black lives matter

The overwhelming sound of silence

“Did you see it???? The video?” My husband asked, in a voice that conveyed both shock and disbelief. Without having to ask which video, I instinctively knew that he was referring to the video of the police killing of Alton Sterling.

I nodded slowly. I saw it first thing this morning as I looked at Facebook on my iPhone.

What I didn’t share with him was that, after watching it, I proceeded to cry silently in the bathroom for several minutes. Silent tears of anger and of rage. Silent tears of hopelessness. Silent tears of shame for feeling shocked and numb and scared--all at the same time.

And silence is what strikes me most as I reflect on this latest news from Baton Rouge.

Alton Sterling is the 558th person to be killed by police this year. He is the 135th black person to be killed. There are so many names and faces that I often have trouble keeping track of all of them. It’s easy to tune out if I want to. Another day passes and another black person is killed. Every 28 hours. It is an ongoing, seemingly endless cycle.

Police shooting of unarmed, black person. Outrage and cries for justice. Justice never comes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sometimes the deaths hit me like a ton of bricks and I find myself not sleeping well. My mind races for days and I’m afraid that I cannot walk down the street without fearing for my safety from those who are supposed to protect it. Other days, I feel numb and they just strike me as yet another headline in a barrage of information I receive as I scroll through my social media feeds. It is the latter that feels the most unsettling to me. The inner silence I experience when everything in my brain screams that I should be outraged but my soul is too weary to feel anything other than a lack of surprise and indifference. 

Silence.

Just like my tears went unheard this morning, it is clear that so too do Black people’s collective cries for justice. Society is so comfortable, so very content with black bodies being abused, beaten and killed in the public eye that it seems like yelling “Black Lives Matter” until we are hoarse does absolutely no good. We rant. We rage. We roar. Even though we remain unheard and change does not come, we continue to shout. But the response is only silence.

Silence.

Like my tears and our collective cries, there is silence on the part of most of the white people that I know. And while that in itself is also not surprising, sometimes I experience that silence, in particular, as deafening.

Silent white people are on my Facebook feed--some of whom I’ve known for several decades. The same people white people who use Facebook to comment on literally everything and everything from their dog’s latest grooming appointment to what they’ve purchased at Walmart to what they are eating for dinner. Somehow they seem unable or unwilling to use their platform to let me know that they even remotely care about my life or the lives of the people who look like me. Silent white people--some of whom are my family members. Silent white people-- many of whom I know are in interracial relationships and raising black and brown children.  They remain silent about Trump, silent about race and racism, silent about what is clearly an epidemic in this country.

Silence.

My office is silent today, too. Silent because there are many people who are out of the office but also because the few people of color with whom I work and with whom I would normally find community and comfort during a time like this are all traveling. This kind of silence is especially painful. My professional career for the last 14 years has consisted of navigating my black womanhood in predominately white settings. That has lead to years of stress and anxiety. And in the midst of global anti-blackness and a war on black people in this country, connection with other black people and other people of color, today of all days, feels not like a luxury but a necessity. In the silence, I am reminded how often much I crave interactions with those who look like me and that our joy is a radical form of self-care and an integral part of our emotional emancipation. Since we can’t seem to be free physically, we can at least be free in our minds. But since I’m the “only” in the office at this moment, I don’t get to feel connected or feel black joy or feel emotionally free today. I just feel silent, only accompanied by the thoughts racing in my mind.

Silence.

Silence fills my ears, my heart, my mind and soul.

Until today, I’d never really thought of silence as having a sound. But as it turns out, it does. According to science, silence is actually noisy. In silence, our brains create noise to fill it and that activity can manifest in sounds like ringing, humming, buzzing, even resulting in hallucinations and psychosis—imagining things that aren’t there.

So since my mind is creating much noise to fill in the silence today, I’m going to voluntarily imagine some things that aren’t real but that I wish to will into existence.

I’m imagining that Alton Sterling is at home with his children and his family. The same goes for the other 135 black people killed this year by police and for all the victims of police violence.

I’m imagining that instead of being bombarded with stories and images of unarmed, black people being killed by police I’m bombarded with stories and images unabashed, unapologetic black joy.  

I’m envisioning all the amazing, innovative and revolutionary contributions that we black people make to the world and that we are thriving in our homes, communities, families, schools, churches, workplaces--any place else we are and wish to be.

 I’m imagining that the silent white people I know will find it no longer acceptable to be silent about the fact that black lives matter. That they will find their voices to boldly proclaim that racism is a shameful part of our country that needs to be eradicated at personal, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels and that they will work toward it.

 I’m envisioning that everyday I will have connection and community with other black people and that together we embrace all of our resilience in the face of pain and laugh till our faces hurt, share stories and cry tears of joy.

 I’m imagining a world in which all black people can be free.

Finally, I’m not imagining, but instead speaking into existence that the sounds of silence around black lives will no longer be heard as silence. That instead they become the roaring, deafening sounds of action, justice and love.

Managing Anger

It’s actually good to be angry.

This is one of the most powerful life lessons I’ve learned, it’s also the one that is the most hard to accept and scariest to admit. For me, this has been a revelation years in the making.

