On this International Women’s Day, perhaps more than ever, it is important for us to think together about what we do with our anger and frustration when things do not change, writes Juliana Claassens.
The African American writer and activist Audre Lorde famously said that “every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being”.
She argues that “focused with precision [anger] can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change”.
Lorde spoke these words almost 30 years ago (June 1981) during a keynote address at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Storrs, Connecticut in the context of African American women’s response to racism.
Thirty years later, Lorde’s words have aged well. Too well, given the enduring reality of racism, sexism and homophobia that continue to shape the daily realities of women of all colours and creeds, in our own country but also around the world.
For Lorde, “anger is loaded with information”.
Anger is a barometer
Indeed, anger serves as a barometer, a thermometer, a plumb line that things are not as they should be. Particularly in those times in which we are asked to remember especially the status of women in the world for instance during International Women’s Day (8 March), it is evident that women are no better off than the year before.
Blame it on Covid-19, blame it on the culture, blame it on ignorance, or blame it on a general unwillingness to change. The fact is, more women than ever fall victim to gender-based violence – all too often at the hands of those who were supposed to be their loved ones. As I’ve said, Lorde’s words are as relevant now as they were 30 years ago.
According to Lorde, anger is also a “source of energy”.
Xolani Kacela writes in an article on the role of anger in Black Liberation Theology that anger “incite[s] people into action”; “frustrate[s] the status quo”, and “motivate[s] people to change”.
It is this productive use of anger that allows people to talk in religious terms of “righteous anger”, “prophetic rage”, and “holy indignation”, as Yolanda Pierce remarks.
This year, in which everything has been upended by the ongoing anxiety-inducing uncertainty wrought by the global pandemic, we might feel more than ever that our anger has no effect. Despite our best efforts, people are not incited into action, the status quo often remains firmly in place, and people are not motivated to change.
Thin line between anger and despair
It is thus not surprising that for many women activists, and other allies who are troubled by what they see in their communities or read in the newspapers, our “well-stocked arsenal of anger”, which, according to Lorde, is within every woman’s reach, has been seriously depleted. There is after all a thin line between anger and despair.
In an insightful article on feminism and anger, Jilly Boyce Kay and Sarah Banet-Weiser, in the context of the #MeToo movement, write that “[w]hen anger is mobilised for feminist ends and still appears incapable of cracking the edifice of patriarchal and misogynistic power, it leaves a way for deep despair to set in”.
They highlight the real possibility that anger may become “resentful, festering, and deeply reactive”.
Particularly when anger goes unheeded and injustice continues, people may fall into despair – without a “creative vision or hope for humanity”, anger may thrive and grow – “in its impotency, the rage [may turn] destructive”.
On this International Women’s Day, perhaps more than ever, it is important for us to think together about what we do with our anger and frustration when things do not change. After all, we simply cannot afford to fall into despair. There is just too much on the line.
It is for this reason that I find so compelling the alternative to despair that Kay and Banet-Weiser invoke in their article on feminism and anger. They invoke an archaic 15th-century word, namely “respair”, which can be defined as “fresh hope; a recovery from despair”.
In terms of this understanding, hope and despair co-exist as “it is only by embracing anger and despair – and recognising them as legitimate aspects of our politics – that we can hope for genuine, transformative change”.
They acknowledge that:
“Things are worse than we thought; the task is so much greater than we knew.”
We certainly can relate to this claim in these days that we are celebrating the grim milestone of entering yet another year of the devastating pandemic.
However, this realisation might be “mobilising rather than immobilising”, if we can think of “despair as something to be worked with rather than against”.
It is by accepting our state of brokenness, and by embracing our growing despair of anger that yield no results that we conversely may find ourselves benefitting from the fresh hope of “respair”. In terms of this understanding, “respair” may help forge the type of productive anger that may help us to work for change from within the very experience of despair.
*Prof Juliana Claassens is Professor of Old Testament and Head of the Gender Unit in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.
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