In the wake of the death of George Floyd, and in response to the deaths of many Black people killed under similar circumstances, anger is boiling over. Protests have erupted throughout the world, with some resulting in actions like looting and property destruction. Amid calls for a more peaceful response, clinical psychologist Wizdom Powell, PhD, explains that anger isn’t just healthy, it is a logical reaction to an unjust killing.
“Anger is a legitimate response to social injustice, and it is psychologically healthy,” says Dr. Powell, an adjunct associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anger is only nonproductive when it’s not given the space to be fully experienced. “One of the most important things to do now as a nation is really to hold space for the anger, the rational anger that’s emerging from groups of Black people who [are grieving] all of the lives that we lost in recent years to this kind of violence. Anger that festers, to me, is more problematic than anger that is expressed.”
Racism is damaging to both the physical and mental wellbeing of those who endure it, explains Riana Elyse Anderson, PhD, a clinical psychologist and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. “What racism does is actually chip away at our internal body,” says Dr. Anderson. “Physiologically, if we have a heart rate that’s increasing or blood pressure that’s going up, that’s going to chip away at our health and wellness. Or if we have increased anxiety or depression, that’s going to make us not fare well psychologically.” Releasing anger rather than holding onto it is the coping mechanism that preserves our bodies most effectively. Feeling anger is a good thing.
“Anger is a legitimate response to social injustice, and it is psychologically healthy.”
“To feel something is to know that there’s a problem,” says Dr. Anderson. “When your body responds to it being cold by the hair standing up, or if you get that gut feeling that something isn’t quite right, your body does a very good job of telling you when something isn’t right. The feeling of anger, frustration, and rage that accompanies moments like this—it’s when we don’t feel it, when we’ve become so numb, habituated, or normalized to it, that’s when we know that there is a problem.”
Black people have always had to overcome the stereotype of being too angry or combative. And when they aren’t allowed to fully express that anger, it can get in the way of having meaningful and productive discourse.
“[The stereotype] limits the possibilities for authentic cross-race interaction,” says Dr. Powell. “If you are already making a presumption about my presentation, then I’m going to change how I am around you. You will never get to know the full me because you’re asking me to leave part of myself outside, and you’re asking me to be almost superhuman in the face of consistent threats against my physical and emotional integrity.”
Given the space to feel anger, we’re able to channel it in productive ways.
“[Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] had to get pretty angry before he went to the mountaintop,” says Dr. Powell. “If you read Letter from a Birmingham Jail, you hear, beneath the eloquence and the oratorical capabilities, you hear the anger, the profound sense of loss and grief. And anger has catalyzed productive movements all across history. It was anger that led to the founders writing the Declaration of Independence. It was anger that led our nation to enforce, develop, and implement civil rights legislation.”
“To feel something is to know that there’s a problem.”
To channel anger productively, says Dr. Anderson, you have to take the time to process the raw feeling. “Tell your partner, tell your parent ‘I’m enraged. Here’s how I feel and I think things would be better if this,’ so the anger does provoke us to feel like we can do something about it, to feel efficacious, and to really think through what are the things that we’ll want to do,” she says. Then, you can move forward with a plan of action.
In moving forward, Dr. Powell urges against being too quick to forgive racist acts. In her research on what happens when Black men work to forgive racism, she’s found that it can be counterproductive to healing and even detrimental to health.
“When a person has experienced persistent and chronic racism and they forgive, it is like the equivalent of a battered spouse going back to the husband or wife or partner who has abused them,” says Dr. Powell. “As a result, [forgiveness] actually doesn’t improve health—it actually has a diminishing effect on health. We found that Black men who keep forgiving, at least as they self-report, actually have lower self-rated health status.”
“I don’t know what else you might expect from a population that’s been pushed to the proverbial edge.”
Allowing people to be angry and to express anger can have a huge impact on how the country recovers from this moment.
“If we had more political and policy responses and system change response to the actual racialized violence that’s living and breathing in the fabric of the flag and of every democratic structure, if we had as much anger concerning that, then perhaps riots wouldn’t happen,” says Dr. Powell. “Perhaps, people would trust that the government and the law enforcement agencies and those with authority and power would rise up to meet us in a place that would unify us. But in the absence of that kind of leadership, I don’t know what else you might expect from a population that’s been pushed to the proverbial edge.”
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