment and betrayal, for instance.
- Take your time. Wait a beat before you speak. Whether it’s a minute or a day or two, give yourself time to gather your composure and consider how you want to express yourself so you are seen and heard.
- State how you feel. Put that emotion at the top of any discussion: “I'm disappointed that … .” “I’m confused by this outcome.” “This is extremely irritating.” If your colleague is constantly late for meetings, you might say: “I'm very frustrated that you were late again.”
- State the facts and your beliefs: “This is the third time we met in the last two weeks and each time you've been late.” Then connect your feelings to your beliefs: “And that makes me believe that you don’t value my time.” Or “I’ve offered suggestions at each of our committee meetings only to be met with silence or resistance. Then when a white colleague suggested the same idea, it was embraced. I’m frustrated that the management team is not as receptive to good ideas when I offer them, and believe my contributions aren’t valued as much.”
- State what you need: “I need for you to be on time.” “I need to know that management values my contributions as much as it does those coming from my white colleagues.” “I need additional support so I can meet department expectations.” “I need you to wear a mask so that we are both safe.”
- Calm your body, ease your nerves. Take some deep breaths, take a break, take a walk, listen to music, get out in nature, journal, meditate. Identify and retreat to a space in your home — a nook, your bed or a chair in the corner of a room — where you can find comfort and peace. Stepping away from the source of your anger allows you to engage your parasympathetic nervous system, calming those fight-flight-or-freeze stress responses that signal impending doom, and lowering stress hormones in your body.
- Harness and direct it. Anger is energizing; tapping into it can propel you to take control over aspects of your life where you may have felt stagnant or ineffective in the past. Anger harnessed and channeled joins a protest, for instance, or registers voters, or asks for a promotion and a raise.
As the poet and womanist author Audre Lorde explained in “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” her powerful 1981 keynote address to the National Women’s Studies Association, “My response to racism is anger. That anger has eaten clefts into my living only when it remained unspoken, useless to anyone.”
Don’t let your anger go unspoken or unused.