why some people be mad at me sometimes
by Lucille Clifton
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and I keep on remembering mine
This testimonial is a celebration for all the ways we survive, often unnoticed and alone in our struggling to make a difference from the many places we inhabit. This testimonial does not belong to me, it could not be written without the wisdom and knowledge of many other peoples remaining vigilant in putting our dreams of a world free of exploitation into practice.
Our collective memories of the ways in which unchecked supremacy can run rampant in our practice towards one another fuel our determination to realize this dream. We often find ourselves marginalized and alone, unwelcome in radical communities with curt responses or none at all, and usually no acknowledgement of the ways in which we have been torn in these movements. Radically telling this truth can be viewed as divisive to the movement and a “pathological” issue. This stance is an effective tool to manage dissenting voices, sanitize our lived realities and allow for treacherous interactions. Many of us have horror stories of the types of organizational-institutional disrespect and negation we have gone through. In fighting for a more expansive politics, to openly name the ways dominant behaviors surface across many institutions and people is met with hostility. To interrogate rage and pain, to use our stories as a way to salve our wounds and name the abuse is a radical endeavor. It suggests the possibility of healing in a system that does not want us be well or make ourselves anew. Acknowledging pain demands accountability. It demands a critical reflection on all the interactions that happened to get us to the point of betrayal in the first place. It also demands us to interrogate our own habits and question the role we have played in the matter. Often, this type of radical truth-telling and honesty does not happen, we end up leaving or staying in these places looking in from the margins, completely discredited. So of course, the scars are here, still swollen and bruised. Wherever do we go from here?
Hey, big woman—
with scars on the head
and scars on the heart
that never seem to heal—
I saw your light
And it was shining.
As someone who identifies as Black, as woman, first-generation, African, working class and energetic, I have seen how my rage has been suppressed and seen as “counter-productive” to the movement. I think of my own horror stories expressing the unaccountability and destructiveness that can come in doing this work. The most recent and painful memory. I am working as an educator within a predominantly white radical organization. We care about solidarity, critical thinking, understanding and liberation across difference for our common struggles, this is the perfect catch phrase for anyone interested in social justice. Yet, when I note the overwhelming whiteness and privilege often exercised within the organization I am either met with an eerie silence or hostility. More specifically, when I say that the movement to end class exploitation must also deal with white supremacy and assert that we (yes we, not just the ruling classes) must investigate our roles in reproducing this class system with our deeply held supremacies I suddenly become that sore on every one’s side.
“Am I crazy? No one has said anything so maybe it’s me…”
Before I know it, I start to think I am the problem. Besides, there are people of color here too, who care about solidarity, critical thinking, understanding and liberation across difference. We have to care about it and love each other fiercely…right? When trying to voice my concern to this woman of color she swiftly cuts me off and says, “It’s not a black pedagogy or white pedagogy but a class pedagogy.” End of discussion, there is no longer a conversation to be had. She does not even look me in my face, just like the rest of them. Maybe I should have said something else, maybe I missed something… I am that sore on her side. This is a woman of color, I respect her…is this my fault?
The refusal to not scrutinize how we practice freedom in our daily lives often leads to this type of unspoken and unrecognized pain. When these contradictions remain unchallenged, usually the most vulnerable within the organization (and larger society) are the one’s who experience the worst of what the organization has to offer (or refuses to offer). In other words, we become easy targets for your unspoken rage and anger to be unleashed and accepted at any moment when our mere presence calls out your particular contradiction and shortcoming. My rage speaks to the pain of the explosive silence and broken relationships that has deterred all our efforts to see us finally liberated from a larger structure of outright violence, denial and repression. I think of my sources of anger, where I have had to go back and scrutinize these memories and also break my own fears and silence:
- A colleague of mine has told me that at my teaching site, the all white teaching staff are wondering out loud if I am really serious about teaching. I have been teaching in my class since the first day I began the internship. Dealing with these students and administration isn’t easy. I have had racial slurs hurled at me and most of the teachers do not acknowledge my presence…living in this area has physically made me sick and yes I have been absent for a couple of days. So I come back to hear that now the teachers are talking about whether or not I am serious about this work…never mind that my white colleague can go to a wedding for a week and not have these things wondered about him, or the quality of his work questioned…in fact, his teacher mentor wants to keep him for the next semester…but I go away for two or three days and the world is about to end.
