A white, liberal family member of mine was shocked to learn I despise people referring to the US as “a nation of immigrants.”
While discussing the laundry list of current measures targeting undocumented immigrants, Muslims and refugees, I explained to her why the phrase is completely misleading: It denies the existence of indigenous people, who predate the US colonial project; It is a slap in my face, and all those whose ancestors were forced to come here not as immigrants, but as slaves. But a major fact it glosses over is that the Europeans who founded this country were not immigrants — they were settlers. By definition, they came not to join an existing order, but to wipe one out, and replace it with their own systems.
The danger of such phrases isn’t just a denial of truth. Like so much liberal ideology, in an attempt to unite, it creates a sweepingly simple portrait of a host of unresolved injustices that must be viewed in their complexity. In trying to defend immigrants, it looks away from the exact histories that must be confronted head-on if there is to be any hope for real immigrant justice.
While making this case, I became very angry — unexpectedly so. Maybe it was because I am tired of explaining things which to me are obvious. Maybe it was because it terrifies me every time I realize my voice is the only thing standing in the way of the total erasure of my people’s legacy of suffering. My family member was nonplussed, but also tried to sit with what I was telling them. I noticed the effort.
Since the election of Donald Trump, white members of my family have been engaging in regular political education, focusing on privilege, white supremacy, and the Black feminist ethic of intersectionality. The shifts in our collective discourse have already been palpable. Critical dialogues on racism, the introducing of which was once impossible, are now emerging on their own. Statements once met with immediate resistance are now allowed to hang in the air. Exchanges that were once debates are now conversations. Simply put, they are listening more.
I oscillate between feelings of relief that these shifts are finally occurring, and feelings of anger that it took so long. Even as I notice these emotions in myself, I hear the responses: “We have to meet people where they’re at.” “Let’s focus on the victories instead of dwelling on their shortcomings.” “We don’t want to alienate the people we have the potential to reach by acting out of anger.” Jostling themselves in my brain, these clichés fill me with more rage even before they are inevitably uttered.
In answer to mass critiques of the Women’s March, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor penned a savvy essay last week titled Don’t Shame the First Steps of a Resistance. In it she discouraged the tendency of leftists to deride liberals for not being radical enough, instead of encouraging them further to the left. Critiques that call out without offering any solutions, she notes, halt potential action instead of shaping and directing it in more potent ways.
I loved the essay for the ways in which it pushed my own values as an organizer and activist. Yet, what I appreciated most about Taylor’s words is that they sought to challenge the left on tactic, not tone:
The point isn’t to bury our arguments, but to learn how to make them while operating in political arenas that aren’t just our own if we want to win people to more radical politics…We must do a better job at facilitating debate, discussion and argument so that we talk about how to build the kind of movement we want. But endless social media critiques with no commitment to diving into that struggle…is not a serious approach.
Taylor’s urge is so important because it doesn’t seek to avoid conflict, but to interrogate its actual purpose. She pushes us to return to conflict not as a means of shutting down, but of digging deeper into the intellectual, spiritual and emotional labor of movement building.
There is an expectation of gratefulness whenever the oppressed are told by their oppressors to temper their anger. “Things could be worse,” or, “You can’t imagine how bad it was in x era,” are code for, “You have no right to your rage, and should be grateful for what few bones we’ve been gracious enough to throw you.” ‘Whining’ and ‘spoiled’ are common adjectives employed by mainstream media to degrade and discredit communities that fight back against their own repression. All of these responses, as per Taylor’s point, are means of shutting down resistance instead of engaging it.
Yet, the knee-jerk reaction of the privileged to cut off the oppressed from expressing their rage is much more than an issue of mere tone policing. It is a logic which has led in no small part to the rise of austerity, neoliberalism and the implosion of the environment we are presently staring down. Every time the elite have demanded the oppressed vote for the lessor of two evils, stomach a reform that fails to meet our needs, they have stifled our ability to demand total, not partial, liberation. They have expected us to make peace with the erosion of our most basic rights and resources, and are only now joining in our calls for resistance because the water has risen high enough that some of their own rights have started to be washed away.
