Welcome to day 7 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
Almost as soon as I heard the quick take on the radio this morning, I was thinking about its possibilities for a blog post: American actress and singer Noah Cyrus (Miley Cyrus’s sister), is selling a small vial containing 12 of her very own tears (ostensibly cried after her breakup with a rapper) for $12,000 online, and there are takers. (More here.)
Then I caught a bit of an interview of Rebecca Traister on the New Yorker Radio Hour, by host David Remnick. Traister has just published a book titled Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger (Oct. 2018), in which she was talking about white women’s tears! What are the odds? What attracted me to that conversation was her retelling of an encounter with a female co-worker who, noticing her tears, told her “They don’t know you’re furious; they think you’re sad and will be pleased because they got to you.”
Traister was angry about something at work, but she wasn’t expressing anger. In fact, she wasn’t aware that she was feeling so angry. When this other woman spoke to her, Traister said the fact that her co-worker “saw in sort of what was a split second something that I wouldn’t have been able to describe, as soon as she said it, it was like ‘I am furious, of course I’m crying because I’m furious.'”
It’s Traister’s eye-opening moment, how her co-worker revealed something to her about her own own emotions and her expression of them, that got my attention. It was an apocalypse, an epiphany, a revelatory illumination.
She goes on to say in the interview that it’s “hammered home” to women that our rage is inexpressible — because we’ll be seen as crazy, invalid, marginal, unhinged, and we know it will go badly for us if we express our anger directly. [I think this is true for some men in our culture too — not that they’ll be seen as hysterical or crazy, but that they’ve been taught that expressing anger is not acceptable in some circumstances — but on the whole anger and rage are more acceptable, more in line with the power, brute force, emotional strength we (wrongly) accord masculinity than with the traditional attributes of femininity and being “good girls.” See below for a little more on the repression of anger and rage in our culture.] Since women know that it won’t go well if they get mad, one tactic women employ (consciously or not) when angry is to cry.
Traister notes, though, that this tactic works in America only for white women; “there’s a racial dynamic for crying in terms of sympathy. The vision of the traditionally vulnerable femininity that garners sympathy or empathy is very often the suffering white woman. The crying black woman doesn’t have that same kind of imaginative hold. And more than that, white women’s tears have often been used to cover for instances of racism; I mean, the vision of the suffering white woman and the need to protect her has often been the covering for lynching, for racist violence.”
She also talks in the interview, and in the book (which I have not read), about constructive anger and its uses in history, particularly among black women: Rosa Parks, Florence Kennedy, Pauli Murray, Shirley Chisholm, Emmett Till’s mother. Emmett Till was the 14-year old African American boy brutally lynched in Mississippi in 1955, accused of “offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store.” His mother insisted on an open casket so that his mutilated body could be seen. It’s one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential Images of All Time. The two men who killed him were acquitted by an all-white jury.
It’s really powerful: the divergent responses in America to the spectre of a white woman crying and a woman of colour crying, and the fact that white men have justified their brutality toward black men as protection of “suffering white women.” (How different the response of white men often is when white women suffer at the hands of another white man, especially one in their, the men’s, own social class.) The work of these black women whom Traister cites, and of others, is also powerful and inspiring, and it’s been effective; I have no doubt their actions are borne of legitimate anger in the face of inequity to themselves and others and “the grotesque unfairness of the world,” as it’s put in the interview. Anger can be a great motivator, pushing us to take a stand against unfairness, injustice, cruelty, serious wrongdoing.
I also agree with Traister that attempts to shame, suppress, reject, demonise, belittle, and mock angry women are disgraceful — and they make me angry! — and yet one of my own apocalyptic moments came when I understood that anger and rage — legitimate, valid, and useful emotions in their own right– stem from deep sadness (disappointment, discouragement, despair, loss) and fear (anxiety, worry, terror, uncertainty). That resonated for me. When I witness cruelty or injustice, my typical response is to feel heartbroken; anger may surface, red-hot, but a broken heart is the core for me.
But it’s hard to feel — really feel, and keep feeling — fear and sadness. There’s a helplessness that accompanies fear and sadness, sometimes a paralysis, a bodily sagging and lassitude. It’s uncomfortable to be there. Shifting our emotional core from fear or sadness to anger or rage ramps up the energy, imparts a sense of control and power, protects us from feeling vulnerable and uncertain, which, if you can express anger directly and do something effective to improve an unjust or difficult situation, is great. But there are lots of times when we really don’t have the power to change a situation, leading to frustration and perpetual bitterness, which does no good for anyone; and there are times, especially in complex systems, when our anger or rage is misplaced, aimed at a handy scapegoat, or covertly used as a justification for our own act of injustice. It’s hard to notice duplicity in ourselves.
When the feeling and expression of anger is chronically repressed, for men or women, what seeps out are resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, sometimes overpowering rage. Anger can be as scary as sadness and fear; it can make us feel just as vulnerable, “out of control, irrational, unenlightened, uncivilized” (Psychology Today article). And some of us (most women, some men) are socialised by parents, teachers. religious leaders, et al., to perceive anger as negative, shameful (particularly in certain circumstances; e.g., it’s acceptable to be angry about sports and to hate opposing teams). We’re taught that anger means we’re not rational; but sometimes anger is the most rational response.
While covering up our anger, or trying to transmogrify it to a more acceptable emotion, is dangerous to our mental and physical health — and to the project of righting wrongs around the globe — one danger on the other side is post-traumatic embitterment disorder. Bitterness comes about, as the linked article describes it, when someone feels they’ve worked hard and expect an outcome that seems correlated to their effort. When that doesn’t happen, “a profound sense of injustice overtakes them. … Almost immediately after the traumatic event, they become angry, pessimistic, aggressive, hopeless haters.”
How do we respond to what we see as injustice in the world without becoming haters? By despairing and crying? (Maybe.) By changing our idea of what fairness looks like or accepting injustice as the way of the world? (Maybe.) By working on a process of letting go of our expectations? (Maybe.) By raging on social media or with like-minded friends about social, economic, and political injustice and who’s to blame? (Probably.) By acting with vengeance and a “by any means necessary” attitude? (Possibly.) By modeling ourselves in some way after the black women I named earlier, who stood their ground and channeled their sadness, fear, and anger into constructive action? (Hopefully.) Sort of a trick series of options, but really there are many ways to respond.
A more effective strategy than selling one’s tears, whether shed in sadness or anger (or both), for obscene sums of money, is to get clear in our own minds about what needs to be done — and what we can actually do — to make the world more just and equitable, less cruel, more compassionate. That means first of all working to be fair, equitable, compassionate ourselves (no easy task for most of us) , and then acting where we can to effect positive change in contexts we’re familiar with, and that requires — beyond all feelings — courage, focus, and patience.
Suppressing anger isn’t any solution; recognising that anger stems from a complex stew of external and internal triggers of varying legitimacy, to which we react with sadness, fear, and a sense of loss, and looking at those closely, might be the start of one.
The angry bunny made me laugh out loud. :). Excellent piece. It gave me pause to reflect on my tears and emotions. The distinction you made about race and expression of emotion (and its consequences) rings true but had not occurred to me before.