“Now, black people are routinely assaulted and harassed by
white people in white supremacist culture. This violence is
condoned by the state. It is necessary for the maintenance of
racial difference. Indeed, if black people have not learned our
place as second-class citizens through educational
institutions, we learn it by the daily assaults perpetuated by
white offenders on our bodies and beings that we feel but
rarely publicly protest or name. Though we do not live in the
same fierce conditions of racial apartheid that only recently
ceased being our collective social reality, most black folks
believe that if they do not conform to white-determined
standards of acceptable behavior they will not survive.”
From “Killing Rage” by bell hooks published 1995
I thought about bell hooks two weeks ago as I listened to a woman explain that the marks on her hands I had mistakenly thought were “burn marks” were actually “stress marks.” As the only African woman in her position at her job she had been subjected to virulent racist and sexist abuse. Her complaints were ignored, she internalized the abuse and that was manifested physically. The most recent result of the abuse she has been enduring was such a physical and psychological reaction that she had to be taken by ambulance from work to a downtown hospital’s emergency room. Hooks is one of my favourite writers who has written extensively about the emotional impact of racism and sexism on African American women, as well as the importance of resistance. Although the woman I spoke with two weeks ago is not African American, her experience as an African Canadian mirrors the African American experience with racism, or white supremacy as bell hooks has labelled this malady.
In “Killing Rage” hooks explores the terror and destruction that racism/white supremacy brings into the every day lives of African Americans. She discusses resisting by expressing the rage that accompanies the experience of being subjected to racist abuse. “I understand rage to be a necessary aspect of resistance struggle. Rage can act as a catalyst inspiring courageous action.” She analyzes and historicizes the reason many African Americans (and African Canadians) do not express their rage but instead internalize it to the point where it may be manifested physically as in the case of the sisterin whose skin appeared burnt. “To perpetuate and maintain white supremacy, white folks have colonized black Americans and a part of that colonizing process has been teaching us to repress our rage, to never make them the targets of any anger we feel about racism. Most black people internalize this message well. And though many of us were taught that the repression of our rage was necessary to stay alive in the days before racial integration, we now know that one can be exiled forever from the promise of economic well-being if that rage is not permanently silenced.” She cautions against viewing our rage as useless and destructive as seen through the eyes of white society. “Currently, we are daily bombarded with mass media images of black rage, usually personified by angry young black males wreaking havoc upon the "innocent," that teach everyone in the culture to see this rage as useless, without meaning, destructive. This one-dimensional misrepresentation of the power of rage helps maintain the status quo. Censoring militant response to race and racism, it ensures that there will be no revolutionary effort to gather that rage and use it for constructive social change.” There is never an attempt to address the root cause of the violence that comes from suppressed rage that is internalized and let loose on those closest to the youth. The powers that be are well aware of the causes and the reaction to the oppression of African youth but if those causes are addressed then who would fill the jails? Where would the bodies come from to provide jobs for the many white people who are employed in the justice system?
Some people believe that racism has been eliminated and that all anyone needs to do to become successful is “work hard.” There is no recognition of the systemic racism that plagues our children from the moment they enter the education system. The African Canadian community’s successful advocacy that led to the Toronto District School Board committing to establish an African centred school in September 2009, drew the ire of many outside of the community and even some within. In “Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom” published in 1994, hooks writes of her early education in an “all black school” where learning was “sheer joy.” Her teachers, mostly African American women were on a mission, committed to nurturing the intellect of their students. When schools were integrated in the 1960's, hooks like many other African American children was transferred to an integrated school. There she was confronted with an institution of all-white teachers who were not interested in “nurturing the intellect” of their students but instead they worked to transfer irrelevant bodies of knowledge to their students. The knowledge being transferred did not acknowledge or relate to the lived reality of the African American students. She recognized that displaying an eagerness to learn was seen as a threat to white authority. “Bussed to white schools we soon learned that obedience, and not zealous will to learn, was what was expected of us.”
Many Africans in the Diaspora learn from the time they enter the education system that it is dangerous to their health if they protest when they are subjected to racist and or sexist abuse. Like the African Canadian woman whose skin is slowly being destroyed, most of us suffer in silence. Women are especially vulnerable because of the historic portrayal of African women as mammy or Jezebel. The Jezebel myth of the oversexed enslaved African woman who could be raped at will because she really “asked for it,” is still with us in the 21st century. Some images of African females in the media perpetuate the stereotype and in a workplace where there is no accountability a poisonous work environment can develop. It is important that we support members of our community who are suffering abuse in unsafe workplaces as they try to make a living. No one should have to suffer in silence for fear of losing their livelihood. We should not “willingly surrender our rage” because we feel that may be an “opportunity to further our economic status.” When we repress and annihilate our just rage so we can assimilate and be non-threatening to a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture,” we put our physical and mental health at risk. Anger, rage is a normal, healthy reaction to racist, sexist abuse. Hooks cautions against becoming complicit in our own exploitation by abandoning our just rage. “By demanding that black people repress and annihilate our rage to assimilate, to reap the benefits of material privilege in white supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture, white folks urge us to remain complicit with their efforts to colonize, oppress, and exploit. Those of us black people who have the opportunity to further our economic status willingly surrender our rage.” We have to be constructive as we rage against racism but should never be silent or allow ourselves to be silenced.
Written in April 2008