The role of anger in the process of change

Dr. Valerie Daniel

This has been a challenging and emotional two weeks for me as a black, professional woman in the UK. The Black Lives Matter protests has opened wounds that I thought had long healed over. I was very aware that I had scars but I had genuinely thought that since I had managed to achieve some measure of success in a very unequal world, that I was fine with ‘my lot’. Instead I  had to face the fact that I have been angry for a long time and even though I now know it has just been bubbling under the surface, I hadn’t realised how full my cup nor was I prepared for the strength of anger that bubbled over and flooded every area of my life. As a rational human being, I also became very aware of the deep anger coming from the Caucasian race, some people are well and truly angry and fed up of inequality, some are really angry at the rioting and ‘uprising’ of black people and also to add to this boiling cauldron of emotions, some are bewildered and riddled with guilt as they had somehow missed all the signs of systemic racism.

Faced with all of this and an incident this week where a black colleague asked me why I feared dealing with racism explicitly due to me advocating for ‘a winning hearts and minds’ approach, I found myself thinking really hard about the place that anger holds in the process of change.  There are three types of anger; Open aggression, passive aggression and assertive anger and most people in the UK are in varying stages of these three types of anger with very different impacts.

Open aggression

Open aggression usually manifests itself in rage with bursts of violence or verbal aggression. Open aggression comes about from the need to control. So in recognition of this continuum of open aggression I decided to explore its impact on the behaviours of people in regard to the Black Lives Matter protests.

This diagram shows the behaviours of people on opposite sides of the continuum where both sides are vying for control of a situation they feel is slipping away from them. The white side of the continuum aggressively trying to retain the power they feel they are rightfully entitled to and the BAME side aggressively trying to attain the equality they feel they are rightfully entitled to as members of the human race. As a BAME person myself I had no idea how anyone could fight against what surely must be universally seen as morally right, until I began to unpick this tapestry of systemic racism. I realised that there has been a very definite attempt to keep racial unrest alive, a very strategic media drip feed of negativity about BAME people which has resulted in white people having an endemic unease about BAME people and BAME people existing with a seething resentment against embedded inequality and systemic discrimination. These protests were a powder keg for people with open aggression who have been experiencing a slow burn for a while now, which in retrospect was bound to erupt in uncontrollable rage. The main purpose of this open aggression in the process of change is to highlight the deep rooted social issues that are affecting our society.

Passive aggression

Passive aggression usually manifests itself in sulking, pretending everything is fine, avoiding confrontation, silence, resistance to changing a mindset and overt and unconscious gaslighting.

This diagram depicts the passive aggression continuum in regard to systemic racism and demonstrates a very distinct divide between passive privilege, entitlement and feelings of superiority on the white side of the continuum and passive exclusion, invalidation and acceptance of inferior treatment on the BAME side of the continuum. There are some internet and social media behaviours that are common to people who are within the sphere of passive aggressive behaviours on both sides of the continuum. Passive aggression serves the purpose of maintaining the status quo and as I saw it described on social media, “keeping a lid on Pandora’s box.”  Passive aggression for example, frequently alludes to Black Lives Matter being the reason for social unrest not the social construct of systemic racism.

Keyboard warriors on both sides do serve another divisive purpose in the process of change; both sides scour the internet for images and videos that further their particular viewpoint. The unintended consequence of these efforts has resulted in unveiling the use of Agent Provocateurs to incite violence and disrupt peaceful protests; it has highlighted some horrific incidents of violence from both white and BAME people. It has collated damning evidence and media coverage against government officials to suit either side of the continuum; there are conspiracy theories aplenty and an assortment of social media communication both accusatory and defensive on both sides with some surprising historical facts and debunked theories that have definitely broadened the narrative around systemic racism. The ongoing and current social media situation can only be described as a hotbed of perplexity and disorientation that is hard to navigate. Either way people are talking! Oh boy, are they talking!

Anonymity in conjunction with passive aggression has resulted in a vile and toxic hate rhetoric that has poked a large hole in the thin layer of civility that is the British version of systemic racism. Fear is a palpable undercurrent of these conversations. Fear of white supremacy; fear of impending black supremacy; the sentiments of ‘any sympathy I had for them lot went when they attacked the police and destroyed property’with the rebuttal being ‘your statues that glorify the dehumanisation of black people and your property seems to be far more important than the lives of BAME people.’ Just to add to the intricacy of the situation is further division based in other issues of oppression e.g. mixed race people, transgender people and Covid-19. This cornucopia of issues serves to keep panic and discontent at a constant boiling point and also destroys any hope of a return to ‘normal ‘as each new day is greeted by daily rejuvenated efforts for equality and also the retention of power.

Assertive anger               

Assertive anger manifests itself as reasoned behaviour and the ability to communicate maturely and effectively even in volatile situations. The state of assertive anger allows for establishing an interactive relationship that supports dealing with the issue at hand.

This diagram depicts assertive anger as a healthy way to deal with anger. It demonstrates the need to be in control of your emotions to retain the capacity to listen and respond appropriately and confidently. The Black Lives Matter protests galvanised people all over the world into action and by far the most productive actions can be found in people who use their anger assertively.  Despite feeling anger even rage, people who are at a place of assertive anger are able to hold their emotions in check and create a space for change. BAME leaders within this space for change resulting from the Black Lives Matters protests have displayed a commitment to cooperate and negotiate, to seek clarification and understanding; to be armed with knowledge and the ability to stick to the facts; to communicate with humility, wisdom and to employ a mature approach in speaking their truth and bringing alive stories of victims of inequality. Despite righteous indignation at their everyday experiences they have an open mindset to give and receive feedback which may be uncomfortable for all concerned as perceptively and sensitively as possible. Assertive anger is essential for thawing out the superficial but hardened philosophy of racial superiority.

White allies who stood with BAME people during these protests have a keen sense of their white privilege and want to use this privilege for good; they are seeking to support and amplify the voices of their BAME counterparts. They march in solidarity and are active in peaceful protests. They speak up and intervene when it matters. They truthfully express an inability to know what it is like to be a person of colour but they are committed to listening, observing, empathising and supporting the calls for a more equal society for all.

BAME people and white allies have been shouting for decades about inequality and oppression of people of colour. This however has been pockets of people trying to make a change against a complex and subversive system which has resulted in a kaleidoscope of confusing and often-times conflicting policy initiatives. Selectivity is a fertile breeding ground for systemic racism which is embedded in the historical, structural, environmental, economic, political and cultural aspects of society with glaring disparities between BAME people and their white counterparts.  It thrives in the thoughts and minds of individuals and is active in the workings of our society.  It is shrouded in political correctness, micro-aggression and micro-discrimination which consist of an elusive and subtle quality that is difficult to define in a culture that frustrates and invalidates its victims. Discrimination based on race and ethnicity continues to nurture a pervasive culture of inequalities in education, housing, employment, wealth distribution and poor or tokenistic representation in leadership positions with a direct correlation to a history of slavery and oppression. Assertive anger has the role of measured, productive and sustainable action within the process of change. Writing this blog has been an interesting and therapeutic exercise. It has allowed me to process my thoughts and re-direct my efforts into a space for change spurred on by assertive anger.

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