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The (White) Right to Anger

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Kristine Mattis     Permalink
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One weekend back in college, I traveled from my university in D.C. to spend a couple of days with a high school friend attending a university in Boston. My friend and I had much in common. We were both good students and were attending what might be considered elite universities. We both grew up as only children in middle-class families - his family probably more on the upper end of middle than my own. On Saturday night, we went out for a drink or dinner or something, I can't quite recall. What I will never forget is what happened on the way there. After driving through an intersection, we heard a siren and were inexplicably pulled over by a police officer. I had a suspicion about what might have been going on, and I started to seethe. As the officer approached my friend on the driver's side, I must have been visibly angry since my friend lightly admonished me to stay calm and not say a word. My friend asked nicely, "What is the problem, Officer?" because we truly had no clue. The officer ignored my friend's question, demanded his license and registration, and when these were provided, walked to his car with no explanation. I grew even more infuriated, but my friend remained cool. Eventually, the cop returned with a ticket and tersely mentioned what it was for. It turned out, we were pulled over for an illegal left turn, which was only indicated by a tiny sign that was mostly hidden from view. I also recall that the cars in front of and behind us made the same turn, yet were not pulled over.

I should mention that my male companion was black.

What happened that night in Boston was extraordinarily minor and not of any great physical threat to me (though it was not necessarily minor nor non-threatening to my friend). It was also perhaps the closest I, as a white woman, could come to experiencing racism in America. My friend and I spoke very little about the incident. We knew what each other was feeling about it, and I think we knew our instincts were correct. Moreover, he was so used to it -- by that time he had endured around 20 years of such incidents -- that to make it an issue and put a damper on our night would be pointless. To make such commonplace offenses an issue for him would be to ruin nearly every day of his life.

I had a similar experience with another male black friend with whom I worked at a bookstore. One day one of our superiors made a slightly veiled racist suggestion to him. I overhead this remark and started to become enraged. Again, just as before, my friend told me to calm down and not to worry about it.

The other day I was speaking to my father about the situation in Ferguson, in Staten Island, and, of course, all over the United States. My father recalled a time when he and my mom were visiting a friend in Dallas. This friend was, at the time, a major-league baseball player with the Texas Rangers. After a game one late night, my white parents, the black ball player and his white female companion went to a diner. A man seated at a nearby table stared at them and spoke disparagingly, callously and casually using the n-word. Once again, my dad's friend responded with calmness and suggested that the racist, ignorant, inflammatory epithet-spewer be ignored.

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I will not pretend nor try to speak for people of color because I can never truly empathize due to the inherent privilege my white skin provides. But I will speak to white people who cannot seem to understand why we all have it so good. We do not get pulled over by cops because of our skin color. We do not have people examine us suspiciously because of our skin color. Nor do people make assumptions about our motives, our actions, our abilities, our potential, and our character because of our skin color. Above all, we do not have to suppress our outrage and anger, day in, day out, when emotional, psychological, and physical mistreatment is continually perpetrated against us, our family members, and our friends for no reason but the color of our skin.

When my father recounted the story he experienced with his friend in the diner, he told me he wanted to get up and punch the hate-spewing bigot in the face. I felt the same way about the racists I encountered with my friends. That is a natural, reasonable, and rational reaction to such prejudice. But imagine if our black friends and all of the people of color who experience such malice every day of their lives reacted as we wanted to, as anyone would want to, as they have every reason and right to.

Rather than issue directives to stay calm in the face of injustice, perhaps we should be commending people of color for remaining so poised for so damn long. We might realize that a lifetime of repressing justified anger to systemic and unyielding bias may have to be vented in order to maintain some semblance of health. The mass organization of this righteous anger may then, hopefully, work to produce some long-overdue social and political change.

For the powers-that-be who shape conventional wisdom and the law, the indignation demonstrated in Ferguson, Staten Island, and around the U.S. would be totally acceptable if the ire emanated from white folks. And of course, when it stems from a white person of authority or money, whether righteous or not, no matter who is harmed as a result, it always is.

(Article changed on December 8, 2014 at 13:39)

(Article changed on December 8, 2014 at 16:26)

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Kristine Mattis holds a PhD in Environment and Resources. She is dedicated to social and environmental justice, public health protection, and ecological sustainability.


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