Late last year I attended a conference on institutional racism which purported to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Carmichael (Ture) and Hamilton’s enunciation of the term in their seminal text ‘Black Power: The Politics of Liberation’. Naturally, in preparation for the conference I revisited the book. You can imagine my surprise then to find only one of the eight keynotes were Black (though he was not a Blackfulla) and most of the keynote addresses, in their concern about racism focused on feelings and the task of getting people onboard with anti-racism (and by people, I mean white people). Strangely, there appeared to be little intellectual engagement with the concepts of race or power, which struck me as odd, because this conference was afterall held in Narm: home of the “rabble” which shuts down the city almost as routinely as it hosts a footy match.
— Glen RHHW (@GlenRHHW) May 2, 2015
Instead, several presenters talked about ‘hope’ as an effective anti-racism strategy. There was one keynote that I took particular exception to; she (yes, she was a white woman) condescendingly kept insisting that we just need to have hope (as if Black people have never thought of that before). During open discussions, I put forward a case in defence of anger as an effective anti-racism strategy. I explained how having a black father and a white mother had given me some insights into how race works. I explained how I felt the harms of racism I experienced had been mitigated to some extent because I was the child of an angry white woman. It was my white mother who interfaced with schools, shops, and services on my behalf in dealing with daily indignities and injustices I faced. Don’t get me wrong, my black father could get real angry too, but it was the angry white woman who could get things done within the institutions that I had to navigate – not because she articulated herself better than Dad; they just believed/listened to her.
In her response, the keynote presenter metaphorically patted me on the head, and explained how she used to get angry, but that it just became “too tiring”, and apparently – she advised me – anger alienates people (and again, by people I’m fairly certain she meant white people).
At that point, almost all of the congregation of colour picked themselves up off the floor and returned their eyeballs to their usual resting place. I politely replied that I knew that me being angry wouldn’t work, but what about if like, I dunno, more white people got angry, because you know, for all their complaining about identity politics, white people do listen to other white people.
She of course, giggled and dismissed me as just not knowing any better. The questions that followed (which of course were asked by white women), proceeded to throw shade at the Black girl sitting up back for her naive understanding of anger, which then made me angry – that I hadn’t actually been angry in the first place.
But Black women’s anger is something else, alright. We learnt that this past week – again in Narm – when Yigar Gunditjmara and Bindal woman Tarneen Onus-Williams addressed about 60,000 people that she and a few other black women had called together on 26 January.
FYI Black Women organised today. Black women got 60,000 people out on the streets to make history!!
— Tarneen (@Tarneen) January 26, 2018
It would seem she’d had enough of having to explain the absolute absurdity of holding the country’s national day of celebration on the anniversary of invasion. At the rally, in the heat of the moment, Onus-Williams declared, “F— Australia, hope it burns to the ground” . Well, turns out that got a few Aussies angry. So angry that they quickly abandoned their love of free speech and mounted a campaign to have the government defund an organisation that she is affiliated with (not representing, mind you, but affiliated with) while also targeting their social media accounts.
Such is the gaslighting of Black women in the colony, that Black women are not allowed to be angry, yet at the same time, we can never be cast as anything but the ‘angry black woman’.
In the aftermath, Tarneen has not apologised and nor should she. She has every right to be angry and particularly at a protest on Invasion Day of all things. There is something particularly frustrating about having to give an explanation annually, for the inappropriateness of dancing on the graves of our ancestors. There is something particularly disturbing about campaigning to undermine an Indigenous youth organisation that she is affiliated with, simply because she had the audacity to be angry.
Last time I checked, anger was a normal and natural human emotion, of which Blackfullas (and by Blackfullas I do mean Black women), should have the right to experience. But more than that, I reckon being angry is the only thing that has got Black people anything, either locally or globally (but certainly not as much as it has got white people in the course of history).
