I am a white woman. I am also a therapist. In this career I’ve had the opportunity to study the emotions of my clients; the process of what happens when they feel an emotion and the different ways they might respond. And one thing I know for sure (both from my own personal experience and from seeing it time and time again in my office)—women in America are often trained not to show anger.
When I say “trained”…I want to be clear. Obviously there’s no class in school to teach young women not to show anger. Rather, it’s taught in a thousand small lessons. Our mothers who leave the room when we’re angry. Our teachers saying “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” Our boyfriends and male classmates saying “calm down.” Our girlfriends and female classmates saying “calm down.” Reminders to watch our manners and be polite. And so, generation after generation, this has continued.
This pattern, I believe, is partly responsible for the Karens. What I think happens, is we avoid anger again and again in order to “survive”. (Those of you familiar with interpersonal neurobiology will know that something as seemingly small as being rejected by a friend group can be viewed by the brain as a threat to our safety, thus the word “survive.” Survival is at play on a somatic and neurobiological level.) After repeatedly avoiding our anger, something’s gotta give. Emotions will find a way out. So—we might spew rage when a stranger dares to question us (hello, Amy Cooper). The fragility comes in part from a house of cards women have carried around inside to avoid showing their anger.
So if we can’t show our authentic anger, we’re left with limited options. One option is to go toward rage and be an entitled Karen. The other option is to cry. Many of us move between both. In my office, I often find that tears will come up immediately in the eyes of a white woman who feels anger. I think of it as an escape hatch. We’ve learned that anger is unacceptable, so when we feel angry, our body uses sadness and tears (which we have been taught are more socially acceptable behaviors than those associated with anger, and less likely to put us in danger of losing our caretakers or friends) to discharge the activation in our bodies, and get us out of feeling the anger. This exchange of tears and sadness for anger happens so many times that it becomes habituated in our nervous systems; the tears just come anytime we feel anger (sometimes, anytime we feel anything other than happiness.) It eventually erodes at our ability to even feel anger, unless it is toppling out of us in the Amy Cooper way, at which point, it’s too late to be valuable, and it’s misplaced.
On some level, this crying escape hatch seems like a better solution. We avoid the discomfort of publicly expressing anger. We don’t explode into rage. But it robs us of one of the most important experiences we can have. Anger is a signal that a boundary has been crossed. In losing our access to feel the anger, we’ve lost the ability to see the boundary, and do something about it. Anger is a source of energy and movement that we need in order to live a full life; it is our life force. When we use our anger well, it informs our decisions and our actions. By pulling the escape hatch with tears, we are moved to a place of helplessness; we avoid the anger and lose all the opportunity for action. So we sit, and cry, and feel bad, and do nothing. Then later, we might engage in some Karen activity and treat someone poorly who does not deserve it, because the energy of our anger insists on being expressed and we are without the ability to regulate it.
It’s really a shame. On the one hand, this is the way white women have been taught to be in the world, so I can have compassion for how difficult it is to change something you didn't know you were doing. It's a lie. You can be angry in a way that is honest, and open, and respectful.
On the other hand, just because this was a lesson passed along to you through the generations, and you were probably indoctrinated into the culture of white women without knowing it, that does not excuse you from taking responsibility for the impact it has on others. When we deny our anger, we deny the reality of people of color. We deny them humanity. We avoid the discomfort of feeling the fury that is appropriate for the deaths of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and so many before them. It will take bravery and vulnerability and humility to change these learned behaviors. When we allow ourselves to be minimized to helplessness, we are part of the problem.
Our broken system doesn’t need your tears. It needs your anger. Anger is the part that says “no.” Anger is the innovator who will find a solution, and will not accept that which is unacceptable. Do not allow yourself to be diminished to tears and sadness when what you really feel is anger. The Black community deserves more than your tears, and so do you.
Anger can be expressed in an appropriate way. It can be organizing. It’s not the blind rage of the Amy Coopers. Don’t confuse that with real anger. And don’t let your real anger get swept up into tears, or rage over the wrong thing. Find your anger and use it well.
I am angry. But I am not helpless, and I will not be reduced to a Karen. I am also profoundly sad. But my sadness is not in lieu of my anger. We must do better, for ourselves, and our communities, and people of color, and the children who watch us. I have and will continue to use my anger to:
Speak to my local leaders about the importance of police training programs, body cameras and accountability for our law enforcement agencies.
Speak out about the injustices that I see and hear about (call and email the DA in Minneapolis, MN regarding George Floyd. Call and email the DA in Lousiville, KY regarding Breonna Taylor. The sad truth is that you have power as a white person. Use it well.)
Educate myself by reading books and content that help me to understand the experience of BIPOC, and how to understand my own participation in systemic racism. Here are a few places to start:
My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem
Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
This Google Doc
Participate in therapy or self-study to improve my capacity to feel the full range of my experience with emotional regulation, and learn to experience and express my emotions in ways that do not damage others. Some good places to start include:
How to Be an Adult by David Richo
It's Not Always Depression by Hilary Jacobs Hendel
The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner
Speak candidly with other white women about racism, and about our tendency as white women to move away from sitting with our discomfort and instead fall either into helplessness or rage. Can you start a book club with the above titles to start? Women in groups are powerful.
Speak candidly with the white men in my life about racism, how it impacts us all, and what we can do about it. I am lucky to be loved and respected my by husband, father, brother and many male friends and colleagues. They will listen when I speak to them in a way they might not from the media or others in their lives. Again, I have a power and an audience with them that others aren’t privileged to share. I can use it to share what I have learned and what I know with them to ensure they understand the importance of anti-racism.
I will help to develop a culture that encourages compassion, healing and self-awareness. I will understand that awareness is not enough, and I will do my own work to heal the parts of me that struggle with my own anger, with my impulse to look away or scroll on, or to take my anger out on the wrong person. I can be an adult and handle the disappointment and fury I feel in an adult way.
I will support organizations that are committed to supporting the rights and wellbeing of BIPOC through healing, advocacy and education. Some examples include:
I will vote and support candidates who understand the importance of dismantling systemic racism and take it seriously. I will not deny the impact my vote (or lack thereof) has on people of color.
This list is far from exhaustive. I would love to hear from you. If you are a white person, what are you doing? I’d love it if you would share ideas so we can all benefit. What questions do you have? If you are a BIPOC and you would like to share, I hope you will feel welcome but not obligated to participate in the discussion in whatever way feels good to you.