Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
The Politics of Rage
do you think
calling me ‘angry’
is an insult.
every time you call me ‘angry’
i hear your voice salt with guilt and
look how easy it is to reveal you.
—anger is a healthy and natural response to oppression
— nayyirah waheed
Content warning: Anti-Blackness in the mental health industry.
As a queer migrant woman of color, I made a closer friend out of rage after living in the United States for a decade. When I moved back to the Global South, my nervous system experienced a renewed calmness. If not for this immediate release of tension, I would not have realized the extent of hypervigilance and racialized trauma I carried while being in the U.S. Similarly, I did not realize the extent of my anger for what I endured, either. With that, the memories—often fragmented—of being harmed, mocked, threatened, and patronized emerged involuntarily. These memories still make me want to scream. In other cases, they make me want to break things.
Anger is a natural phenomenon of the human experience. It is normal for a person to respond in anger when they are hurt, disrespected, and abused. When this happens on a collective and historical level, the anger escalates and exacerbates, especially if its expression is a threat to society. This often compels marginalized people to hide their anger and leave it unprocessed. With all these imposed forms of suppression, it only makes sense for the anger to evolve into rage, a more intensified state of being angry.
Weeks ago, I publicly wrote a long-standing observation that Black and Brown rage is often dehumanized and demonized, while White rage has historically been given context, which, in essence, is humanizing. White rage has also been protected, coddled, and even given praise for expressing honest emotions. We are able to observe and countlessly tally how the systemic and interpersonal expression of White rage is and has been demonstrating violence in all forms and on all scales, including violence against the planet. Even so, White rage has been historically justified despite its lethal and cruel consequences.
The rage of Black and Brown folks, on the other hand, is perpetually villainized.
I witness rage in the faces of White police officers captured on footage murdering Black and Brown unarmed civilians. I witness White rage in the intensified defensiveness of White people’s denial of their participation in systemic and societal racism. I even witness White rage in the extensive immigration forms and regulations that attempt to keep me and fellow migrants out of the United States. I witnessed White rage in the anti-Asian hate crimes that increased by 339% since the pandemic. I witness White rage in the festering roots of genocide, enslavement, anti-immigrant policy, and racial capitalism in North America.
No matter how deeply harmful and widely brutal White rage is, it is given a particular degree of permission to persist without accountability.
The rage of Black and Brown folks, on the other hand, is perpetually villainized. We are trivialized, gaslighted, and objectified—as in, not allowed to react and feel when we are directly or indirectly harmed by a person with privileged identities, just as an inanimate object wouldn’t react when it is handled aggressively or when it breaks. In fact, when people of color, especially Black and Brown individuals, respond rightfully with anger, there are institutionalized responses that discredit and even over-pathologize us. This shows how our anger is threatening, because White society will find ways to punish it.
As a mental health practitioner, the over-pathologizing of Black and Brown rage is recounted in the history of the industry itself. In 1851, physicians over-pathologized enslaved African peoples who risked their lives escaping captivity and refused to work for those who held them in slavery. Physician Samuel Cartwright invented a mental illness called drapetomania, which “caused” enslaved Africans to refuse to work and run away. About a century later, Black and Brown leaders in civil resistances were diagnosed as “psychotic” by mostly White psychiatrists, clinically identifying their so-called hostility in peaceful protests and sustained organizing against racism as a mental disorder—a component of the mental health industry’s legacy that is sometimes called punitive psychiatry.
It takes courage to transmute rage and anger into collective and lasting transformation.
In her keynote address “The Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde says, “Anger is loaded with information and energy.” With anger, there is an indication that we will no longer endure another experience of being abused, exploited, and denied care and of our rights because of the color of our skin, along with the marginalized identities that intersect with our racialized identity. Anger is a sign that although we still have the capacity to endure hardship, it doesn’t mean we have to, and we refuse to tolerate the ways that we, on different levels, are objectified and abused by White supremacy.
Anger can also indicate a high capacity for solidarity and compassion toward loved ones who are susceptible to and harmed by the hatred of others. Returning to the wisdom of Audre Lorde, she distinguishes hatred from anger: “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is the grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.” Anger can be actionable and serve as an agent to defend the vulnerable against real threats and danger.
I have noticed how the word rage dwells in courage. It takes courage to transmute rage and anger into collective and lasting transformation, because it takes confronting and being mindful of it, processing while not being overcome by it, and using its energy and information to co-envision and co-create a liberated world. Anger signals that change is at hand.
Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadah wrote a poem with a formidable refrain: “I am an Arab woman of color, and we come in all shades of anger.” In these verses, Ziadah channels her anger toward Israeli apartheid and uses it to create poetry that mobilizes crowds toward global solidarity. There are multiple ways in which Black and Brown leaders and creators use their anger to dignify and lead us toward freedom. We see this in the unparalleled poetry and prose of Black and Brown writers, in the perseverance of unions and anti-oppressive actions, and in revolutionary kinships that make liberation more and more possible.
As long as we know our anger, it has the potential to give birth to what is new—transforming this information and energy into beautiful things that heal each other and the world at large.
Gabes Torres is a psychotherapist, organizer, and artist. Her work focuses on anti-colonial approaches and practices within the mental health field. She also focuses on abolitionist organizing on a global scale. You can find most of her work on her official website, www.gabestorres.com, and social media platforms, including Instagram.