As a naturally optimistic and deeply empathetic person, I still cringe when I think about how other people experience me when I’m angry. An only child, raised by a single mother until I was 13, I was often lonely and felt emotionally abandoned by both my parents. I viewed anger as giving people a reason to push me away. And growing up a Black girl in a world in which white people often surrounded me, I was taught by relatives that being nice, agreeable and “acceptable” was a way to set myself apart; with the hopes that defying stereotypes about sassy, attitudinal Black women would shield me from the racism and sexism that exists in the world.

At a critical point in my adult life, I realized that the expectation to not be angry had become stifling and I felt overwhelmed. Throughout painful and abusive personal relationships, work situations in which I was frustrated by lack of opportunities and not making enough money, and various kinds of loss and struggle, I felt extreme pressure to put on a façade for everyone. This resulted in deeply hidden emotions. The façade wore me out. It made me incredibly unhappy. But still, I refused to speak truth and give voice to my anger. Even when it was righteous and warranted.

The anger only increased as I started to develop a critical consciousness about the world around me. Racism, sexism, homophobia, social injustice… there was so much to be angry about! And when I finally did start to make sense of it, I became incredibly uncomfortable. Most people are generally uncomfortable with anger as an emotion. Anger is messy and pushes our boundaries. It can range from irritation to full blown rage. It does not fit into a pretty little package and can throw individuals, relationships and even society into upheaval.  In a world that emphasizes orderly, pleasant appearances and self-control, and because so many of us place our need for stability, security and order above all else, anger can feel chaotic, dangerous and unmanageable.

As humans, our instinct is to shy away (or even run) from our feelings of anger. Like I did, many of us deal with our anger by suppressing it, lying to ourselves or others about it, or trying to put a happy face on the outside despite feeling very differently on the inside.  Once I was finally able to name my anger, there were many times I shared my feelings with others only to have them respond with comments like “Look on the bright side,” “Don’t be a Debbie Downer,” or “Look at the glass as half full instead of half empty.” It was exhausting.  

The message internalized from this type of response is that there is something inherently wrong with me for being angry. But I found that it wasn’t just me. Society is full of subtle (and not so subtle) messages that reinforce the idea that anger is a negative emotion--something unpleasant, unnecessary, outrageous, better yet, immoral that we should not feel or express.  Feminists boldly proclaiming that women deserve equal pay for equal work—scary and angry. Young Black protestors asserting that Black lives matter—hateful and angry. Activists championing the rights of undocumented immigrants—entitled, unlawful and angry.  

And for women, being vocal about our anger comes at great risk to us both personally and professionally. Shame and shaming often accompany female expressions of anger. As a woman, I’ve been labeled “emotional” “unreasonable” “unprofessional” and “high-strung” when I have expressed my anger at being personally wronged or at injustice, whether it is in the workplace or in the world. And as a woman of color, when I’ve expressed my anger, the stakes have been even higher.  I’ve been called “aggressive” “negative” or “angry” as in the “angry Black woman” more times than I can count.  

The end result was that for years, as both a child and an adult, I tried desperately not to appear angry. Not because I wasn’t, but instead because I feared being judged and labeled. If I was angry, what did that say about me? Is something wrong with me when I feel anger? Am I a bad person because I am angry?   Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? What good could possibly come from being angry?

 With time and reflection, I have learned the answers to these questions and they are relatively simple. What does anger say about me as a person? Only that I’m human. Is something wrong with me when I feel angry? Not at all, anger is a natural emotion. Am I a bad person because I’m angry? No, everyone is entitled to feel their emotions- fully and without shame.  Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? With rare exception, little is achieved by lying to others or myself by pretending to feel something I don’t.

What good could possibly come from being angry?

Actually, a lot. Being in touch with anger is a fundamental part of self-awareness. Acknowledging the feeling of anger and understanding it, allows me to intentionally make choices to change my situation. I find that when I simply sit with the feeling of anger, it provides a bit of clarity and allows for good decision-making. For example, when I get that snarky email from a colleague or boss that evokes anger in me, when I sit for a few minutes and digest those feelings, I no longer have the need to respond in all capitals back. I am able to make the decision to wait and respond after I’ve had time to cool down. Anger can also be a powerful motivator and catalyst that leads to societal change.  Anger about injustice in society led to the Civil Rights Movement, to marriage equality and to equal pay laws. Anger is one of the foundational emotions that has caused humans to mobilize and organize for justice in ways that better humanity. Finally, anger can lead to personal growth and change. Recently on my favorite podcast, I heard someone say, “I demand to be my full self in any space that I am in.” I wholeheartedly agree with that mantra. After years of hiding and suppressing my feelings, I want to live an authentic life--embracing all of my emotions and bringing my full self everywhere. That includes my joy, my curiosity, my anxiety, my intelligence, my passion and, yes, my anger. Anger is a natural part of what I feel along with all the other emotions that humans are gifted with.

So, I embrace anger. I am alive. I am a full human being. I have complex emotions that I or others don’t need to judge- they are what they are. And sometimes it’s good to be angry.