“Black Rage” and “Self-Restraint”

How do you dismiss a black man’s argument? You call him angry.

This article was originally posted at Crommunist.

Last week I received a compliment (of sorts) from a Twitter follower who found my level of self-restraint remarkable when dealing with a particularly odious and clueless post from a Men’s Rights forum. This person marveled at my ability to maintain a sense of calm purposefulness while examining and disemboweling an argument that was built on a factual foundation so shaky as to inspire epistemic vertigo in anyone who read it. This person confided to me that ze would not have been able to keep hir cool in the face of such an outrageously fallacious and inflammatory argument.

While my usual policy with compliments is to thank the giver for taking the time to say so, I felt a twinge inside me that was clearly the initial birth pangs of this post.

I am, if I can be a trustworthy adjudicator of my own behaviour, a fairly calm person by nature. Years of putting my foot in my mouth (and dealing with the social consequences thereof)  have engendered an instinct to think before speaking. My time spent on the internet has inculcated in me an instinct to keep my guard up and maintain a sense of ironic detachment from most things, particularly where race is concerned. Being the biggest kid on the playground meant that I had to learn quite early to control my temper lest I hurt someone smaller than me. I’m also profoundly secure with who I am and what I’m doing in my life, to the point where most of what happens on the internet is just occasionally-irritating noise.

All that being said, that’s not what maintained my sense of calm at seeing the word “nigger” twisted to defend the absurd ideology of the anti-feminists that make up – if not the bulk, at least a very visible plurality – the so-called “Men’s Rights” movement*. As I was first reacting and then responding to the post in question, I was very acutely of a meme that exists in the ‘memeosphere’ about anti-racists of colour. One that really applies to any person of colour (PoC) – but particularly black people – who speak up about any injustice or affront:

The angry black man.

Tied to the image/myth of the black man** as a dangerous and potentially-violent figure is the idea that black men walk around with a barely-contained rage that will spill out at any instant. To be sure, this is also tied up in a narrative about men as primal beasts who chafe at the restrictions that civilization place on them (a narrative that is exploited and cultivated by anti-gay conservatives and “Pick Up Artists” alike), but there is an element to black anger that nearly always enters into racial conversations, often accompanied by the phrase “race baiting” (which I have never heard anyone define consistently).

The idea is that black people are just so pissed off about racism, and of course have not “got over” slavery the way white folks have, that they (we) cannot discuss race dispassionately or ‘objectively’. Our opinions and contributions are therefore subjected to an extra layer of scrutiny, a “detriment of the doubt” if you’ll allow the phrase. Surely, the reasoning goes, a group of people so furious about “historical” injustices and harbouring (as we all do) a “deep-seated resentment of white people” as avatar of whiteness Glenn Beck so famously put it, cannot be trusted to have opinions that are worth listening to. After all, we know that anger makes people say crazy things like “racial discrimination played a major role in the housing collapse of 2008“.

It is by this process that black voices are pushed to the margins of the discussion, leaving only those who can be calm about racism to take part in the discussion. Never is there any discussion of whether the anger, when legitimate anger is expressed, is justified or evidence-based in any way. Similarly absent is the consideration that those invoking the “black anger” meme might be contributing to the problem. When similar behaviour is observed among non-blacks, suddenly it ceases to be belligerent (and therefore ignorable) anger and becomes something laudable – consider the hysteria over the New Black Panther Party*** versus what happens when a group of armed “Tea Party Patriots” converges on a downtown square (or even Washington, DC).

There are abundant parallels to be drawn where this process happens outside a racialized zone. Greta Christina titled her most recent book after the invocation of this technique by theists to disparage nonbelievers who speak up about the absuses of religion. An occurrence so common as to be more or less mainstream is this attack used to discredit women, particularly (but certainly not exclusively) feminists when speaking up about misogyny and gender-based discrimination. The implication is that the problems being raised are either trivial ones that would be easy to solve if people (read: the low-status group) would just calm down, or that members of the low-status group are bringing forth frivolous complaints wrapped in anger instead of supported by ‘objective’ fact.

