How do we talk about race, racism, and white supremacy without screaming at each other?

In the recent impeachment trial, many Americans, alongside U.S. Representatives and Senators, are reliving the Capitol riot’s chaos and confusion. For us, that infamous day showcased a unifying emotion: anger. We can see the anger in the aggression and tumult of the rioters, in the fleeing representatives, in the senators’ testimonies, and most recently, in the trial’s highly debated decision.

Interestingly, this anger’s strained undertones seem intimately connected with another pervasive theme: race. Race has entered the U.S. politics in undeniably visible ways during the past few years – the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, separation of children from families at the U.S.-Mexico border, and COVID-19’s “Kung Flu.” Themes of white supremacy and racism seemed inextricably linked to these historic events. In the discourse of race and racism, we see a dogmatic divide of viewpoints: the good vs. bad, us vs. them, or left vs. right.

For some white individuals, the protest at the Capitol may seem like the culmination of the gradual loss of white culture, the degradation of white history, and having power stolen from them. For some Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), it can be infuriating to see law enforcement officers smiling at white protestors, walking them down the stairs, or even taking selfies with them. One cannot help but compare these scenes to the military gears, tear gas, and rubber bullets that defined the Black Lives Matter protests. Yet, the anger was fueled by the same perception of unfairness and injustice for both sides. On one side, the rallying cries are “every white person is racist,” and “this is white genocide” on the other side.

In my clinical training and practice, I’ve learned that anger makes it easier for us to see things in black and white, and I wonder if anger has created an impossible impasse when it comes to race. Anger facilitates the illusion that “we” cannot coexist with “them” – whatever characteristics we ascribe to the “them”-ness.

Recognizing the polarizing impact of anger begs the larger question: How do we have a productive conversation when we are angrily screaming at each other? The journey to healing the racial scars of this country will be a long one, but one thing is clear: the first step is to recognize when we are angry, understand where our anger is coming from, so that we can begin to communicate the fundamental needs beneath the intensity of our emotions.

To be clear: It’s not about “us” being right vs. “them” being wrong, but more about having constructive vs. destructive conversations. Taking a step back from anger-driven narratives is not easy. It’s extremely difficult not to feel angry when our livelihood is being threatened or when we feel like we’re being treated unfairly.  The insidiousness of anger can change the way we view the world and interact with each other.

There’s an irony in angrily screaming—we want our voice to be represented, and we want “them” to hear us. However, when we are being screamed at, it’s often very difficult to actually hear the underlying message. In addition, when we’re angry, research has shown that we can even find comfort, satisfaction, and even joy in seeing “them” lose or hurt. We get galvanized from our sides’ echo chamber and are prone to downright reject the message from the other side. We may feel better in screaming out in anger, but our message is often lost.

The key is separating the feeling from the actions. The feeling of anger itself can be very valid, but we are ultimately responsible for our actions and behaviors.  After all, anger has inspired many social and human rights movements, such as the Woman Rights movement, Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights era, the LGBTQ+ movement. However, anger has also seeded mindboggling atrocities in World War I and II and countless hate crimes.

I recognize that there may not be a comfortable compromise or even resolution. I wonder if we can acknowledge the feeling of anger and hold accountable the actions concurrently. We don’t have to agree with the other side’s premise, but I wonder if we can start with listening to hear instead of listening to respond. When it comes to race (and racism), the first step towards healing is recognizing and acknowledging the anger that may be fueling our actions. In order to create a common ground of understanding and commiseration, we must have these conversations beyond our choirs of our side and talk – not scream – across the aisle.

Jacques Ambrose is a psychiatrist. 

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