A white, liberal family member of mine was shocked to learn I despise people referring to the US as “a nation of immigrants.”
While discussing the laundry list of current measures targeting undocumented immigrants, Muslims and refugees, I explained to her why the phrase is completely misleading: It denies the existence of indigenous people, who predate the US colonial project; It is a slap in my face, and all those whose ancestors were forced to come here not as immigrants, but as slaves. But a major fact it glosses over is that the Europeans who founded this country were not immigrants—they were settlers. By definition, they came not to join an existing order, but to wipe one out, and replace it with their own systems.
The danger of such phrases isn’t just a denial of truth. Like so much liberal ideology, in an attempt to unite, it creates a sweepingly simple portrait of a host of unresolved injustices that must be viewed in their complexity. In trying to defend immigrants, it looks away from the exact histories that must be confronted head-on if there is to be any hope for real immigrant justice.
While making this case, I became very angry—unexpectedly so. Maybe it was because I am tired of explaining things which to me are obvious. Maybe it was because it terrifies me every time I realize my voice is the only thing standing in the way of the total erasure of my people’s legacy of suffering. My family member was nonplussed, but also tried to sit with what I was telling them. I noticed the effort.
Since the election of Donald Trump, white members of my family have been engaging in regular political education, focusing on privilege, white supremacy, and the Black feminist ethic of intersectionality. The shifts in our collective discourse have already been palpable. Critical dialogues on racism, the introducing of which was once impossible, are now emerging on their own. Statements once met with immediate resistance are now allowed to hang in the air. Exchanges that were once debates are now conversations. Simply put, they are listening more.
I oscillate between feelings of relief that these shifts are finally occurring, and feelings of anger that it took so long. Even as I notice these emotions in myself, I hear the responses: “We have to meet people where they’re at.” “Let’s focus on the victories instead of dwelling on their shortcomings.” “We don’t want to alienate the people we have the potential to reach by acting out of anger.” Jostling themselves in my brain, these clichés fill me with more rage even before they are inevitably uttered.
In answer to mass critiques of the Women’s March, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor penned a savvy essay last week titled Don’t Shame the First Steps of a Resistance. In it she discouraged the tendency of leftists to deride liberals for not being radical enough, instead of encouraging them further to the left. Critiques that call out without offering any solutions, she notes, halt potential action instead of shaping and directing it in more potent ways.
I loved the essay for the ways in which it pushed my own values as an organizer and activist. Yet, what I appreciated most about Taylor’s words is that they sought to challenge the left on tactic, not tone:
The point isn’t to bury our arguments, but to learn how to make them while operating in political arenas that aren’t just our own if we want to win people to more radical politics…We must do a better job at facilitating debate, discussion and argument so that we talk about how to build the kind of movement we want. But endless social media critiques with no commitment to diving into that struggle…is not a serious approach.
Taylor’s urge is so important because it doesn’t seek to avoid conflict, but to interrogate its actual purpose. She pushes us to return to conflict not as a means of shutting down, but of digging deeper into the intellectual, spiritual and emotional labor of movement building.
There is an expectation of gratefulness whenever the oppressed are told by their oppressors to temper their anger. “Things could be worse,” or, “You can’t imagine how bad it was in x era,” are code for, “You have no right to your rage, and should be grateful for what few bones we’ve been gracious enough to throw you.” ‘Whining’ and ‘spoiled’ are common adjectives employed by mainstream media to degrade and discredit communities that fight back against their own repression. All of these responses, as per Taylor’s point, are means of shutting down resistance instead of engaging it.
Yet, the knee-jerk reaction of the privileged to cut off the oppressed from expressing their rage is much more than an issue of mere tone policing. It is a logic which has led in no small part to the rise of austerity, neoliberalism and the implosion of the environment we are presently staring down. Every time the elite have demanded the oppressed vote for the lesser of two evils, stomach a reform that fails to meet our needs, they have stifled our ability to demand total, not partial, liberation. They have expected us to make peace with the erosion of our most basic rights and resources, and are only now joining in our calls for resistance because the water has risen high enough that some of their own rights have started to be washed away.
