Anger and privilege

In a recent post that I can’t find for some reason, Corey Robin pointed out that the Salaita affair — in which the University of Illinois rescinded a job offer upon learning of heated pro-Palestinian tweets written by the professor in question — is a great example of a general trend: the subaltern may perhaps speak, but he or she must never be angry. The angry feminist and the angry black man alike are figures of belittling ridicule, as though the expression of normal human frustration was a total disqualification in public debate.

This is strange when we realize that a willingness to freely express anger and frustration is considered a key requirement for effective leadership, at least when that leader is a white man. Indeed, white men’s anger is frequently presented as a charming or entertaining character trait on television — think of the success of the rageaholic chef Gordon Ramsay, who brutally castigates people for the crime of running a mediocre restaurant. Even in real life, the general public is likely to try to calm an angry white man down or placate him in some way, or else pity him for embarrassing himself with his pathetic acting-out. By contrast, if a black man behaved in the same way, people would be calling the police, and if a white woman did, people would be rolling their eyes and muttering insults under their breath.

We see a similar dynamic geopolitically. In my Islam class, someone brought up the fiasco with the cartoons of Muhammad, which caused rioting in the streets, death threats, etc. The sentiment seemed to be: “How strange that those scary Muslims would get so mad about a stupid stunt that was calculated to make them mad! When will they ever learn to be good liberal-democratic subjects like us?” What we forget in that context, however, is that white dudes regularly send all manner of threats (murder, rape, assault, etc.) to people who commit such horrific crimes as criticizing a video game they like. When that happens, of course, everyone rushes in to make sure we understand that #NotAllMen behave that way — while the lesson we’re supposed to draw from the response to an immeasurably more serious insult to Islam, an insult that was indeed intended as such, is that we must bravely set aside political correctness and admit that Islam and liberal democracy will never be compatible.

Hence I propose that, roughly speaking, one’s privilege level correlates with the likelihood that expressing anger will make people take your concerns more seriously rather than less — or at the very least, that it will prompt a reaction to you as an individual rather than triggering an immediate generalization about your demographic profile. This is one of the most intimate and insidious things about privilege dynamics: even the right to express perfectly natural and justified human emotions can’t be taken for granted.