Many days I am angry that it took the instating of a fascist regime for my family to take seriously their own complicity in white supremacy. I have a right to that anger. No one, not even the people I love, is owed my gratitude for showing up late. In fact, quite the opposite is true. What the privileged must comprehend in this moment is that making space for the rage of the oppressed is a crucial charge they need to take up–one that is actually necessary for successful movement building.
Massive protests have swept major US airports over the weekend, shutting down international terminals in dissent to the Trump administration’s ban on immigrants and refugees from seven majority Muslim countries. They have been hugely successful — drawing thousands of protesters, supporting the release of detained arrivals, and galvanizing all kinds of legal action in their defense.
Yet, critiques came, too. Palestinian activists questioned the commitment of liberal protestors to the refugees generated by Israeli apartheid, of which the US has long been the primary fiscal sponsor. Black Muslims challenged the erasure of global Black communities in the rhetoric and organizing of the large assemblies. Native, immigrant, queer, trans and undocumented people rejected calls for patriotism, reminding protesters of the militarism and corporate exploitation which have created a global refugee crisis, the onus of which sits squarely on the shoulders of the US government.
I heard in these critiques not insolence, but rage. Not only was that rage justified, it demanded not that the action stop, but that it be expanded, made wider in scope and deeper in its commitments. Such demands are healthy for the nurturing of a movement, not alienating. The hard work of hearing them, internalizing them, and returning to our organizing with refreshed vigor for engaging each other in new ways is the responsibility of every one of us who dreams of a more just world, and hopes to live long enough to see it.
The conflict to which Taylor asks us to commit has emotional labor at it center. This makes sense to me, because surviving in a white supremacist society requires so much emotional labor from those oppressed by it. When our coworker asks us an insulting question, our boss doesn’t understand why a new state murder upsets us, or a partner needs to be shown how something they did caused hurt, we draw on incredible reserves of patience and empathy to respond.
So much of successfully navigating our society requires we become teachers, diplomats for our communities and their unique battles. We cannot afford to be rageful in any of these interactions, because to do so could jeopardize our housing, our income, and the other social contracts that keep us just above the constantly rising tide.
Movement is different. Movement is the space we create, outside of the status quo, outside of the contracts that control our feelings and command our silence. To enter into these spaces, especially after being absent from them for so long, and demand first and foremost that we curb our rage to make the elite feel more welcome is to impose on our movements the exact values they were built to destroy.
Instead of demanding we perform the emotional labor of making the privileged comfortable, the privileged must learn to do the emotional labor of being uncomfortable, making room for the rage they’ve played a large part in creating. Instead of seeing our anger as an impediment to the work they need to do, the privileged should see holding it as an intrinsic part of that work–work that might teach them more nuanced perspectives and effective tactics for resistance if they allow it to.
I’ve been coming to the realization lately — in large part through building with my white family — that I spend so much energy explaining my anger, justifying it, I’m left precious little time, space and capacity to feel it. My greatest emotional block is the unspoken demand, made by dominant narratives, people of privilege, and structures of power, that I prove I am as hurt, as pained as I say I am. By keeping myself preoccupied with making the case for my rage, the sharpened tip of it is kept tied down by my constant explanations, examinations and receipts. This is the deepest injustice of our rage’s denial — not merely a failure to recognize the material realities that generate it, but to distract us from feeling it unfettered, letting it flow through us, and find its ultimate release.
This is no accident. For if my rage were left untempered, unmitigated, it would destroy everything. And that’s exactly what needs to happen.
We have walls and bans and prisons and police stations and pipelines and banks and tanks and drones and borders to destroy. Stop telling endangered communities we should cease feeling exactly what we must be allowed to feel if the current regime is to be resisted, and if our people are to survive.
Stop treating our rage as an affront, and start understanding it as a cue.