A brown woman in America can’t find room to be angry among white men
When I was in graduate school at Yale University over twenty years ago, I once asked a friend of mine why everyone always gravitated toward us two at student parties. My friend was one of the few black doctoral candidates in the university at the time. Finding ourselves to be the only minority students in a great many of the seminars we attended, we often joked with each other privately about race and identity as a way of blowing off some steam. I recollect that particular conversation—words whispered over plastic cups in a crowded room—well. With each passing year, our playful exchange has taken on Technicolor oracular tones in my mind:
I hear my friend say: “Sharmila, do I really have to explain why everyone comes and hangs out with us at parties? Because we are fun. Because we smile and laugh so much.”
“Why do we smile so much?” I ask him. “My cheeks hurt from smiling so much and I cannot keep it up.”
“We smile,” he tells me, “because it is the only face we can show. If we stop smiling, they will see how angry we are. And no one likes an angry black man.” Or an angry brown woman, I add, silently editing our conversation. “But I think you know this already,” he continues, “and so you smile wide and crack all those jokes.”
At the end of the nineteenth century, the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote,
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
In the early decades of the twenty-first century, I know that if I stop grinning, I will frighten others with my anger. Anger is the useless emotion of people with grievances. Civilized people, superior people, capable people manage anger through reason, televised town hall meetings, logic gates, strategic planning, branding exercises, op-eds, and fireside chats with tea and sherry.
In the universities of America today there are angry students who say that when people of paler complexions use pigments to darken their faces and redden their lips for Halloween, when people with blond straight hair wear dark curly wigs in order to dress as a rapper, they are insulting black people. “Don’t curb our freedom and be a killjoy who doesn’t understand that Halloween is about experimentation,” say their opponents. “Children, do you want adults to tell you how to dress? Do you want to whine about microaggressions and institutionalized racism? Remember, out there in the real world, outside college, no one will give you trigger warnings in a boardroom meeting.” Those who think angry students of color are pampered minorities continue, “Institutionalized racism is a figment of your imagination. This is the reign of emancipation. Jim Crow is a chapter in the history books. The empire has folded up its flags and bid farewell to the natives. Stop complaining, pull up your pants, and learn to have a little fun. We cannot go around changing names of buildings just because the name happens to belong to a white man who owned slaves. Think of all the good qualities the slave owner had. Think of all the wondrous things he did for this country.”
“What’s wrong with a little racial ventriloquism? Race is just performance. Race is a metaphor. Race is a biological fiction. Let us perform our identities.” (These are the graduate-school-educated voices of America.) “What’s wrong with having a little fun?” (These are teenage voices in America.) “Parading in blackface is our cultural heritage. We will fight to protect our heritage.” (That is Dutch people parading as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, on Saint Nicholas’s Day.) These voices, I wager, are mostly white.
Why do blackface and brownface bother me? Because I have been wearing whiteface for so long. Because my Halloween never ends. The tricks and the treats are not toilet paper and cheap candy. The truth is that the opposite of blackface is not whiteface. Blackface is jolly, makes fun of others, is entertainment, is a game you get to play when you are already the winner. Whiteface is sad, demeans me, is deadly serious, is a game we play when we know we are on the losing team.
Blackface makes me angry because whiteface is not its opposite. And anger is no longer a heroic emotion. The age of Achilles is over. Gods and heroes no longer rage as the topless towers of Ilium burn. Now anger is a Third World emotion. Anger is a militant black. Anger is a shrill woman. Anger is a jihadi. Because we know this, many of us also hide our anger behind elaborate masks of comedy.
At Yale, I learned that all binaries are false. That race is a biological lie. That the colonizer never fully dominates. That the colonized are never fully subjugated. That there are things called Ambiguity, Ambivalence, Aporia. And those were just the A words. There were also Hybridities, Problematics, and we had to Complicate Things. Outside class, there were people whose cheeks hurt from smiling because they feared the consequences of revealing their anger. Perhaps because we perfected our smiles, students young enough to be my daughters and sons have to be seen raging on YouTube.
Almost twenty years after I graduated from Yale with a PhD, in the spring of 2016 I was invited to speak to graduate students at my alma mater. My hosts asked me to speak on racism on campus and the experience of non-white alumni in the workplace. There are many ways of comporting oneself at such an event—in each version I could emerge as the triumphant heroine of my own story. I could speak of hard work and the high road, and end on an upbeat note. I could speak more clinically, do a Produnova vault across critical race theory, and nail my landing with a virtuoso flourish that would demonstrate that there is no such thing as race after all. I could be somber and tragic, listing all the slings and arrows borne patiently since graduation. I could be the comedienne of color who outruns and outguns racism with her swift wit.
