Jim Hines wrote an interesting post the other day about being the voice of reason and how taking that particular tack can be problematic, even when it has its benefits. This right here is what crystalized it for him:
Isn’t reasonableness a good thing? …I couldn’t quite parse it … until another commenter popped up to say he was talking to me because of my reasoned take on things, “unlike 85% of the poo-hurling monkeys.”
In my time as the Angry Black Woman, I’ve encountered many who have pointed out to me that Martin Luther King is remembered and revered, whereas Malcolm X’s attitude was rejected by sensible folks. These people do not often include folks who have actually read King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail, and especially not this section of it:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
The idea that it’s never okay to be angry, to speak angrily, to be persistent, vehement, and unyielding to the idea that a little bit of prejudice is okay as long as Big P Prejudice isn’t happening here is an idea that only people like the white moderates King speaks of feel strongly about. Funny how that works out, right?
Jim is right in that reasonableness (or the appearance of it) and patience has a place in sticky issues like this. May of you will probably never believe it, but I used to be known as a “reasonable” black person. I know, crazy, right? I used to be the one who would make very low-key, patient, thought-out and emotionally leveled posts or emails or explanations. I thought that it was something I should do as one of those black people whites felt comfortable around because my skin was light and I spoke “properly”. I thought I was being sneaky by flying under their radar, when in reality I was behaving exactly as they hoped I would behave and not having much impact at all. Even if they agreed with me in principle, most would still go away thinking “Well, Tempest isn’t like those other black people. She’s articulate, intelligent, and reasonable.”1
There is a really delicate balance and a fine line to walk concerning reason and anger.
People need to understand that prejudice hurts in all its forms. No matter where that prejudice lies along the spectrum from major to “minor”, it hurts people. Real people. Not just ideas of people. If you hurt me, and I react in anger, and you react badly to that anger even though you did the hurting, who is the jerk in this scenario? If you cut me, why do I need to spend hours and days and weeks explaining to you calmly that I do not enjoy bleeding, that it is bad for my health, and it does not foster a great sense of fellowship and community between us if you keep doing it. Anger is sometimes the only way to make people understand the seriousness of their actions. But, instead of realizing this, they just decide that people are being mean to them.
The balance is, sometimes putting a calm face between the anger and the person hurting you is the more effective route. I’ve found that it’s easy to treat the 100th person to say something stupid and ignorant just like the first 99 people who did the exact same thing and then argued with you about it. It is hard, so hard, to take a step back and realize that there is this constant process of starting over when you introduce people to new concepts. Thing is, those who are constantly embroiled in these fights, who have had this stuff explained over and over, perhaps even calmly, reasonably, and still persist in their ways, don’t get that benefit anymore. And yet they’re the first to complain about it.
And the sad truth is that it’s often the allies who take the position of sounding “reasonable” as they try to get through to people. It’s a sad fact that sometimes their words are given more consideration and weight. I would say it’s incumbent on them to then say: I’m glad you listened to me for whatever reason. But I need you to understand that, as patient and reasonable as I’m being with you, have no doubt that I agree with these people. I think their anger is justified, and your actions/speech are not.
- This post by Shweta Narayan about assimilation reminded me of some of what I went through at that time in my life. I did not have the extreme experiences she did, but the tenor of what she describes is so familiar to me. If this doesn’t help you understand what I mean by prejudice hurts, then you’re a cold-hearted person. [↩]