Anti-Black Racism: Using Anger as a Mechanism For Change
By Janna Comrie, Registered Psychotherapist
The recent events around the world have brought to the forefront incident after incident of anti-Black racism. Members of the public have witnessed videos, news broadcasts, articles, and social media posts about people being beaten, nooses that have been hung, and hate speech being used. Many watched as George Floyd was killed; Amy Cooper called the police on a man who asked her to leash her dog. Watching these videos and hearing these stories is infuriating, gut-wrenching, and traumatic for many.
While it is one thing to hear of an incident of racism, it is another thing entirely to see them in bulk. Witnessing incident after incident of prejudice, as well as the violence and death resulting from these situations, highlights underlying feelings that many Black North Americans carry with them every day. Many people of color, Indigenous people, those of certain religious/cultural affiliations and in the LGBTQ2S communities have had similar personal experiences. These feelings include being judged unfairly, having to do more to be seen as “the same” or “good enough”, feeling misunderstood, or held back. Watching these incidents in bulk tends to bring to the forefront similar and comparable incidents of racism, discrimination, and violence that an individual has experienced in their own life. As these incidents are mentally rehearsed, many associated emotions are stirred. The most common ones are fear, sadness, frustration, indignation, and disgust, all of which lead an individual to feelings of anger.
Anger as an Emotion
Anger is the emotional response we have when an injustice has happened. It tells the individual that a situation is not okay, not acceptable, and cannot be tolerated. It is a powerful emotion and individuals must learn to not let the impulsivity and reflexivity associated with anger to overtake them. When exceedingly angry, this can be very hard to do, and when anger is used inappropriately, individuals can find themselves in even more helpless situations feeling even worse. This is often the case when people blow up at loved ones, at work, or in social circumstances. The good news is that when used appropriately, anger allows us to take control and correct situations effectively. It is the emotion that spurs us to action.
Managing Anger that is Racism-Based
I have a lot of clients who are first responders who chose their careers to be of benefit to the community. Many are dealing with these issues personally. They and other Black clients that I see are asking how to deal with their personal feelings which, at this time, are often very intense. Here I am sharing are some of the strategies that we discuss. This is by no means an exhaustive list. The unique circumstances of each individual need to be considered as some of these may not be a good fit for everyone.
Acknowledge it. Acknowledge the prejudice, the hate, the micro-aggression, the injustice. A lot of people start by telling themselves and others to look on the bright side saying things such as “at least it’s so much better now”. That is akin to telling someone who just broke their leg that “at least their leg wasn’t severed.” It is not a helpful or appropriate method to begin dealing with anger. Start by acknowledging your own personal experience, including what was inappropriate/hurtful and the associated anger at the circumstances. Ask yourself, “what specifically am I angry about and why?”. Unacknowledged anger grows throughout the day(s) until you are triggered into an intense response over something seemingly small. It is also important to note that self-acknowledgement must occur before we can expect others to recognize what we are angry about.
Consider the following conversation:
- Person A: I’m irritated. I want to exercise, and I think I’ve injured my foot.
- Person B: I’m sure it’s fine.
- Person A: No really, it’s really sore when I put weight on it.
- Person B: I’m sure it’s no big deal. Stop worrying about it.
- Person A: NO REALLY! When I step on it, I have a sharp pain in the top of my foot.
Emotions including anger that are not acknowledged get louder and more specific. If person B in the conversation had said, “I’m really sorry to hear. Can I do anything to help?” in the first exchange, Person A likely would not have become elevated or shared the details of their pain.
Your Vision of Change
Once you acknowledge why you are angry, take a moment to think about what you want to see happen. Ask yourself, in a perfect world, what would be different here? What would it look like? How would I know as I personally walk through my day/week/month that things have changed? What would be the subtle things that show me change has happened? It is relatively easy to focus on what you do not want (e.g. people wouldn’t say “go back to YOUR country/Africa”). But focusing on what would be happening instead is much more useful (e.g. People would recognize similarities and genuinely welcome differences with healthy curiosity). This may sound utopian but that is the point of the exercise. Let yourself see the world you want for yourself and your loved ones. If we can picture it, we are more likely to be able to create and do it. Think of the figure skater, diver, or skier who is about to perform a complex series of movements. Mentally rehearsing generally improves performance. It is clearly not the only factor (skill, practice, anxiety management), but it helps!
Once you have an idea of what you want the world to look like, move on to yourself. Ask yourself some key questions: What are my strengths? How can I bring them to the table to contribute in a meaningful way? Do I have the resources emotionally, spiritually, physically, or financially to make these changes? Having the resources to facilitate change has historically been a problem for many Black North Americans. When people are physically exhausted, financially strapped, and/or emotionally taxed, their ability to access their strengths is limited. It is important to recognize that change starts within the individual. Listen to your head, your heart, and your gut. Your head will guide you intellectually, your heart emotionally, and your gut will guide you intuitively. Checking in with them tells you how you are doing personally. Taking care of yourself as best as you can makes it easier to process anger and facilitate change.
It is also important to consider your own personal biases, judgements, and prejudices. These can impair your ability to appropriately work with the anger and connect with others. Addressing our own biases not only facilitates the task of change but also encourages others watching us to address their own biases.
Meaningful change tends to happen through a series of steps that build upon each other like a scaffold. Once you have allowed yourself to envision the world you want, pick one or two of the specific items and ask yourself:
- What will it look like fully changed?
- What would it look like partially changed?
- What would the first step towards the end goal be?
- How can my strengths be best utilized here?
These often help to get people mobilized and connected with organizations and others who share a similar view.
Take a Balanced Approach
A balanced approach is one that incorporates your own personal needs with the needs of others and the situation. As we begin the work that is involved with change, often it is met with resistance. It can feel, as it has for many, like an uphill battle. Recognizing the limits of your own personal resources is important. Push forward when your resources are at their best and take time to rest, relax, or remove yourself when your resources have been expended. You may need to take a step back in order to gather yourself or your strengths to continue pushing forward. Allowing yourself to do this without shame or guilt is key. Recognize when you are becoming emotionally frayed, having trouble sleeping and/or eating, or finding yourself irritable/angry much more frequently. This may mean getting more rest, taking a break from media and social media, or focusing on fun. The more relaxed and rested we are, the more resources we are able to draw from in a time of need. What one finds by taking this approach is that the work you are doing toward change tends to improve your sense of self and instead of taking from it.
Evaluating the Outcomes
Evaluating the outcomes when you are angry and wanting widespread, systemic, and social change is one of the hardest things to do. So how do we know we are making a difference? Return to the earlier question of How would you know it was different? Having concrete, observable changes in mind tell you that you are on the right path. The more concrete the outcome measures, the more one can appreciate the changes being made. Also taking note of unexpected outcomes and evaluating what they are telling you about the goals is important. This is the appropriate point at which to consider the bright side when working with anger.
Anger is a natural response to injustice. We all have the capacity to work with anger to facilitate change, right wrongs, and move forward in a manner that is healthy for everyone.