Listening well as a person of privilege: Seek to understand and embrace anger

Note: This is the 5th post in a ongoing series on Listening Well as a Person of Privilege. If you've been energized by this series, I encourage you to be on the lookout for my book "The Priesthood of the Privileged" which I hope will be out at some point in 2014.

Privileged people who are committed to listening well will eventually encounter oppressed people who are angry (and rightfully so). Most of the time, this anger will seem directed at the privileged person or at privileged people in general.  This is a problem because privileged folks typically prefer to only listen to oppressed people when the oppressed people are speaking in a polite, kind and non-accusatory manner. Due to power inequities, when oppressed people raise their voices, angrily point out injustices or speak out in a way that makes privileged people uncomfortable, privileged folks often opt to shut down the conversation. They usually do this by physically walking away from the conversation with an “I don’t deserve this” attitude or by mentally and emotionally walking away from the conversation by writing the oppressed person off in their mind. “She’s just another angry black woman.” (Read: She’s crazy and not worth listening to.)

Walking away when faced with the anger of oppressed people is a mistake for three reasons. One, it makes the conversation revolve around the privileged person (rather than the oppressed person) and serves to support rather than disrupt the inequitable power dynamics between the two people. Two, privileged people have a lot to learn from the expressed anger of oppressed people. Oppressed people have a unique view of the world and possess important insight that is otherwise unavailable to privileged people. If oppressed people are angry, they have good reason to be so. Privileged people should be all ears. Three, only a cheap, self-centered reconciliation seeks to avoid the anger of the oppressed. Privileged people who are truly committed to standing in solidarity with oppressed folks must also commit to knowing, bearing and even being targeted by their anger. Only then can the factors that have contributed to the anger be truly addressed.

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. Without anger, the conversation you’re having with the oppressed person probably wouldn’t be happening. The anger of the oppressed serves to catalyze and sustain reconciliation work, so don't try to suppress it, colonize it or ignore it.  Seek to understand it.

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.

4. Stay off your soapbox. Now is not the time for privileged folks to be a “prophetic voice” in the lives of oppressed people by speaking hard truth about what (privileged people think) oppressed people should be doing to improve their situation. Privileged people lost their right to the prophetic megaphone when they knowingly or unknowingly participated in societal systems that benefit some people and oppress others. Sorry folks - you can’t be a prophet and an oppressor at the same time.

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. That said, societal structures are upheld or torn down by people and in this period of time, a specific group of people (e.g., privileged folks) possess the power to make the greatest impact – for good or for bad.  Privileged folks who have been the target of oppressed people’s anger should try to understand their culpability as an individual and as a privileged member of an unjust system.

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 :)

7. Yes, sometimes it sucks. In the process of building righteous bridges between the privileged and the oppressed, privileged reconcilers often encounter the searing anger of the oppressed and find themselves paying the price for the sins of blissfully-ignorant privileged people who are safely sitting in their privileged spaces far, far away.  These privileged reconcilers complain that since they’re the only privileged folks around, they have to represent all privileged people, bear the sins of all privileged people and repeatedly repent on behalf of all of the privileged folks who have ever hurt or are continuing to hurt the oppressed folks.  The pain involved in being a privileged reconciler is real. When I'm tempted to wallow in this pain I remind myself that the burden of being a privileged reconciler is nothing compared to the burden of oppression. And I keep right on working to dismantle oppression.

Be blessed, friends!