For many of us, anger is a relatively easy emotion to access, even if it’s not entirely comfortable to feel. There is plenty to be angry about. Little time passes between abuses of power and attacks on Black bodies.
Even if these abuses are nothing new, impact can still be felt. Black people have historically been on the receiving end of racist violence from both fellow citizens and systems (the healthcare system and police) that are allegedly designed to serve and protect us. And in our current times, we have the gift of access to information at every turn and every hour if we want it.
While staying plugged in keeps us well-informed, we also know that the news can be incredibly taxing to our mental health, especially for Black men who continue to see people who look like them dying at the hands of police. Research has shown that adolescents experience increased anxiety, depression, and PTSD-like symptoms when exposed to racist content online.
For non-Black men of color who are, in those moments, aware of the ways they are othered due to their skin tone or nationality, this violence also negatively impacts them. They know they’re not viewed as threatening to white folks as Black men are, which results in a cruel form of protection that may also lead to negative mental health consequences.
And then there’s the ongoing discourse by pundits and correspondents about the validity of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s all a lot to contend with, and while it’s not new, the anger at the treatment of Black people in the United States (and beyond) can sometimes be all-consuming. As James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ”
Anger is especially complicated and tricky for Black and Indigenous men. On one hand, anger is one emotion that’s more socially accepted for men. We see value in male rage. Society often views angry men as passionate leaders who can take control of situations and get results (often to the exclusion of other, more tender emotions). Angry men are acceptable, whereas angry women (especially angry Black women) are not.
“Power in defense of freedom is greater than power in behalf of tyranny, because the power of a just cause is based on conviction and leads to resolute and uncompromising action.” — Malcolm X
Anger is also a familiar, accessible emotion. Yet this is also moderated by being a man of color. Around the world, there’s an underlying belief system that Black skin connotes anger and violence to white(r) people. This leaves BIPOC to be seen as walking powder kegs, as if anger and violence may extend outward at any time.
However, that anger is just like any other emotion, and your anger is still valid.
The first step in successfully managing your anger is to acknowledge that it’s OK to feel that way. It’s OK to feel rage at a system that devalues you and those who look like you. Frustration and anger are reasonable reactions to a hostile and racist system that keeps you trapped and confined by its limited view of Blackness.
I often tell clients that the feeling of anger or rage is our indicator that we’ve been wronged. It’s often an indication that some injustice has occurred. While we do not have to justify our anger, we may find meaning and purpose in it. We might also find the energy we need to right that wrong.
And taking action with your anger is actually better for your health. When we internalize emotions (deny, minimize, or ignore them), we ultimately pay the price with our health. Suppressing emotions has even been linked to increased risk of cancer and heart conditions. As such, it is vital to identify our feelings, sit with them, and act when we can. Our lives depend on it.
While it’s OK and valid to feel anger, what really matters is how we choose to respond to it
It is, first and foremost, important to understand that anger is not an excuse for violence or abuse. We’re continuously fed by a belief system that says male rage is uncontrollable and excusable, but it’s not. We can do better. We can BE better.
If you’ve been feeling angry, one of the most helpful things you can do is place the responsibility on the source of that injustice. Then you can use that energy in productive and progressive ways.
For instance, you may use your anger to lift your voice in protest. You might also rally your community to vote in favor of progressive, anti-racist local candidates. You might use your voice to call out racism when you experience it. You might use that anger to speak out at community board meetings or to write to leaders to ensure you advocate for necessary changes.
As a therapist, I often talk about anger as an “umbrella emotion.” Anger helps make us feel strong and powerful, not vulnerable or powerless. But in many instances, if we delve deeper, we see that beneath the umbrella of anger is a lot of pain. If we look into that pain, we’ll often find elements or evidence that we were taken advantage of or misled into hurtful scenarios.
Beyond the cloud of rage, we may also discover we are emotionally wounded. We are suffering. We may understand that most days we live in fear of walking outside with darker skin and constantly being viewed as a threat. There is pain in being seen as a constant threat in public — it’s unnerving to be seen as a powder keg waiting to be ignited.
We never know when someone might accuse us of some menial crime, which might lead to unnecessary injury or death. We don’t know when our next run in the neighborhood could be our last. With this fear, we can sometimes feel powerless. Those feelings are hard to shake.
There’s trauma in not being allowed to be fully ourselves without our masculinity being threatened by others. There is an injustice in having to constantly navigate the stereotypes thrust upon us so that we cannot be our true selves in all environments.
If we take some time to slow down, we can delve deeper into that anger. We can write in a journal, meditate, and practice self-care. We may reflect or explore our feelings in therapy. By doing so, we may find that, beneath the anger and righteousness for racial justice, there are more tender emotions hidden.
In order to be able to cope with all the emotions anger brings, we need to allow ourselves to feel the completeness of them, without pretense and needing to fix them. If we can show up for ourselves that way, it can also empower us to reach out and share our thoughts, needs, and feelings with those around us.
When we can do that work, we can use our anger to make ourselves and our communities better. Then our anger becomes a strength and not a liability.
Jor-El Caraballo is a licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness, a mental health and wellness practice located in Brooklyn Heights, New York.