We were scheduled to meet on the third floor of Linsly-Chittenden Hall on Old Campus, in a classroom where nearly all my graduate seminars used to meet. When I walked into that room, I knew that none of the story lines were right for the occasion. If I could not bring myself to tell the truth in the very room where I was educated, then what was the value of the diploma written in Latin that Yale once gave me? I cannot play the role of the photogenic minority alumna who has managed some small amount of professional success. I cannot be the poster girl for diversity in a glossy magazine targeted at wealthy donors. So, I told them that as a young woman I once sat in that very room and smiled until my cheeks hurt. I confessed that I entertained classmates with elaborate masks of comedy. I said that I wish I had the courage to be as angry as the young people who are protesting institutional racism in campuses all over the country right now.
These young people are the Angry Young Men of a new century. In the last century, the Angry Young Men were mostly young white men, working class and middle class. The British playwright John Osborne immortalized the type in his 1956 play Look Back in Anger. There is a famous scene in that play when a young woman named Alison tells her father that he is hurt because everything has changed, and her husband is hurt because everything is the same. Alison’s father, Colonel Redfern, is a retired British Army officer who’d served in India. Her husband, Jimmy Porter, is a disaffected working-class man who spends a great deal of time berating his wife. The play is set in post-war London during the twilight years of the British Empire. Colonel Redfern, an upper-class military man, is hurt—I would use the word “angry”—because the old days of Britannia’s global power have come to an end in the aftermath of World War II. Jimmy Porter is angry because nothing has changed since the prewar days. The old social hierarchies still hold him down, while dark newcomers appear on the horizon—immigrants from places like Jamaica and Nigeria and Pakistan and India—jostling for jobs alongside native-born whites.
I have very little in common with these angry British men—the old one and the young one. I was born in India, the jewel that once sparkled in the British crown. My people are the immigrants who darkened the streets of Jimmy Porter’s postwar Britain, filling its labor vacuum. Yet, Alison’s words have always resonated deeply with me. I have been both Colonel Redfern and Jimmy Porter. I have been angry because everything has changed. I have been angry because nothing has changed.
When the Angry Young Man is white, male, and British, he is a cultural icon, an artistic rendering of midcentury Britain’s social and cultural struggle. When the play was adapted for a film version, Richard Burton played the role of Jimmy Porter. Eventually, the Angry Young Man traveled to other countries. Wherever he went, he was a member of the dominant culture who felt cheated out of his rightful place in society. Can the Angry Young Man be black? Or a woman? Or an immigrant? I think not. There are other words we use for angry blacks, angry women, and angry immigrants. Those creatures are threatening, unnatural, ungrateful, a problem. Because I know this, I have spent many decades carefully arranging my words, my gestures, my clothes, and my surroundings so that I do not appear threatening, unnatural, or ungrateful. I did not want to be the kind of problem who does not receive good grades in school, or glowing letters of recommendation, or college acceptance letters. I did not want to be perceived as the ungrateful immigrant who does not pass her naturalization examination, the unnatural woman who is never promoted at work or paid a salary equal to that of her white male counterparts. I feared being perceived as the threatening creature who might be detained longer by customs and immigration officers, and even worse, whose children might be seen as threats and problems as well. I envy Colonel Redfern and Jimmy Porte—white men can openly rage against everything changing and against nothing changing. I envy them, for their rage is not arrested.
When I arrived in the United States as a young immigrant in 1982, everything changed for me. The Colonel Redfern in me raged against the change, for it made me a minority, marked by race. After I arrived in the United States, I acted as a model new immigrant. I changed my accent, my food habits, my dress, and eventually my citizenship. Yet, I fear little has changed. This angers the Jimmy Porter in me. I am angry when a colleague tells me I gained admission into universities only because I am a minority. I am angry when an adviser tells me that I have to learn six languages in order to pass a three-language requirement in graduate school. I am angry when a coworker tells me I am an affirmative action hire who does not deserve her position in the office. I am angry when people inevitably assume my white male assistant is my boss. I am angry at myself for feigning ignorance, hiding my accomplishments, softening the sharp edges of my arguments, pretending to lack conviction, throwing the game so I can remain the token minority who brings pleasant diversity to a white workplace. I am angry at myself for hushing my native-born son when he complains that a teacher systematically confuses the names of all the brown boys in class. Jimmy Porter went on to become an archetype. Do I dare reclaim his anger?
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