Many days I am angry that it took the instating of a fascist regime for my family to take seriously their own complicity in white supremacy. I have a right to that anger. No one, not even the people I love, is owed my gratitude for showing up late. In fact, quite the opposite is true. What the privileged must comprehend in this moment is that making space for the rage of the oppressed is a crucial charge they need to take up–one that is actually necessary for successful movement building.
Massive protests have swept major US airports over the weekend, shutting down international terminals in dissent to the Trump administration’s ban on immigrants and refugees from seven majority Muslim countries. They have been hugely successful—drawing thousands of protesters, supporting the release of detained arrivals, and galvanizing all kinds of legal action in their defense.
Yet, critiques came, too. Palestinian activists questioned the commitment of liberal protestors to the refugees generated by Israeli apartheid, of which the US has long been the primary fiscal sponsor. Black Muslims challenged the erasure of global Black communities in the rhetoric and organizing of the large assemblies. Native, immigrant, queer, trans and undocumented people rejected calls for patriotism, reminding protesters of the militarism and corporate exploitation which have created a global refugee crisis, the onus of which sits squarely on the shoulders of the US government.
I heard in these critiques not insolence, but rage. Not only was that rage justified, it demanded not that the action stop, but that it be expanded, made wider in scope and deeper in its commitments. Such demands are healthy for the nurturing of a movement, not alienating. The hard work of hearing them, internalizing them, and returning to our organizing with refreshed vigor for engaging each other in new ways is the responsibility of every one of us who dream of a more just world, and hope to live long enough to see it.
The conflict to which Taylor asks us to commit has emotional labor at it center. This makes sense to me, because surviving in a white supremacist society requires so much emotional labor from those oppressed by it. When our coworker asks us an insulting question, our boss doesn’t understand why a new state murder upsets us, or a partner needs to be shown how something they did caused hurt, we draw on incredible reserves of patience and empathy to respond.
So much of successfully navigating our society requires we become teachers, diplomats for our communities and their unique battles. We cannot afford to be rageful in any of these interactions, because to do so could jeopardize our housing, our income, and the other social contracts that keep us just above the constantly rising tide.
Movement is different. Movement is the space we create, outside of the status quo, outside of the contracts that control our feelings and command our silence. To enter into these spaces, especially after being absent from them for so long, and demand first and foremost that we curb our rage to make the elite feel more welcome is to impose on our movements the exact values they were built to destroy.
Instead of demanding we perform the emotional labor of making the privileged comfortable, the privileged must learn to do the emotional labor of being uncomfortable, making room for the rage they’ve played a large part in creating. Instead of seeing our anger as an impediment to the work they need to do, the privileged should see holding it as an intrinsic part of that work–work that might teach them more nuanced perspectives and effective tactics for resistance if they allow it to.
I’ve been coming to the realization lately—in large part through building with the white people in my life—that I spend so much energy explaining my anger, justifying it, I’m left precious little time, space and capacity to feel it. My greatest emotional block is the unspoken demand, made by dominant narratives, people of privilege, and structures of power, that I prove I am as hurt, as pained as I say I am. By keeping myself preoccupied with making the case for my rage, the sharpened tip of it is kept tied down by my constant explanations, examinations and receipts. This is the deepest injustice of our rage’s denial—not merely a failure to recognize the material realities that generate it, but to distract us from feeling it unfettered, letting it flow through us, and find its ultimate release.
This is no accident. For if my rage were left untempered, unmitigated, it would destroy everything. And that’s exactly what needs to happen.
We have walls and bans and prisons and police stations and pipelines and banks and tanks and drones and borders to destroy. Stop telling endangered communities we should cease feeling exactly what we must be allowed to feel if the current regime is to be resisted, and if our people are to survive.
Stop treating our rage as an affront, and start understanding it as a cue.
Reprinted on Truthout
I like your reflections, but do be careful. I speak from experience dealing with rage and anger for decades, literally. It is a force of its own, and it can take over your psyche. It is addictive and powerful. You must come to know who you are without it, and I mean at the core of your being. Because I assure you, you are not your anger. Just like you are not your fear, nor everything you’ve inevitably internalized as a result of oppressive dynamics. And as you do this, let your anger be transformed into love, expressing it only when absolutely essential. This is not to appease others, nor to leave the dominant structures intact, but to ground yourself in stillness. Eventually, with full consciousness, our strongest, most meaningful actions emerge from inner peace.
