Anger as a Tool in Social Justice Movements

Woman screaming in anger
By Elgongo on Flickr

Big companies and the tech industry in general are starting to feel the pressure of their homogenous workplaces, communities and exclusionary practices. When a company as large as Google releases the data on the (lack of) diversity in their workforce, it feels like we’ve reached a tipping point.

No longer are we just screaming to get people to admit there is even a problem. Great! Now we can move on to figuring out how bad the problem is, and what we can do to make things better.

A few weeks ago, I mused out loud on Twitter about the fact that I wouldn’t feel comfortable attending a certain tech event because of the setting and the apparent lack of diversity[1] of the attendees. It’s the same reason I hope never to have to work full time for a tech company again: the increased risk of daily microaggressions by well intentioned but largely ignorant members of the privileged class. Since I don’t have to go to an office every day where I will inevitably be the only Black/woman/lesbian etc, I get to make case by case decisions about whether I’m willing to expose myself to that risk.

My comments were a version, albeit on a much smaller scale, of the scrutiny that is being directed on a larger scale at companies, conferences, and other tech spaces. Some people assumed that my statement was me accusing everyone at the event of being racist.

Ironically, this led to the afformentioned microaggression playing out on Twitter, a lot of yelling and an angry blog post. A very popular blogger wote a ‘non-rebuttal’ (his words), though his post just happened to refer to me specifically––in which he asserted ‘ain’t nobody got time for angry.’

This idea that anger is harmful to social justice movements is one that I see played out over and over again. The common arguments include:

  • You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar
  • You’ll win more people to your cause by being nice
  • You’re alienating potential allies.

How Do You Think Social Justice Movements Begin?

Here’s an idea: not only is anger not harmful to social justice, it is the reason social justice movements happen in the first place.

This month is the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Notice how it’s called the Stonewall Riots, not the Stonewall ‘Please officers could you stop harrassing us’ party. That act of violent rebellion was the start of the modern queer rights movement. You can trace a direct line from those angry drag queens to the same gender marriages happening all over the U.S. this year.

People of privilege who benefit from systemic oppressions rarely give up, or even question those systems until they are forced to. Sometimes ‘force’ looks like physically fighting back against your oppressors.

Sometimes it looks like sitting down.
Sometimes it looks like standing up.
Sometimes it looks like starting your own thing.
Sometimes it looks like yelling on the internet when you are fed up.

It’s like the opposite of being the thousanth customer at K-Mart and winning a prize. Congratulations, you’re the 1000th microaggression this month! You get a verbal scolding!

To be clear, I have plenty of thoughtful, enlightening conversations about race with people of many different backgrounds, like the one that resulted in my most read post of 2013. The difference is that I have those conversations with people I know and trust, and/or in venues which faciliate having those discussions safely.

I don’t have them on Twitter. I generally don’t have them with strangers. I don’t educate people on demand[2]. And people who disrespect those boundaries sometimes get a verbal smack down.

As I get older, and especially since I have recently gained the great privilege of not being dependent on an employer for my livelihood, my tolerance for microagressions has approached near-zero. Hence I have become much more vocal about calling people out, which can be a shock for people who have never been challenged on that level.

Many marginalized people suffer in silence, or rant in back channels because their jobs and/or livelihoods depend on not challenging their employers or the system. Consequently, since so few people are challenged for the little verbal paper cuts they dish out every day, they have no idea the enormous scope of the problem, or the continuing damage they inflict.

Yelling, while it might seem mean, has the effect of issuing a wake up call, which may or may not be received by the person being yelled at, but may benefit others who witness it and learn something. Maybe it gets people with larger platforms talking about race and getting other people thinking about race.

Yes, anger can be dangerous and misdirected, but anger at social injustice doesn’t fall into this category. If you have the luxury of not being angry about anything, then congratulations on your privilege. But stop trying to cast anger at pervasive injustices as some sort of irrational and disordered response.

Maybe a Better Question is How Come You’re NOT Angry?

Here is where I could quote a bunch of statistics about all the injustices that marginalized people suffer daily. But let’s be honest: there’s no magical statistic that is going to change someone’s mind if they believe oppressed people are just overreacting to every little slight.

In case you’re wondering, “what’s the big deal?” here’s Derald Wing Sue, author of “Microaggressions in Every Day Life” to tell you all about it:

Sure, systemic racism, injustice and inequality is still a huge problem almost 150 years after slavery ended, but why you gotta be so MAD about it? Sure, there’s a literal war on women being waged by the government and conservative religious organizations, but why don’t you just chill out?[3]

Maybe if things are still terrible in another 50 years, then it will be OK in some people’s minds to be angry. But some of us can’t afford to wait. Lots of folks feel very free to decide whether someone’s anger is ‘justified’ without having a clue what that person’s reality is like.

It’s a cop out too easy, in my view, for people who have gained success in spite of discrimination and bias to claim that racism can be solved by hard work and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.

Pia Glenn addresses this point far better, and more humorously than I could so let’s go to Black Weekend Update for the report:

Transcript:

Headwear enthusiast Pharrell Williams sat down with the boss of everything Oprah Winfrey this week for an in-depth interview that included happy tears at the massive popularity of his mega hit song, ‘Happy’, and Pharrell’s declaration that he is “the new Black.” Saying “The new Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The new Black dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation, it’s a mentality. It’s either going to work for you or it’s going to work against you and you’ve got to pick which side you’re gonna to be on.”

Oprah agreed and then they both chose money as their new pigmentation, shedding their brown skin and throwing hundred dollar bills out the window of Oprah’s castle to the peasants down below, just because they can.

Black Weekend Update would like to remind you that if you are a person of color experiencing discrimination, obviously you picked the wrong side! So stop blaming other races for your poor decision making skills–and try on a new mentality darkies! Pharrell wants you to dream big! (Just not in color).

If hard work could fix racism, DON’T YOU THINK WE WOULD HAVE FIXED IT BY NOW? But we have a Black president! Yes, and even he is subjected to racial discrimination. And news flash: A few people of color enjoying success does not the end of racism make, much as some people would like to believe that.

A Black Male With A Degree And A White High School Grad Have The Same Chances Of Getting A Job
Just try harder bro.

If you achieve success as a someone in a marginalized demographic, I salute you. Well done! But that doesn’t mean that suddenly issues that aren’t problems for you personally aren’t real problems. And saying so, or tone policing people who are struggling, just shows a lack of empathy.

If you want to do something with your privilege to help others, here are a few resources:

And if you’re someone who experiences discrimination and bias daily for whatever reason, maybe stop being so nice.[4]


  1. Based on the photos and tweets I saw coming from the attendees.  ↩
  2. Why do you think I write these posts?  ↩
  3. Come on women! Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get a job–that won’t cover any healthcare needs involving your evil lady bits.  ↩
  4. Believe it or not, I’m actually pretty nice most of the time. Just not to people practicing *ist, bigoted, harmful behaviors.

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