It is worth noting, and perhaps deserves its own post (though I am hardly the one to speak to this position), that the burden of “black anger” and “shrill harpy” is borne doubly by women of colour who can be easily marginalized by both white folks and men. This intersection of exclusionary factors may explain why there are so few women of colour participating in the atheist movement (and, to be sure, other political movements as well) – it’s exhausting when you have to shout all the time just to be heard at all, and to then have your shouting dismissed as ‘irrational anger’.

To be sure, I am not the writer I am because of my fear of dismissal due to “black anger”. As I said off the top I am dispositionally a pretty mellow dude. Rare are the moments where I want to cut loose with a string of profanity, suddenly realize that white people don’t like it, and so delete my rants and start over with butterflies and flowers. However, I know that when I talk about race, and particularly when I make criticisms, I have to moderate my tone and my manner if I want to avoid the all-too-easy dismissals that come with being a black voice articulating a problem. I think I have good ideas, and would hate to see them ignored because I provided some asshole with an easy loophole to duck out of.

And so, I wrote back to my would-be-complimenter on Twitter, it is a mistake to chalk my seeming ‘restraint’ up to some kind of heroic virtue on my part. It’s not virtue; it’s self-preservation. I avoid anger for the same reason I correct typos – because failure to do so undermines my argument and provides a cheap and easy target for those who would rather sneer at my ideas than engage with them.

*A name that reminds me of nothing more than the “White Rights” movement, which is simply the more civil (and whiny) face of various white supremacist groups.

**There is indeed a meme about the angry black woman, one that seeks to minimize and trivialize legitimate complaints and stigmatize ordinary behaviour as “angry”. More on this later.

***The New Black Panther Party is a handful of nuts who bear no resemblance whatsoever to the Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 70s, but made for a convenient bogeyman for racist conservatives to hold up as a national menace.

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About Crommunist

Crommunist is a scientist, musician, skeptic, and long-time observer of race and race issues. His interests, at least blog-wise, focus on bringing anti-racism into the fold of skeptic thought, and promoting critical thinking about even those topics that make us uncomfortable. More about Crommunist here.

Comments

  1. “it’s exhausting when you have to shout all the time just to be heard at all, and to then have your shouting dismissed as ‘irrational anger’.” – this is spot-on. Co-sign on a great piece.

  2. This post is so full of generalizations that it is difficult to view it as a “starting point” for dialogue.

    For example, look at this:

    “An occurrence so common as to be more or less mainstream is this attack used to discredit women, particularly (but certainly not exclusively) feminists when speaking up about misogyny and gender-based discrimination.”

    Here the author is claiming to have observed a particular bad behavior to be so universal as to implicate society at large (hence the use of the term “mainstream”).

    However, there is no evidence offered that this is actually a mainstream argument, we’re left with an anecdote from a single author and told that we can draw a society-wide conclusion from it. The reality, as always, is quite different. The reality is that many of us have spent a large degree of time with “theists” who have never ever brought up this sort of argument. Instead we’re told that a set of arguments most likely used by an evangelical fringe should be ascribed wholesale to anyone with any degree of spirituality. This is misguided at best and completely dishonest at worst.

    The major thrust of the argument is little different.

    Somehow I’ve managed to make it through decades of my life, a great deal of it engaged in debates about race, without ever having heard the “Angry Black Man” argument brought up. Indeed, this article is the first time I’ve actually seen it laid bare – I had previously assumed that the term was just based upon similarities in behavior between someone like Jesse Jackson and someone like Rush Limbaugh, the latter often provided as an example of the “Angry White Man.”

    In a few moments of internet research I was able to discover something that explained a great deal: this argument was in “vogue” among racists in the 1980s. There is no question that publications from that decade definitely used the argument. A few minutes in Google and I could see this.

    But this is 2012 and we’re complaining about an argument that probably died in 1989 because it was brought up by a single individual, over the internet, from a Men’s Rights billboard?

    I’m sorry but this piece seems to have a “loose grasp” of what is actually “mainstream” if it’s going to look at fringe members of society and assume that they speak for all of us. It’s entirely possible to disagree with progressive thought (particularly about a lot of terms bandied about here including “high status” and “low status”) without subscribing to dead arguments from 3 decades ago. That you found someone on the internet still willing to advance the argument is hardly proof that it holds water in modern conscious thought.

