Guest post by Erin
This is the question family and friends ask me with regards to John: "Why is he so angry lately?" Real talk: I have been known to ask this question myself. The truth of the matter is that he's not an angry person; like the rest of us he is sometimes unhappy, discouraged and or deeply saddened by current events in the world around him. In his world, as a Black man, he is too often confronted with the systematic devaluing of Black lives, particularly by law enforcement and the underrepresentation of people of color in his field of study. But what well-meaning white folks are sensing as anger is really something else.
To answer the question of "Why is John so angry?" I'm compelled to ask "Why do you assume he is angry?" A number of people have told me it has to do with his use of the term "white people" when addressing...white people. It's understandable that this rubs us white folks the wrong way for a few reasons. First, we're socialized to avoid conflict; we learn by actions of those around us, whether in school, in the workplace, etc. that anyone who challenges the status quo must be some sort of radical. I'm pretty sure that if there were an honorary degree offered for expertise in conflict avoidance, I'd hold one! Second - there's a common misconception that when a Black man or woman speaks up for his/her rights, or draws the less desirable aspects of our society into the public eye, that they are angry. But attributing anger to speaking out is a white move. It's well known that white people too often interpret anger when Black people speak up, move with confidence in white spaces, or even have facial expressions that aren't happy (Hugenberg & Bodenhousen 2003).
Choosing to use the words "white people" to refer to the dominant & ruling class in our society is no different than referring to black people as a monolithic group, as often happens in election years, for example. But the political correctness and "colorblindness" that our generation learned in the 1980s and 1990s taught us that it's not socially acceptable, and often downright racist, to say "black people" or "black x". So today, most white people know better than to say "black people are/do/want x" for fear of being called a racist. We seem to fear that happening so much that we further suppress desires to speak out against injustices we witness. What's replaced it are ways to refer to black people that are deemed to be politically correct or acceptable--- e.g. underrepresented minorities, underserved communities, URM, diversity hires etc. But it's important to note that when we use these terms it's often done from a place of paternalism or with notions of the white-savior complex. I am learning to appreciate the back and forth of discourse, but it's an ongoing challenge for a peace-keeper like myself. I find what Teja Cole wrote in 2012 to be especially poignant:
But there's a place in the political sphere for direct speech and, in the past few years in the U.S., there has been a chilling effect on a certain kind of direct speech pertaining to rights. The president is wary of being seen as the "angry black man." People of color, women, and gays -- who now have greater access to the centers of influence that ever before -- are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as "racially charged" even in those cases when it would be more honest to say "racist"; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.
Today, John has a platform and some influence within his professional community. But many of us white people question his desire to talk about his struggles. We'll allow him to talk about his personal struggles with us, his predominately white academic community, but don't want anyone to be "identified as a sinner" or one who has benefited from the privileges that come with being white in the USA. We listen with shared frustration as he shares stories of colleagues using the "existence proof" as a reason for the lack of diversity among students/faculty of color. But we'll only tolerate it until it begins to make us uncomfortable, or compels us to speak up (read: take what we perceive to be a risk) in a professional setting.
For me it's tremendously challenging but even more rewarding to stop myself from asking "Why is (s)he so angry?" and instead ask "Why am I so unemotional/disconnected from the very real pain others are experiencing?"