Lessons from Rhythms of Anger(s): Learning to Listen to them
Anger is my crutch
I hold myself upright with it
—Chrystos, I Walk in the History of My People
Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger at being silenced at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart. We have had to learn to move through them and use them for strength and force and insight within our daily lives. Those of us who did not learn this difficult lesson did not survive. And part of my anger is always libation for my fallen sisters.
—Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger
I am an Arab woman of colour and we come in all shades of anger.
—Rafeef Ziadah, Shades of Anger
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time — and in one’s work. And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance. Now, since this is so, it’s a great temptation to simplify the issues under the illusion that if you simplify them enough, people will recognize them. I think this illusion is very dangerous because, in fact, it isn’t the way it works. A complex thing can’t be made simple. You simply have to try to deal with it in all its complexity and hope to get that complexity across.
—James Baldwin, 1961
And yes, we intimately know the origins of oppression; it brewed in our beds, tables, and streets; screaming out in anger is a necessary stage in our evolution into freedom, but do we have to dwell forever on that piece of terrain, forever stuck in the middle of that bridge?
—Gloria Anzaldua, Acts of Healing
I do believe we have in common—the cultural rip off, the anger, the wisdom, the fullness of life.
—Naomi Littlebear Morena, Earth-Lover, Survivor, Musician
Yes, Ma, I am mad. I carry the anger from my own experience and the anger you couldn’t afford to express, and even that is often misinterpreted no matter how hard I try to be clear about my position.
—Merle Woo, Letter to Ma
She gets angry for nothing.
—An unnamed writer quoted in Zola Maseko’s documentary film “The Life and Times of Sara Baartman” (1998)
It is angering being named by an oppressive grammar, an oppressive value system (Spillers 1987), it is angering to always walk into a place already bearing all the assumptions people are going to make about you. It is angering to come from a place, the hegemonic world order coded as inferior-to-the-West; your education is deemed automatically not as good, you are deemed not as knowledgeable as, and sometimes you believe it. Sometimes you believe it, even after you have witnessed over and over again that it is definitely not the case. You are angry at them for making you feel that way, and you are also angry at yourself for feeling that way, because you know better than that. But when what you know remains unshared —either because no one is truly listening or you are not speaking—, you remain alone, and your knowledge never quite becomes “knowledge” outside your isolated “world.”
I guess I became a “Muslim” and “Middle Eastern” when I came to the US, I had never identified as either in Turkey. I saw many Turkish students here in the US, when they were introducing themselves in the presence of “Westerners,” they emphasized that they are from İstanbul, not simply from Turkey. Probably, out of a worry that “Westerners” might falsely think they are from some “backwards” little town, when they were “modern,” “Western-facing” habitants of the famous metropole İstanbul, because of an internalization of Eurocentric grammar. The reason I recognize that as such and one of the reasons it angers me so much is because I did the same thing a lot in the past. I was desperate to prove “Westerners” I was closer to them, than I was to “Turkish people,” because I knew how they ordered things. Remembering that makes me angry.
In my first semester in the US, I was constantly asked about the things in the Middle East. I was invited to comment on the situation in the Middle East by questions like “Things are getting pretty chaotic in the area where you are from, huh?” I was not angry at the questioner most of these times, yet I was angry because of my everyday experience in the US as a whole, which was marked all over by similar patterns.
I was asked if I was a Muslim on several occasions, a question I honestly had not thought about. I have never practiced a religion, but it was written on my National ID card before the government renewed the IDs and left out the “Religion” section. I once answered “Yes, I am a Muslim,” which then led my close friend from Turkey question my response “Are we Muslims, in the sense that they asked?” and I told them “I guess, we are, what else are we?” followed by “But we are not practicing?” and finally me saying “I think I am a Muslim, here.” As the rule here seems to be “identity over practice” and saying that I am not a Muslim here in the US meant different things. I even felt angry at times at my parents for not being religious, for not teaching me something that would make me feel more Turkish here, whatever that means.
Nadya Tannous from Palestinian Youth Movement answered a question in a virtual convening “Black, Indigenous & Palestinian Feminisms” about one hope she wants and wishes for future generations. She said she wants a future where she hopes her great grandkids will never have to question their authenticity, who they are. She said, she hopes that they never feel like imposters in their own bodies. Because these definitions of a true Palestinian, a true Muslim, … are a myth; a barrier to define who you are, it separates you from your potential. These myths fragment us from each other and also from ourselves, and they are residues of colonialism.
I feel like my angers have been all over the place, inconsistent, sometimes useful, sometimes harmful, sometimes hopeful, sometimes arrogant and rude; yet, I do not have the urge to make myself into a consistent whole anymore, as I’m learning to get to know my multiplicity and live as a multiple being through the help of all who keep making me—knowingly or unknowingly. Along the way, I am learning to get to know and deal with my angers, transform them, sometimes with failures, sometimes with success, and slowly, learning from and with flesh and blood collectivities, and angers that challenge, disrupt, transform and grow in and beyond them.
Why I work on Anger(s)
Anger has been an emotion that is largely present in my life in many different forms; sometimes, in shapes that are so ambiguous that it is not possible to recognize it as anger without first doing the necessary work it is calling for. I want to understand this emotion in its multiplicity and complexity to be able to learn from it. To learn from it in order to transform myself, that is, my ways of being, acting and relating to the world, to hold myself accountable, to see how I am implicated in the suffering of others, and to be able to practice–not just perform–solidarity, to be part of resistant collectivities without claiming and prioritizing innocence of the self.
I suspect that our conception of self has a crucial impact of how we relate to angers we experience and witness. If one’s assumption of the self is the liberal, individualistic self, then one’s priority becomes protecting the borders of that self. The underlying assumption here is that there exists clear and distinct borders separating self from the others. This then works to obscure the interconnectedness among subjectivities, and histories shaping them: histories of oppressions and of struggles. This assumption of individualistic self is usually coupled with understanding of what I see as a hegemonic ethics that takes being a “good” person as a pure and fixed identity. The dominant urge, whenever challenged or confronted about injustice, is then to defend by the claims that one is not a bad person, thus one cannot be profiting from oppressive structures embedded in societies. So, one wants to be “helpful” to “others” out of “generosity” to claim that “good person” identity. This approach does not do much–or even anything–to shackle the hegemonic power relations, as it does not even address them in the first place. This good/bad person dichotomy stabilizes these categories thereby restricting the possibilities of action. It does not allow transformation which is necessarily a collective process conscious of the multiplicity of selves and the worlds.
Seeing the constant devaluation of anger within the dominant discourse, that is, how the angers of marginalized people across different locations are systemically deemed “irrational” and described as a hindrance to a “true, constructive dialogue,” I initially thought, my aim must be to justify that the anger of the oppressed was indeed legitimate to the oppressor, because it is a product of the experiences caused by oppressive power structures. Reading María Lugones (2003) and Audre Lorde (1987) together helped me realize that trying to justify that that anger is legitimate within and to the world of official sense will not eventually succeed against the official world, because anger of the oppressed in that world will always be rendered irrational and thus will be deprived of power of resistance that seeks to do away with the oppressive world order which deems it irrational in the first place. A concrete example for me was the #NotAgainSU protests that took place on campus. During the sit-ins, gatherings, negotiations with administrators, I witnessed repeatedly how students’ anger were weaponized against them.
María Lugones’s First-Order and Second-Order Angers
María Lugones makes a distinction between first-order and second-order angers. First-order anger is “anger that makes a claim on respect and signals one’s own ability to make judgments about having been wronged, one’s own respectability” (2003: 110). Lugones says, one “cannot understand this anger independent from the oppressor, since it is a communicative act demanding respect from the oppressor” (2003: 110). It is “consistently back-ward looking,” it “responds to someone’s (oneself or another) having been wronged, harmed, enslaved” (2003: 113). So, first-order angers of the subordinated make claims to be recognized, to be respected, to be included in the dominant world of sense, which construct them as subordinate and their angers as irrational (Lugones 2003: 108; McWeeny 2010: 297).
Second-order-angers, on the other hand, do not seek to communicate a message within and to the oppressive world, they recognize the impossibility of communicating their anger within the restrictions of the official world, they see the need to separate from the official world of sense, so they “presuppose or establish a need for or begin to speak from within separate worlds of sense. Separate, that is, from worlds of sense that deny intelligibility to the anger” (Lugones 2003: 104-105). In other words, these angers do not focus on the oppressive world order that cannot see them as legitimate.
First-order angers are mostly aimed at individuals who harmed, wronged us; but second-order angers are aimed at the oppressive structures that produce such individuals. Second-order angers aspire to a different world, where such “individuals” are not made possible. Thus, even blaming and punishing the individual becomes a way to maintain and hide the oppressive organization of the world; because through blaming and punishing the individuals the mainstream gets to (re)tell the “story” of colonialisms, racisms, sexisms, ableisms, agisms which are all entangled as separate and individual problems. That is why I think second-order-anger is also about being “not so much interested in who is to blame for racism, sexism, homophobia, abuse, and violence against women and our planet, and so on, but in what continues to drive such mistaken orderings so that we might think and act beyond them,” as Laura Pérez says in Eros Ideologies (2019: xv).
“I do it to remind myself that no one is listening”
Lugones tells the following memory she has of her mother, in which her mother shows some kind of a second-order anger, a molded, cocooned anger:
Mamá would sometimes-often-say things that were non-sense or false, like the little vase that I was to give the fourth grade teacher and I broke it before I got to school and she glued it together and placed it on a shelf. “Well” she would say, “I wonder when and how that broke,” as if it had just happened rather than forty years ago. Going around people and tasks saying things that had no redemptive interpretation, unless one was looking for a resistance. After months of my asking her, she said, “I do it to remind myself that no one is listening.” That was my mother, a powerful resister to any sort of cheap love anyone offered her, easy love by folks who were not ready to go the distance (2003: 8).
There seems to be an anger present in her mother’s sentence “I do it to remind myself that no one is listening.” Possibly, an anger against the patriarchal order she is subjected to in the society she is located, in which she as a woman does not occupy a subject position; what she says does not matter, no one listens to her. It is in the realization of such moments that anger transforms into something that is no longer recognizable even as anger in the official world of sense. Only to someone who has already left the official world of sense and is aware of the multiplicity of worlds and selves, that anger can communicate something about the unjust organization of the world. One needs to pay close attention to, care about and take her and her words seriously to see the anger and what it is saying and why. For others, who are still located within the restrictions of the official world of sense and believe it to be the one and only world, that sentence uttered by Lugones’s mother could only mean that she does not know what she is talking about or what she says is simply nonsensical, irrational, or simply “crazy.”
This type of anger carries with it a resistance to the unjust order and might become a call for solidarity to other “outsiders.” In that sense, there is something powerful and hopeful in that molded, cocooned anger, because it opens up a meeting space for resistant subjectivities. Second-order anger resists to the oppressive order itself, not to its products, because it recognizes that unless that order is destroyed and replaced with an alternative, nondominating one, it will keep producing those fragmented oppressive selves that believe they are unitary wholes and who are controlled by an urge to dominate “others.” These angers can involve the oppressor/oppressed relation, but they can also be between oppressed people.
Second-order Angers between Oppressed People
Lugones takes the anger that Audre Lorde describes as “anger that is a grief of distortion between peers” to be an instance of second-order anger between oppressed people. This specific anger Lorde refers to emerges out of “the realization of difficulties of working across oppressions,” Lugones continues, “we are separate in difficult-to-overcome ways. Lorde thinks that anger has a role to play in overcoming this separation” (Lugones 2003: 116).
This is anger that echoes across different worlds of sense, sometimes across different resistant worlds that retain the oppression of others within them. Its content indicates that it is second-order anger. It recognizes the resistant world of sense of other oppressed people as resistant, but it also decries its distortion of oneself and one’s own. It expresses grief at distortion in angry ways because the barriers across sense are hard to overcome. So this anger does not depend solely or mainly on recognition of cognitive content, but it calls for an emotional noncognitive response, and it further asks that the emotional response, the echo, acquire cognitive content, that is, that it become fully anger (Lugones 2003: 115-116).
Thus, it is not guaranteed that the cognitive content of second-order anger which is unintelligible to the oppressor, is intelligible across various oppressed groups and individuals. In other words, being oppressed does not automatically grant one access to the knowledge in and of second-order anger. It “longs” for a noncognitive response across different worlds of sense that are located “outside” the official world of sense. That is why second-order is not located in one (resistant) world of sense, but rather it is located in the in-between self (McWeeny 2010). Being in that liminal space means one sees the multiplicity of worlds and does not take any one world to be the “primary” or “normative” one. So, I think this anger shows the intertwinement of cognitive and noncognitive thereby exposing the historical construction and contingency of what gets to count as “cognitive content” vs “noncognitive content” in the dominant world that is presented as natural and necessary. This anger already has a cognitive content, yet it is not recognizable as such due to our habituation. Lugones says, we must “listen to its rhythms,” and “learn with it to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance” (2003: 115-116).
This implies “peers meeting upon a common basis to examine difference, and to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference.” This anger is thus also forward looking. Its object is change: “to tap the anger as an important source of empowerment.” This anger “births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth” (Lorde 1984:129-130 in Lugones 2003: 116).
So, these angers long for a different kind of attention, response, to become “intelligible” across worlds, that is, to become a source of knowledge that can be useful to overcome the separation and the difficulties it creates for working together across multiple oppressions; knowledge to help “rewiring of senses” (Alexander 2007).
Alexander, Jacqui M. 2007. “Pedagogies of the Sacred: Making the Invisible Tangible.”Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham: Duke University Press.
Anzaldua, Gloria. 2021. “Acts of Healing.” In Cherríe Moraga & Gloria Anzaldúa (Eds.), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (40th anniversary edition, pp.xxiii-xxiv). Albany: SUNY Press.
Chrystos. 2021. “I walk in the History of My People” In Cherríe Moraga & Gloria Anzaldúa (Eds.), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (40th anniversary edition, p. 53). Albany: SUNY Press.
Lorde, Audre. 1987. “The Uses of Anger.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, 25 (1/2): 278-285.
Lugones, María. 2003. Pilgrimages: Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
Maseko, Z., Brown, A., Farasani, H., Brooks, P., Gavshon, H., Tobias, P. V., Fauvelle, F.-X., First Run/Icarus Films. (1998). The life and times of Sara Baartman: “The Hottentot Venus”. New York, N.Y: First Run/Icarus Films.
McWeeny, Jen. 2010. “Liberating Anger, Embodying Knowledge: A Comparative Study of María Lugones and Zen Master Hakuin”. Hypatia, 25(2), 295-315.
Morena, Naomi Littlebear. 2021. “Earth-Lover, Survivor, Musician” In Cherríe Moraga & Gloria Anzaldúa (Eds.), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (40th anniversary edition, pp.155-157). Albany: SUNY Press.
Pérez, Laura E. 2019. Eros Ideologies: Writings on Art, Spirituality, and the Decolonial. London; Durham: Duke University Press.
Rafeef Ziadah. (2019, April 23). Shades of Anger. YouTube. https://youtu.be/718hGAyo3yE
Spillers, Hortense J. 1987. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17 (2): 65-81.
thepostarchive. (2016, January 17). “The Negro in American Culture” a group discussion (Baldwin, Hughes, Hansberry, Capouya, Kazin). YouTube. https://youtu.be/jNpitdJSXWY
Woo, Merle. 2021. “Letter to Ma.” In Cherríe Moraga & Gloria Anzaldúa (Eds.), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (40th anniversary edition, pp.138-145). Albany: SUNY Press.