    Finally, there just seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding on how Americans actually respond to race. Just this week California signed into law a controversial bill that would prevent exactly the kind of “armed Tea Party Patriot” convention that the author is concerned about. It’s folly to claim that America is tolerant of this kind of behavior when we can point to concrete evidence that it is not.

  3. Damned if you do and cursed if you don’t. If you grin and bear an injustice, it keeps growing, if you fight against it, your ‘anger’ makes you irrational. This is the power of ‘soft’ discrimination whether it be racism or otherwise.

    A well-written piece.

  4. Not sure why GMP chopped off my footnoted comments, but they’re as follows:

    *A name that reminds me of nothing more than the “White Rights” movement, which is simply the more civil (and whiny) face of various white supremacist groups.

    **There is indeed a meme about the angry black woman, one that seeks to minimize and trivialize legitimate complaints and stigmatize ordinary behaviour as “angry”. More on this later.

    ***The New Black Panther Party is a handful of nuts who bear no resemblance whatsoever to the Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 70s, but made for a convenient bogeyman for racist conservatives to hold up as a national menace.

  5. AnonymousDog says:

    Well, how do you dismiss the arguments of a white person?
    Answer: Call him/her an “extremist”. (Seems to work whether their arguments are actually extreme or not)

  6. Wildstation says:

    On November 11, 2005, my brother Thomas Charles “T.C.) Armstrong, Sr. was beaten for over 2 hours by 43 officers from the Denver and Aurora Police Departments without committing a crime. He was placed in a body bag alive for over 5 hours and in the morgue on ice with a John Doe toe-tag praying to Jesus for his family to come and find him, and awaiting his official murder to be triumphed by the Father. Suddenly, his longtime woman and now mother of two children seen a crime scene and said a “Voice” told her to go check and see if the crime scene was due to TC, since he had not come home the night before from a trip to the local 7-11 on 11th and Yosemite. Sure enough T.C.’s prayers had been answered and a sinister and evil deed would be revealed to the world. The homicide Detectives from the Denver Police Department, and Denver public officials at that time immediately whisked T.C.’s girlfriend in for questioning and pulled T.C. out of the morgue and shipped him to Colorado University where they placed him in a medicated coma for 18 days because he could not have possibly beared the 1st and 2nd degree burns he had suffered from being tased all over his head, body, genitals, and legs, and his lungs and vital organs were collapsing from a lack of oxygen causing the need for a respirator to breath. Afterwards many federal, state, and local public officials conspired to deny TC justice for his atrocious experience and his case was kicked out of federal courts based on a technicality and the inactivity and disappearance of his lawyer Wazir Al Haqq who had not filed one motion or responded to anything with the courts. Maybe TC did not get Justice from this city, state, and federal government as he deserves, my father deserves, and my grand father deserves who were both killed by the Colorado and Florida State Patrols at the ages of 35 and 33 respectively. However, my Lord and Savior has given TC justice as He answered them prayers from a body bag for life. TC has life, and he is living it as the man he best can for the Lord today and we are all grateful and thankful for the Lord’s brand of justice. I love you TC We Remain Unvanquishable as Armstrongs because Our Father, GrandFather, and Lord and Savior and Big Father has given us a covenant of JUSTICE.
    My brother Earl hit me with this, this morning. Check out the link and help bring justice for T.C.
    http://www.workers.org/2005/us/denver-1201/#.UKAKvks6njk.facebook

  7. Adam Blanch says:

    This is a confused article.

    The author makes the legitimate point that those who hold power tend to dismiss the legitimate anger of the those who feel powerless by using pejorative labels that cast them in the light of ‘unreasonable’. On the other hand he uses exactly this tactic to marginalise those who’s opinions he disagrees with.

    Is this sort of behaviour abusing power or isn’t it? Or does the author think it only wrong when used against his particular social group and his particular opinions? If so, what moral superiority does he posses that makes it right when he does it, but wrong when others do?

    Did I say confused? more like Hypocrisy I think.

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