The Uses of Anger

“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger,” says Audre Lorde in The Uses of Anger, her 1981 keynote talk at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference.

I have been thinking a lot about this piece recently. It feels sharply relevant today, 36 years after it was written.

Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger. An arsenal built from fear; from the constant slights and dismissals; from living and functioning in a world which takes us for granted, insists we are not enough, and half-heartidly feigns distress over the violence used against us. Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger.

I know I do.

Lorde argues this anger is a strength, that it has powerful, transformative uses. Anger, she argues, leads to change.

Importantly, in conflicts between the oppressed and their oppressors, there are not “two sides.” The anger of the oppressed leads to growth while the hatred of the oppressors seeks destruction. As Lorde writes:

Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is the grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.

Anger is the grief of distortions between peers. Anger arises when you and I fail to understand each other, when we fail to listen genuinely and to acknowledge each other’s experience. Anger arises when the world insists that your perceptions and experiences aren’t real.

It’s gaslighting on a societal scale.

But anger has it’s uses, Lorde says. “Anger is loaded with information and energy.”

Anger, articulated with precision and “translated into action in the service of our vision and out future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.”

Anger at the distortions between peers creates space for us to clarify and remove those distortions; to genuinely accept the experiences of others.

This is particularly important in the context of gender because the experiences of women vary radically across numerous dimensions of race, class, and identity.

In order to successful use our anger, we must “examine the contradictions of self, woman, as oppressor.”

Lorde is diplomatic on the topic, recognizing that she, too – a lesbian woman of color – has at times taken on the role of oppressing other women. But drawing on my own identity, I’m inclined to be more direct here: white women, and particularly white cis women have played a long and important role in building and maintaining systems of white supremacy and cisnormativity.

We have suffered our slings and arrows, no doubt, and with good reason our personal arsenals are well-stocked with anger. Yet we, too, are oppressors. We have oppressed our sisters directly and indirectly, intentionally and unintentionally. Recognizing this is, as Lorde describes, a painful process of translation. But is a process we must undertake; a process we must engage in order to radically change the systems of power, privilege, and oppression we are embedded in; the systems which oppress us and our neighbors.

Furthermore, Lorde argues that anger can bring out this change – guilt at our own complicity does nothing:

I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees.

Guilt is a proxy for impotence; for inaction. But anger is transformative. As Lorde writes:

…The strength of women lies in recognizing differences between us as creative, and in standing to those distortions which we inherited without blame but which are now ours to alter. The angers of women can transform differences through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.

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