- I finally demand a formal meeting to speak about the institutional racism going on in the schools and the program. I want out of these seminar classes, out of teaching in an all white school, and an explanation as to why no one has intervened or at least offered strategies to deal with this type of pressure. When I go to the administration (comprised of three women, two women of color and one white woman) they proceed to ask me questions about why I am so upset. One of them even says that when she saw me crying one day in front of my classmates she read my display of emotions as “impulsive.” She notes my silence as the primary reason the administration does not know what it is going on (never mind that I told her about an incident within the school last week.) She questions why I want special treatment around race when other people in the program have their issues as well. I am questioned so much that I begin to think what I am asking for is trivial. All the things I had “demanded” remain unchanged. I am still in seminars where no one is really checked for the thoughtlessness of their words or actions, still in an all white racist school, and still offered no explanation or intervention on how to deal with this pressure.
- I hear through the grapevine that a white male student has been allowed to teach in Harlem New York. It was my understanding that no student could travel this far out for an internship. I think back to previous meetings I had when saying I wanted to work specifically with children of color. The administration made sure to scold me and tell me it did not matter if I want to teach students of color because the work of emancipation is all the same. I am told my wanting to teach students of color is subjective. Yet most of my white peers often talk about wanting to do prison work, feeling that people of color need the most help and wanting to work with “vulnerable” populations. I am still waiting to hear this administration say that their “needs” are also subjective. But instead this man can go teach students of color and even travel to do so. He comes back to class saying he is having a difficult time relating to the issues he is seeing with this population. I watch the same woman who used her questions to chastise me, use her questions to help this student with his specific situation.
- I have become silent in class no longer wanting to engage. I should do better and hate the fact that I feel so stuck. But still, I do have to note that two of my other colleagues are incredibly silent however no one seems to stare their way and demand and answer when the white people exclaim, “Not enough people speak up in class!…”
- I’m in a role play in a small group, we are talking about how to intervene and stop racism. The scenario: One woman wants to cross the street because she spots an African American male walking on the sidewalk. The other friend is supposed to intervene. For the next ten minutes I watch these two white, well meaning feminist anti-racist women theorize around why they would not intervene in saying the woman wanting to cross the street is acting in racist manner. I finally come out with my uneasiness and say this is dominant thinking. I remember this time most clearly because after I finally said those words I dealt with the brunt of these two “allies” insidious shame and guilt.
- A teacher is teaching us aspiring teachers about cultural sensitivity and diversity in the classroom. She is White. This should not matter because we are in a radical setting. In order to teach us about cultural understanding, she makes an almost entirely white class take the Chitling test. Some of us are confused, most of us say nothing, most of us do not understand the history behind this test. One white woman across from me laughs and says, “Let’s take the test!” Don’t we know better than this? I can’t believe that we are in this day and age and someone is telling me to take this test.
- I’m working at a new teaching site. It’s a progressive school. If I want to be paid for substitute teaching I must go through a CORI check. I pass in the required documentation within the first two weeks of school…two months later I hear no word about my CORI going through. I send emails to no avail. I tell my teacher mentor. He sends an email. My other colleague who also works at this site has had his CORI passed…all is well with him. He has started subbing and is getting paid for his work. I do the same, plan lessons, implement curriculum, take on the teacher load but the situation is different. My CORI not going through requires a “real” substitute to sit in and monitor what I am doing. By law I am not allowed to be alone with the kids. The kids wonder who is the authority figure…I teach any way. A week later I am sitting eating my lunch. The lady who is supposed to handle my CORI comes in wanting to check in about the situation. I find that for some reason my documentation has not yet been passed in. She proceeds to ask me, “…so about your CORI. Are you…legal?”
- The most devastating memory: A professor of color asks me in front of the all white class, “You’re black, why are you silent?” I shakily express a tenth of the rage and anger at white supremacy and finally say I am tired. The teacher says “I knew you would say that,” and for a moment I think I have an ally. She goes on to swiftly tell me that John Brown understood what this struggle meant, and that I am doing this work for the people. It is this day when I really start to wonder if by the people she is referring to the white middle class students sitting in her classroom.
