Women in Academia is a reading group initiative by the Women & Politics society created to highlight women in (surprise) academia, by reading academic texts written by women in humanities and discussing them on a bi-weekly basis. This piece is a summary of the discussion held by the group on October 16, 2019.
The academic text selected to read this week was “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” by Audre Lorde. Summary written by Women & Politics Vice President Saffa Abdi.
[Featured Image: Audre Lorde dressed in white standing next to a chalk board where she has written ‘Women are powerful and dangerous.’]
This week our text for the reading group was ‘The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’ by Audre Lorde. I first came across this text in a roundabout way through Sara Ahmed’s ‘The Cultural Politics of Emotion’ which spoke about how crucial anger and indeed emotions are to feminist theory and activism. Lorde’s essay focused on how the use of emotions such as anger is routinely delegitimised in the political sphere but also within feminist spaces.
Though we read this as a text, initially this was a speech given by Lorde to the National Women’s Studies Association. It is a speech that is rife with anecdotes and plentiful examples of the exclusion, racism and silencing that she experienced including from white feminists. Initially, we discussed how compared to scientific studies and research, anecdotal evidence and oral histories are not seen as legitimate. One participant noted that this is in tandem with a growing reliance on feminist theory that’s detached from reality. By centring this speech on her lived experience rather than hypotheticals, emotions become crucial in accurately depicting events.
Even within feminist spaces, emotional language is delegitimised as we are conditioned to be fearful of anger. Lorde notes that women of colour are castigated by white feminists for ‘creating a mood of hopelessness’, that their anger impedes ‘progress’. For example the caricature of the ‘angry Black woman’. There is an undeniable pressure for Black women to soften their words and reign in their ‘emotional language’, but in doing so they distort their lived experience. More-so, in the absence of anger or grief, where is the virtue in being stoic when you are silenced and marginalised.
The discussion then moved onto the distinction between anger and guilt and whether these were antagonistic to each other. When confronted with racism or sexism, how do we react? For Lorde it was anger and this was a purely visceral reaction to injustice. Anger is presented not only as righteous but a transformative tool in that it leads to change. So for her guilt was a defensive mechanism, a cop-out method that evades responsibility.
One participant made a compelling argument against the fact that guilt leads to inertia and it can also be a transformative tool. She pointed out that for her, guilt and this
acknowledgement of being culpable can lead to self-criticism and so long as this guilt is not projected onto anyone else, it is not a harmful way of dealing with injustices. Another person noted that the failure with guilt is that at its core it is a self-centred method of processing information as it places your interests and perspective first. Someone else highlighted that maybe the question should be framed as ‘why do we feel guilt before anger’. It is not about admonishing guilt as it is a reaction that comes so easily to many of us, but questioning why it becomes a go-to crutch for us. As a group, we were divided over how to reconcile the link between guilt and anger and we talked about how emotions can be transitory and that we are capable of feeling guilt and anger at the same time and they are not necessarily negating.
One person recalled a recent interaction with an acquaintance who said that he could not identify with feminism because his experience with feminists and the feminist movement was marked by anger. These were angry women, who were angry at him and who yelled and for him, this is not what equality should look like. We talked about how we need to understand anger at its root. Anger is not irrational or unjustified but at its core, it is a vexation against being silenced and marginalised. By portraying anger as irrational we inadvertently gloss over how racism and sexism are violent and oppressive. When we are confronted with racism or sexism, what other emotion is applicable? Sadness? Fear? Disgust ? and Ultimately what do these achieve. Lorde’s advancement of anger as a powerful tool is because ‘it is loaded with information and energy’. It has the capacity to transform because it is only through feeling anger that we can envision an alternative.
Thus our concern shouldn’t be to focus on the ways in which we present our frustration and anger. This fixation on prioritising optics and aesthetics of the feminist movement over its substance and its goals was another topic we discussed. There is a lot of pressure on feminist movements to be palatable and easily digestible for the masses. By replacing this anger with consumable, happy-go-lucky slogans we are softening the ugly truths and reality in favour of diluted and incomplete versions of history. Is the goal to make oppressive systems such as patriarchy and white supremacy more accepting to us or to resist and destroy them?
As a group, we largely agreed that anger can be constructive and transformative but when this is relayed between feminists in the confines of women’s spaces and often inaccessible ones, some of us questioned the extent to which anger is effective. We further discussed that we are not going to face the same injustices or degrees of marginalisation as each other and so how do we support other people’s anger? One person noted that they did not know how to address racism or classism because it is not something that they have or will experience and so to speak about it, for her it felt like being phoney. Another participant replied that it is not necessarily always about speaking up but standing in solidarity with others and also prioritising those that are marginalised before yourself.
We wrapped up the discussion by talking about what the ‘end goal’ of the feminist movement would be because there’s more to feminism than just the vote or these procedural and legislative efforts. And that because our struggles may have ameliorated, this does not mean that we are truly liberated. Lorde reminds us that ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own’.