I’m not convinced that Rosa Parks sat down at the back of the bus simply because she was tired – surely she was angry and just had enough? And would Beyonce really have given us Lemonade had she not got angry with the lemons Jay Z served? Would we have had ‘Talkin Up To The White Woman’ if some white woman didn’t make Moreton-Robinson wild? Would we have even heard about the murder of Mulrunji had the mob on Palm Island not got angry? Remember that last time Blackfullas in this country put forth a well-considered, articulate and moderate proposal based on an extended consultation with the Australian people? The PM Malcolm Turnbull dismissed it out of hand as a “radical” proposition. Race is about power, and power is not readily relinquished – we simply cannot outthink or outrun it. We must fight it head on, and for that fight we need to be angry.
In my defence of anger, there is a little bit more too it of course.
bell hooks, an African American scholar who has written about feminism, race and love, also tells us about the importance of anger in an interview with George Yancey in the New York times, where she explains:
“The first time that I got to be with Thich Nhat Hanh, I had just been longing to meet him. I was like, I’m going to meet this incredibly holy man. On the day that I was going to him, every step of the way I felt that I was encountering some kind of racism or sexism. When I got to him, the first thing out of my mouth was, “I am so angry!” And he, of course, Mr. Calm himself, Mr. Peace, said, “Well, you know, hold on to your anger, and use it as compost for your garden.” And I thought, “Yes, yes, I can do that!” …I was telling him about the struggles I was having with my male partner at the time and he said, “It is O.K. to say I want to kill you, but then you need to step back from that, and remember what brought you to this person in the first place.” And I think that if we think of anger as compost, we think of it as energy that can be recycled in the direction of our good. It is an empowering force. If we don’t think about it that way, it becomes a debilitating and destructive force”.
And of course, Black women have long been using anger as compost to fertilise our garden. Black women have long carried the weight of the multiple, intersecting oppressions of race, class and gender, along with the responsibility to make some good from it – for the sake of our children and our community. Goenpul poet Romaine Moreton wrote about “making oppression work for her” in her poem ‘I Will Surprise You By My Will’;
I will make oppression work for me,
With a turn and with a twist,
Be camouflaged within stated ignorance,
And surprise you by my will,
We don’t need to be told to have hope. Hope is for white people (and some Black men) – hope doesn’t actually get Black women anywhere (certainly doesn’t get them books or television shows). Hope is as passive as the social world we occupy insists we have to be. Tone-policing of Black women, whether it be from Black men (*coughs* Uncle Warren) or the white women who love them (*coughs* Uncle Stan), functions to maintain their position on the ladder, ensuring that we don’t get ahead of ourselves or them. They tell us not to be angry, to have ‘hope’ by simply re-imagining ourselves out of our location within what hooks refers to as the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” – when in fact, what we want to do is tear it (or burn it) down (you know, metaphorically). It is our anger, not hope that will fuel that.
Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I’m not optimistic – I’m just also realistic, and as a Black Woman I can’t afford to be anything but.
In her song Black Rage, African American singer Lauryn Hill sings:
Black rage is founded on dreaming and draining
Threatening your freedom
To stop your complaining
Poisoning your water
While they say it’s raining
Then call you mad
For complaining, complaining
The angry black woman is a trope which insists that our emotional responses are irrational and unregulated, which then makes the oppression we experience seem like a rational outcome of our behaviour. But the angry black woman is not just a dehumanising caricature; actual angry black women are a real threat to the colony. And when we get angry, right on cue the Native Police arrive to quell the troublemakers, each and every time. I don’t need to name names – you’ve all read the receipts (that is, you’ve seen the angry Black women that have called them out).
It is somehow ironic that the start of 2018 has been marked by the demonisation of one staunch young Aboriginal woman, not least because last year we were lectured about the supposed “silent” Aboriginal women who were cowering from (or protecting) our abusive black men. But also because the National NAIDOC Committee declared this year’s NAIDOC week theme, “Because of her, we can” to “celebrate the invaluable contributions that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have made – and continue to make – to our communities, our families, our rich history and to our nation”.
In justifying this year’s theme focusing on the efforts of Black women, the Committee highlights the political activism of Indigenous women as a particularly significant contribution, arguing that the efforts of Black women have been largely diminished or erased.
Indeed, in 2018 this legacy continues.
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