- My last day meeting with this advisor within the program (a meeting I did not want to have and at this point I was really trying to avoid all private meetings with these people) where I can at the very least be sure that I have no reason to trust her. I finally can tell her that I felt chastised within this program and that there was absolutely no support offered. She asks me, “Did something deep in you change?” At this time, I do not realize how deeply asinine this question is. So I reply yes, immediately thinking that this all is my fault. The respect for her is still there. I still try to hold my position that there should be support. She goes on to tell me: “The institution is not supposed to be supportive.” I think to myself: After experiencing all of this craziness…you’re damn right it isn’t.
The list continues, but it’ll stop here. I know we all have our lists of terrors and grievances that we’ve had to lay by the wayside. As I think of these memories, I think of the scars and rage. I think of my own silence and wished that at the very least I had been resolute in knowing that these people were very much tied to their positions of power and dominance. I realized too late that if I had questions, if I made them too uncomfortable, if I did not grin and bear it, they would find ways to humiliate and strip me of my dignity in any space they could. Under such an abusive gaze, where there was much more going on than this little story can touch, I celebrate that I did not give in to grief. And these lessons have given me insight into what even the best of us are capable of practicing.
And just to be sure, this is not a compartmentalized race story even though the way this played out politically was steeped in the protection of white supremacy. These terror stories should alert us to the types of spaces we inhabit within the overall class hierarchy when there are no built in structures for us to critically reflect and change these contradictions as a collective.
When we look at how our right to lead our own movements, to teach in our communities, to have our ideas heard and published, and to safely work, is constantly thwarted by this type of gate keeping, we cannot be so naïve to stop making these connections.
Finding the language to analyze and name what is going on becomes a necessary but difficult task. Explaining these habits become difficult when the language of radical thought is so readily available, while in the same hand, we feel the constant jerking of an entitled elbow hurting our sides. Cutting through all the mental gymnastics becomes such a wasteful use of energy. Institutional silence to erase and shame are crucial to letting these injustices occur in the space and cracks of our liberation work.
But nothing can really hide or stay miserable and competitive for too long without something (or someone) exploding. We are the products of our environments and our habits are direct reflections of how much we are willing to change. I think of all the Missy Anne’s I had to ward off back then and how even over a year later, when all has been said and done, one of them cannot take no for an answer when I say I don’t want to see her. Somehow, in some way, she uses her creativity to get my phone number, my partner’s phone number and persistently texts and calls. And when we finally meet she smiles without acknowledging anything. Not what happened back then and certainly not that her supremacy is showing now. After a year or so, she still feels insufficient in her work for social justice. I don’t say much. I am in a better place and I will not use my energy to soothe her guilt. People reflect the organizations and ideologies their coming from. And inaction and denial is such a reactionary and tired tune.
I have rage/When forced to look at the worst of you/and pretend that nothing has happened/you say I was less than/insufficient/not doing enough/that something with me was just/wrong/When you hear my name and look the other way/like I wasn’t there/like it was my problem/Rage!/You are that sore on my side
But if I see you again…/On what principle will I receive you?/What patterns will I finally break/so we can move forward?
Women of color come together, in a quiet place to talk about the ways in which we have been hurt. To talk about the things we have had to go without, from adequate health care to employment discrimination to worrying if we’ll be the one picked up on the street when walking home at night from the train station. To talk about our struggles and dreams. We choose to use rage as insight to continue. We are not fodder for the “cause.” We are here, stronger than ever, ready to thrive, in spite of this destruction. There is much to fight for and no time to waste. We are here for one another.
Without the love of my sister-friends I would not have made it. They built me up to be a warrior and tore down those sinking doubts and feelings I had. They put the steel in my spine and massaged that crackle in my throat that had internalized that voice saying, “This is all your fault.” They were committed to practicing love as a principle. Confident in knowing that we should not be the ones to always receive the brunt of contempt. That to toughen ourselves does not mean we must be cruel to one another. That to survive does not have to mean that we allow ourselves to be tokenized to call rank on one another, divided, just for the chance to be at the table for some scraps. Through our solidarity I was made whole.