I appreciate this beautiful response. How we sustain our righteous rage without letting it consume us, or turn us against each other, is such a real question–also deeply tied to emotional labor. It is so easy for rage, when it is unable to destroy power, in its frustration to destroy those carrying it. How we stay centered, grounded, and still driven, is such an important thing to continually ask ourselves. Thank you.
Exactly. You’re very welcome.
Thank you. I appreciate everything you write so much. The world needs your voice.
You are a phenomenal writer. I will share your powerful words with everyone I know. Thank you.
Thank you all for your kind words and thoughtful reflection. It is truly appreciated!
I don’t think I read the same article by Taylor as you. I take her argument to be nearly the opposite of the one that you are making here–she argues that the left must recognize the necessity of meeting people where they are, realize that if we are to sustain a mass movement, we have to get away from endlessly measuring relative privilege (everyone on Earth is more privileged than the most oppressed person), and realize that being angry at liberals for not being already radicalized is counterproductive. It does no good to ask potential allies to apologize if they don’t understand why they are apologizing, and it does no good to ask them to understand our pain if we are unwilling to educate them in a productive way. Taylor’s call is to end the solipsistic tone of suffering and work instead for pragmatic solidarity.
I think your reading of Taylor is correct, and I actually agree with it and am trying to better internalize her wisdom. But what I don’t think the take away should be is that oppressed people have to cease processing and expressing their feelings (which I think are very deep and real) to make others more comfortable. The left has real work to do in order to actually extend movement, make it inclusive in ways it has yet to be. But inclusion also requires work from those who are newly included, and I would argue that a piece of that work is learning what has already been happening, and holding space for the rage of the impacted, which can be an uncomfortable process. I think, rather than only telling the oppressed to “meet people where they’re at,” we all have real work to do in terms of arriving at a middle ground. That work for the privileged includes doing some emotional labor, and holding space for the feelings of the impacted.
That’s a great way to say it, thanks. I find it to be a hard line to walk between recruiting allies but also confronting people with the reality of the suffering of oppressed people, who should not be made to suppress righteous rage for the sake of others’ comfort.
I appreciate your intelligent and thoughtful article. I am reminded of Gandhi’s statement “I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmitted into a power that can move the world.” But he insisted that anger be CONTROLLED, not acted out violently, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”
Thank you for expressing so eloquently the tension I have been sitting with lately. Rather than feeling grateful for the recent reinforcements to our ongoing struggle for social justice, I instead find myself feeling miffed and suspicious of these late-comers. Until reading your words, this response on my part seemed ungracious and counter-productive. I now realize the basis for my concern; that any current support will be withdrawn once the needs of the liberal mainstream have been met, and I will then be expected to be thankful for imposed compromises that leave the bulk of the work of dismantling an oppressive system undone. Your post offered an opening to feel the rightness of my very old rage, so that I can use it with more clarity and intention.
Stunning!!! Thank you! Sending this to all of my white family members. We’ve talked a lot about the value of feeling uncomfortable these past months… it has been a difficult conversation to have with them; people who have felt (relatively) SO comfortable in our world because of their privilege. But we’re getting places. And your piece is going to help!
as someone with access to privilege working to be an ally and an accomplice I appreciate this piece and the conversations fed by it. For people with access to privilege I believe it is our work to help others folks of priv to learn, practice and further encourage others in, as you write, “doing some emotional labor, and holding space for the feelings of the impacted.” Radicals with privilege need to do the ‘hand-holding’ of those just waking up. We can usher folks further along; it is not for us privileged folx to ride on other’s rage as if it were our own and in turn walk away from the work of bringing our fellow people of priv deeper into the complex truth(s).
I am grateful for your intelligent, self-aware, and respectful writing. Thank you for sharing all of these thoughts and feelings with the world. I am truly impressed by the respectful tone of the comments of your readers, too, and by your thorough engagement in your replies. I am curious how you manage your page to keep the dialogue so mature. Do you have to delete many comments?
That’s an interesting question! I do try to only post responses that are relevant to and furthering the conversation, so I do have to delete some from time to time. It also depends on the content of the piece and the kind of audience it attracts. But largely I’ve been lucky to cultivate a good community of thoughtful commenters just by setting expectations about what kinds of dialogue happens here. Thank you for reading the article and the responses!
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