In a 1981 essay titled “The Uses of Anger,” writer Audre Lorde wrote “My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, on that anger, beneath that anger, on top of that anger, ignoring that anger, feeding upon that anger, learning to use that anger before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life.”
That Audre Lorde responded to racism in anger contrasts with the emotional labor some Black women engage in to conceal their rage to avoid marginalization related to society’s persistent belief in the “angry Black woman” trope. While some Black women might adopt a politics of respectability to maneuver through a racist society, Black women like Lorde who draw on anger due so as an act of resistance.
Why Society Pressures Black People to Let Go of Their Rage
According to a 2020 Women’s Studies in Communication article by Sharrona Pearl,an Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at Drexel University, we see this anger as resistance when Black mothers and wives refuse to perform forgiveness during television news appearance toward police officers and the law enforcement systems implicated in the deaths of their spouses and children.
Pearl coined the term racializing forgiveness to describe “a ritual that aims to create the appearance of social equilibrium while in fact, the goal is to return to the sanctioned status quo of structural oppression.” Pearl analyzed television interviews and press conferences that feature Esaw Garner, Lesley McSpadden, Valerie Castile, Samaria Rice, and Audrey DuBose. Pearl contends that requests for forgiveness in the media aim to use Black women’s mourning and grief as a way to reestablish the status quo. When Black women refuse to forgive, they resist attempts to silence their voices and shift blame away from institutional powers that perpetuate structural oppression.
According to Pearl, requests for forgiveness benefit the perpetrators rather than the families pressured to offer them. So when Black women refuse to forgive, they refuse to embrace a politics of respectability that would and engage in a feminist resistance against an insidious form of anti-Black racism. Since society pathologizes the emotions of Black people, publicly expressing anger and rejecting the expectation of forgiveness demonstrates that anger itself can lead to powerful resolutions.
How Television Media Perpetuates Racialized Norms Around Forgiveness
Television media plays a role in the racialized dynamics of forgiveness. Pearl writes that requests for forgiveness during television interviews make the pain and trauma Black families experience a public commodity. Further, these interviews attempt to institutionalize forgiveness through publicity, using individual experiences as a stand-in for the absolution of the entire system. Pearl argues that how television exploits racialized forgiveness attempts to mediate the social drama of police brutality to restore law enforcement to its perceived moral and emotional dominance over Black families as a form of entertainment.
When Black women refuse to give in to these expectations, they resist attempts to control them and shift the narrative in favor of those that perpetuate structural violence against their families. For example, Pearl analyzed how Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Mike Brown, presented herself during a television interview with Al Jazeera America.
During the interview, Lesley McSpadden made clear that she would never forgive Darren Wilson for killing her son. She explained that Darren Wilson, in his own words, refused to take responsibility. Instead, the former officer insisted that he had done his job and that he was only sorry that her son “may have” lost his life as if he had not pulled the trigger. While Darren Wilson painted himself as a hardworking man just doing his job, Lesley McSpadden painted him as “devilish” and “cold and malicious.” The most profound part of this interview, however, involved the way McSpadden invoked her rage with a cool demeanor that belied the angry Black woman stereotype that keeps so many others silent.
Why The Media Should Forego Requests of Forgiveness from Victims’ Families
Pearl’s research informs us that television media strategically invokes forgiveness requests from Black families to reinforce the racist and sexist social order. When Black women refuse to forgive, they resist the impulse to return to the status quo. Their insistence on their anger and pain in public insists that their anger can lead to social change. Since the media generally does not make these requests of families victimized through other forms of violence, their fixation on Black people’s forgiveness reveals how the media operates to normalize and exceptionalize police brutality. During a time when many news outlets have put out statements in support of Black Lives, one key way they could demonstrate this commitment includes no longer facilitating the dismissal of Black trauma by requesting their forgiveness during television interviews.