How Rage Can Battle Racism

Most forms of anger don’t help the anti-racist cause. But one does.

Black Lives Matter protesters.
Nina Berman / NOOR / Redux

About the author: Myisha Cherry is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-racist Struggle.

When we think of love, we recognize its varieties. Philia, brotherly love. Eros, romantic love. Agape, universal love. Conditional and unconditional love, requited and unrequited love, love for virtue and love for vice. Our awareness of these different kinds of love not only allows us to perceive its varied forms; it also gives us adequate information to approve or disapprove of a particular type. When we talk about anger, by contrast, we tend to paint it in broad strokes, generalizing it as though it were one destructive thing.

But there are many kinds of anger. As a philosopher and an anti-racist scholar, I study anger through the lens of political injustice, and I have sorted political rage into five categories. The first four are at best unproductive and at worst dangerous, but the fifth variety can be useful and lead to positive change.

  • “Rogue rage” is anger at injustice, although the target of the injustice is not necessarily the person or institution that caused it. A person with rogue rage blames almost everyone for his unjust experiences. The former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini, who now works to fight extremism, was a rogue rager before he changed his ways.
  • “Wipe rage” is felt by people who perceive injustice at the hands of a specific group or groups and aim to eliminate those people. Wipe ragers may experience economic hardship or they may feel ignored by a government that is supposed to represent and serve them. The alt-right protesters who descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 with their anti-Semitic and anti-Black chants of “You will not replace us!”—voicing a belief that white people are on the verge of extinction—were expressing wipe rage.
  • Ressentiment rage” may sound strange at first, perhaps even redundant. (The French ressentiment can be translated as resentment, although its meaning in French more closely reflects my intent here.) Ressentiment rage is aimed at a racial group in power and is expressed by those without power. It is likely to be directed at all members of the powerful group—for example, an Indigenous person who is angry at all white people in America. People with ressentiment rage are reactive: They see themselves as subjects who are acted upon.
  • “Narcissistic rage” is not my term; bell hooks coined the phrase in her 1995 book, Killing Rage. She cites Black elites as a group that sometimes has narcissistic rage, which arises from a sense of individual exceptionalism, not outrage at systemic injustice. Narcissistic ragers are angry because although they have worked hard and risen through the ranks—gaining much social capital and even acceptance by some white people—the oppressive powers refuse to make a distinction between them and other members of the oppressed group.
Book cover for The Case for Rage
This post is adapted from Cherry’s forthcoming book.

These four types of rage can produce harmful effects in the world. They can obstruct racial justice and even perpetuate injustice. But there’s another kind of political rage that stands out from the rest. I call it “Lordean rage,” and it is our best hope.

Lordean rage contrasts with the other types of rage in stark ways. I named it after the Black feminist scholar and poet Audre Lorde, based on my reading of her essays on anger and race. Lordean rage plays an important role in the anti-racist struggle and is not necessarily destructive.

Lorde defines racism as “the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance, manifest and implied.” The targets of Lordean rage are those who are complicit in and perpetrators of racism and racial injustice. This type of anger is, for example, directed at racist actions, racist attitudes, and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes. These needn’t come from powerful, faraway forces. These attitudes and actions can (and often do) come from people who profess solidarity with the racially marginalized.

The goal of Lordean rage is to absorb anger and use it for energy. As the title of Lorde’s influential essay “The Uses of Anger” suggests, anger has its benefits. Lordean rage is useful if it is focused with precision and translated into needed action. It is metabolized anger—“the virtuous channeling of the power and energy of anger without the desire to harm or pass pain,” writes the scholar Emily McRae. It is a call to “fight injustice and respect the reality of one’s anger without being destroyed by it.”

I have always wondered what made freedom fighters like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells, both born as slaves, stand up to oppressive racist and sexist systems. As Black women they were doubly oppressed, but were not afraid to speak truth to power. What accounts for this audacity? A belief in justice, no doubt, and confidence in themselves, and a sense of optimism that they would be able to succeed despite the risks and ​​challenges they faced. But they also channeled Lordean rage. As did Martin Luther King Jr., who, while locked up in Alabama in 1963, responded to his critics and unjust arrest with productive anger, writing his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”

The perspective that informs Lordean rage is, as Lorde put it: “I am not free while any [other] is unfree.” Freedom is not exclusive. It is inclusive. Those who share this view embrace the unfree whose “shackles are different from our own,” not just selected members of a particular group. Lorde was not only concerned about justice for well-educated Black women like herself. She was also concerned about the poor and those in developing nations—all who live under the conditions that shape and support white supremacy. This inclusive perspective helps us see that if we fail to “recognize them as other faces of [ourselves],” then we are contributing not only to their oppression but also to our own.

At this point, you might be thinking: This sounds difficult! I understand your concern. Lordean rage might not seem like an emotion to which we’re naturally given, and we might think that becoming the kind of person who could use it productively would be hard work. Is Lordean rage an exclusive state of mind that only a few noble souls are capable of achieving?

Thankfully, the answer is no. You might think that what we are naturally given to, when we are angry at a sibling, for example, is an urge to lash out at them. And any opposing reaction to this natural desire to retaliate might seem superhuman or super-virtuous. However, this kind of thinking stems from a broad-strokes conception of anger, which leads us astray.

I can have a destructive kind of anger directed at my brother and a constructive kind of anger directed at racists. (Both kinds of anger can coexist in me—I contain multitudes!) The presence of the former shows that I’m not perfect, but it doesn’t cancel out the possibility of Lordean rage directed at racists in the pursuit of a more just society. Lordean rage requires us to have moral sensitivity and moral imagination—but not necessarily moral excellence. It is within reach.

This article is adapted from Myisha Cherry’s forthcoming book, The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle.