When faced with the anger of oppressed folks, here are some tips on how to pull up a chair and say “Tell me more,” rather than run away.
1. Relax :-) This conversation isn’t going to kill you (although it might kill your faulty worldview).
2. Remember that anger is a good thing. Social psychologists call anger an approach emotion – a motivating emotion that calls people to action, arouses people from their slumber and encourages them to be assertive advocates for themselves and others. Anger is what motivates people to speak up, to share about their experiences and labor for just and mutually-honoring relationships.
In addition, shared emotion is a powerful unifying force. If privileged folks sought to empathize with and embrace the anger of their oppressed brothers and sisters, rather than trying to suppress it, they would encounter a deeper unity.
3. Resist the false security of denial. If an oppressed person angrily brings up an injustice that has escaped a privileged person’s attention, it can be tempting to deny that the oppressed person’s viewpoint is valid.
“You’re being overly sensitive.”
“You’re playing the ‘race’ card.”
“You’re misinterpreting the situation.”
Clinging to denial enables the privileged person to avoid re-opening and possibly revising their seemingly-tidy worldview. As a result, they’re able to maintain a (false) sense of security in their beliefs about the world. Not only is denial a dishonoring and dehumanizing response to the oppressed person’s anger, but it prevents privileged folks from gleaning invaluable insight from oppressed people.
5. Think in terms of individuals and societal structures. When privileged people feel that they are the target of oppressed people’s anger, they can get really defensive. “I’m not like that,” they may be tempted to say. (I made the mistake of saying this last week when an oppressed person expressed anger at privileged people like me.) Or “I’m not responsible for what my ancestors did,”they might protest. But to respond in this manner, reveals a misunderstanding of the nature oppression. It’s both individual and structural; we are mistaken when we think it is solely one or the other.
All people participate in our oppressive societal structure – some perpetuate it knowingly, some perpetuate it unknowingly, and others resist it as revolutionaries. Typically, we try to place all of the blame on a handful of “evil” perpetrators. But to do that is a mistake. The problem is structural and no one person or group of people is solely to blame.
6. Consider it an honor. As an oppressed person, I almost never express my true feelings to privileged people unless I mostly trust them and believe that they’ll actually care about my feelings. Quite simply, it’s a waste of time to communicate my viewpoint to people who don’t care to hear diverse viewpoints. If an oppressed person is showing you how angry they are at the injustice in the world, listen up and feel honored. They probably wouldn’t bother if they thought you were a completely lost cause. :-)
Be blessed, friends!