Constant conversations with sister-friends who knew what I was going through was my healing balm. Whenever we could get together, we would develop strategies to protect ourselves from the daily blows and assess how far we needed to go with our particular struggles. One sister-friend would write very detailed and thought out letters that helped develop my analysis when I needed words to name behaviors beyond feelings. In one tough situation she wrote:
In many ways being in this situation has helped me to polish my analysis, and understand more broadly what boundaries i must establish. i am able to also see more clearly my own internalized oppression and how this manifests in my comments/behaviors, etc. In addition, i can also see how my knowledge and analysis is quite powerful and if not used carefully can be destructive towards my allies as well as others who do not hold my same opinion. In many ways, i am very glad to have gone through the process of conflict transformation. for though i am a big critic, i learned much about myself and my capacity to try to bring understanding and solidarity in situations like this, without negotiating my fundamental values.
i really don’t think i will be able to work with this group of people, but i will continue to support their efforts for social justice, as i will others. the white privilege is present in every work, gesture, and suggestion. it is much to much and will take to much of my energy which is continuously being challenged by those who are really in power. but at least there i am visible…..very visible.
i will be writing soon, with details, attaching emails, and recording the negligence of some of our colleagues, who just happen to be people in positions of power and decision making. i never thought these groups were perfect, for i am also not. but, i was not expecting to have to put up with so much rejection and dominance. this is absolute nonsense coming from such an organization.
let’s stay positive, let’s not dismiss anyone regardless of their positions, left, right, moderate, even fundamentalist. let’s try not to do what they do.
Our experiences also spoke to the ways people of color and women internalize supremacy and hatred. When we find that we hold positions of power or authority, to not intervene on behalf of women of color creates divides and tensions that needed not be there. And sadly it strengthened the entitlement of our white peers. For this my sister friend said: the lack of her voice is deeply concerning and hurtful for me.
It is not just about the goal, it is about the process we take to reach that goal. Too many of our stories are fraught with betrayal, distortion and violence in struggling to reach a place of equality. What type of hard and difficult work are we doing to ensure that we are creating the conditions for the massive change we want to see? What type of structural changes should we call for in our organizations? Are there structures of accountability? Do we consent to the targeting of our peers? Of course, the struggle continues. in our new places of struggle we pushed for these things right at the beginning. If anything, on our end, we’re gonna put it on the table, nows the time for us to figure out what we’re willing to do politically…
Letting go of fear and claiming that voice for ourselves, no matter the cost, is an important piece to this work. It took me a while to own this burning part of myself, the part that could spit fire and the part that could honor my resistance. Being around such strong women made me want to own that power and continue to struggle. There are so many peoples we struggle for, who have given much more than I can imagine and suffered greater losses. I am still here. To give in to my fear is a cop out and slow death at best.
I chose to leave as quickly as I could. It was a painful but necessary decision. The level of dishonesty and abuse was terrifying. There are many struggles to wage, rife with contradictions to sort out. I can say that dealing with that beast was not for me. But if you find you have to be there, be resilient and wage battle anyway. That was my lesson, go down giving it all you got.
I remember a time when I wrote an email about the privilege and dominance within the program, how it hindered our goals. There was no response from my peers and I began to wonder if there would be a punishment for my thoughts. My sister-friend was able to salve my wound with her final words:
“And yes, I noticed no responses. As we know this is a strategic move of privilege and hegemony…to deny the existence of our thoughts, ideas, and creativity. Oh, but they heard loud and clear…do not doubt this my friend. Keep speaking, for if we don’t we will lose our humanity and dignity. i know what it feels like when we feel we have spoken to much. it’s really okay. Breathe and know it is okay. gather your thoughts, honor your life and your way, give people a chance to take it in….you will know when and how to continue. but never, never, be silent for too long…remember that what we say is deep, much to deep for others to sometimes handle. but remember we have handled even more and have survived and become better women because of it. don’t let guilt or shame stop you….those are the masters tools….do away with them.”
written by Guest Contributor Lucille Clifton