How many times in my life have I heard (or heard of) people describing me as an “Angry Black Woman”? How many of you have the same experience? With the recent social justice protests and calls for acknowledgement of the racial trauma experienced by African Americans and Black people, it is critical for our mental health that we unpack and acknowledge the ways in which our very emotions are mislabeled and used as weapons of silencing.
In almost every work and social setting, Black people worry about being perceived as angry for doing simple things like expressing displeasure with a decision, voicing concern about racist jokes, properly addressing adults being inappropriate with our children (the list goes on). In each instance, I think we all fail to fully comprehend the careful calculations Black people engage in to decide whether or not this battle is one we want to wage for the moment (i.e. the mental gymnastics we must endure over the life-course to maintain our equilibrium). As part of racial socialization, Black people are taught that others’ will misinterpret our justified anger and frustration, mislabeling it as threatening, hysterical and overblown. This is so much the case that mental health disparities scientists (including me through my AAKOMA Project) have studied and written about the detrimental physical, behavioral and mental health outcomes arising from hypervigilance related to the mere expression of negative emotion.
For Black women, this socialization takes the form of carefully crafting email responses to people who have wronged us, thinking very carefully about what we post on social media, and even deciding how we wear our hair at work, lest we be criticized for the mere appearance of anger (e.g. true story, I once wore oblong faux ivory earrings to work and a male “mentor” commented that I looked like I was going into battle with ‘spears’).
For Black men, this socialization translates to “the Talk” (a conversation in which Black boys are taught how to engage in life-saving practices and behaviors for encounters with police), working overtime to make others comfortable around them and slouching if they are very tall, so that people will not feel intimidated by their physical stature (this is actually true). In addition, my Black male patients have even described to me how they feel compelled to “remove the deep base from their voices” so as not to unintentionally intimidate people in their workplaces.
If you hadn’t considered it before now, I invite you to take a moment and think about what this constant monitoring of normal responses to oppression and discrimination does to Black children and adults. Then, I invite you to try to understand that this is real thing and that it is happening to Black people right now in this moment . In all honesty, I can just about assure you that there is a Black person in your life right now (it may even be you reading this) who is experiencing this trauma.
I write all of this to say something very loudly and very clearly in this moment.
Black people, you have a right to the full range of your emotions, including anger.
I want to validate you in feeling and expressing the full range of your emotions and share that suppressing your feelings to make others comfortable is literally traumatizing you physically and mentally. So what should you do?
You should scream
You should cry
You should tell that person who is just not getting it to step away (and if they won’t then YOU step away).
But Black people above all else, you must care for your mind and spirit in this moment and in every moment going forward.
At the end of the day, I want you to remember that being angry, Black and a person are all just descriptors, they are words to label real feelings and real experiences. If you cannot be angry now about the horrible experiences of 400 years compounded by the deaths and injuries to Black people unfolding before our eyes, then when can you ever be angry?
Ultimately, I want you to know that YOU and YOUR FEELINGS matter. So be ok with being angry and being Black and being a man or a woman (both or neither); this is your human right.