The Makings of an "Angry Black Woman"
Before I begin let me just beg your pardon for the term “angry black woman”. I am aware that the sound of it can be jolting to some. For some of my white sisters it might feel a bit intimidating. For some of my sisters of color this term may be offensive. The perpetuation of a racist slur.
However, I use the term intentionally for particular reasons that might become clearer later and will help you understand why I chose such a title for this blog.
I would like to speak on my personal experience with this idea and term “Angry Black woman”.
I grew up in the South Bronx of New York. My reality was much like what is depicted in some old-school movies (and perhaps today) in reference to Harlem, Spanish Harlem and ‘da Bronx.
There were very few white people in my world (with the exceptions of the teachers and doctors. They were white).
I never gave oppression and racism much thought on a personal level. People of color were all around me and none where on TV. I never thought much of that either. It was just my reality.
Even when I witnessed the raucous around Martin Luther King’s assassination and the Black Panthers on rooftops with guns did I give it all much thought. I suppose I was too young to feel the impact or understand the severity of those events.
I remember one particular incident that will demonstrate my feelings about the racial divide and will explain again the point of this blog.
When I was in high school, I remember seeing a black guy standing in the corner of our school smoking a cigarette. I asked him why he never went to classes and; didn’t he want to graduate and go to college? I remember his words to this very day. He said, “The white man will NEVER let me get anywhere, so why even try.”
My response was, “Well, I’m gonna go to college and prove that I can be SOMEBODY.”
I never understood why “they” were so angry. I remember considering that perhaps Latinos' experiences were not the same as blacks and that they had more of a reason to be angry.
In any case, I was determined and convinced that the trick to being respected by “the white man” was to get an education and become a productive member of society. That sentiment was what launched my plunge into the “white world”.
I was fortunate that in those days, there was plenty of financial aid for those that were poor and I was able to received financial aid to get into a small private college in Allentown, Pa.
My experience in that small private, predominantly white women’s college was surreal. Out of about 800 students in the school, there were only eight women of color in my class. It was an excellent school known for its century old traditions. I remember thinking early on that living on campus was “just like being on TV”. My high school best friend and I enrolled together but she only stayed a semester as the surroundings and traditions were too different (and “not home”). I relished all the events and activities. I welcomed learning all about a culture that was never exposed to me.
My first year there I noted that all the black and Latino women would sit together in the cafeteria and I was the only one amongst all the white students. I remember being invited to join the “African American Society” and declining because I had no interest in separating my self from the rest of the school. I had noted that this group would hold their separate functions. That is, they held their own Dad and daughter dinner, etc. I, on the other hand, wanted to experience the traditional events along with the entire school.
Right after I declined, I remember that the group changed their name to the “Minority Society” assuming that because I was Latino it was the reason I declined. After the name change, I did go to a meeting and brought with me a white lesbian friend and an ally who also felt she was a minority. The club was not too happy but tolerated it and the following year they changed their name back. That experience is marked by my college yearbooks. Out of four, only my sophomore yearbook had a “Minority Society”. I point this out because again this reflects what my sentiments were about race relations. I had no desire to separate myself and truly believed that being so divisive was part of the problem. I embraced all races and cultures and trusted that in turn others would receive me in kind.
Throughout my young career I remained in the suburbs and as circumstances would have it spent most of my time (if not all) socializing with white people. I worked with, socialized and dated mostly Caucasian. Noting that I was always the ONLY person of color in the office, room, club, etc.
Still I was not bothered by this although well aware that others might be. I realized that most of my co-workers considered me a “friend” although they would probably not invite me to a barbeque at their home. I was convinced that eventually they would see that I was just like them and their view about people of color would change.
Professionally I was determined to work hard, continue to pursue further education and be respected for my intellect and dedication to the work I chose for my career.
After some years in the field, I did notice a pattern. Employers were always praising my work. Affirming that I was well spoken, wrote well, had a calming affect in times of crisis and developed a great rapport with my clients. Moreover, I was often placed in a position of leadership in the absence of my superiors. When my Director or supervisor was out, I was placed in charge. When there was a vacant position, I was often “acting” supervisor. However, when the positions were finally filled, a white woman from outside the agency filled them. Hmmmm. This began to be a little frustrating to me but I persevered. After all, with so many putting in a good word for me, I could not be passed over forever. Right?
This went on for 10 years (two different agencies) and I felt I needed to move on and find a position in which I would be valued for my education and years of experience. Lo and behold, I finally landed in a position that allowed me to move up to leadership and eventually as a Co-Executive Director of a wonderful agency. After 30 years of work in this field, I thought this a well-deserved appointment and was excited to be in the position to affect positive changes within the agency that works for an underprivileged community the likes of which I had dedicated the last 3 decades to.
Then, a restructuring of agency personnel found me once again in middle management (and unfortunately a subsequent "lay-off" five months later). Still with the praises of 'the great job I have done but…"
For the first time in my life, feelings of anger and resentment surged through me and I understood. I understood how years of being passed over and given the message that "you are good" but not quite good enough would make someone bitter. I understood that no matter what praises and niceties are offered you may still fall “just short” of your aspirations without any concrete reason. For the first time I understood how you can grow resentful and distrusting. How one can get to be... "An angry black woman”. It is not a pleasant feeling or one that you put on as a mask in the morning to intimidate or annoy others. Not an attitude you force yourself to take on in order to remind others of your oppression. It is just something that festers and wounds your soul.
I recently watched a workshop given by a woman named Dr. Joy Degruy Leary, where she speaks of her theory that people of color are still suffering from what she calls Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome. The wisdom of this woman and the words she spoke not only made sense to me but continue to resonate as I reflect on my recent experiences. There is so much "truth" I believe she speaks, that I will have to dedicate it to a future blog. Nevertheless, for now, I am satisfied that my thoughts and feelings are NOT my imagination and that my speaking of them is not my attempt to "play the race card" as so many accuse us of when we try to share our experiences and explain our perspective.
Leary, who teaches social work at Portland State University, traces the way that both overt and subtle forms of racism have damaged the collective African-Am...
I continue to be a peaceful person. A Christian woman that believes in the importance of loving all people and understanding that most people are good inside. What is different is that naïve innocence from which I once operated is shattered. The idea that if you were good to others they would respond in kind. I now understand that the problem and subsequent difference does not lay in me but in those that insist on seeing me as "less than" and therefore disposable.
I am grateful that the spirit that lives within me (that which I call the Holy Spirit) tells me different. My personal challenge now is to listen to IT and wait for others to do the same.
By Evelyn Rivera (c) Copyrighted May 2011
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