The flea, the canyon, and racism: Reflections on outrage

By Benjamin Koponen

On January 22nd, 2022, an elderly white woman punched me in the arm while I, a black man,  was biking to help a friend paint her new apartment. It wasn’t the first time this has happened. Though the physical contact only lasted a second, and didn’t hurt, it felt like she had imprinted something on my forearm. As I biked away I didn’t say anything. Not because I didn’t have the words, but because I did not believe I had the option to speak them. I knew, or believed, that nothing good would come from me speaking back. It felt like at best she would yell a slur and go about her day; at worst, a policeman would see a young black man speaking assertively to an innocent elderly white woman. We know how that story goes.

After the event, I realized how angry I was that I could not show how angry I was. This lip-biting defense mechanism isn’t common for me, but in situations where it feels like my blackness has to stand up for itself it is. Paradoxically, that is only because it is the part of me that has the most to say. It is an unyielding, persistent, and courageous facet of my identity. Thus, when that identity is rejected, so are those traits. However, other active elements, such as stereotypes, primed me to reject those traits. The stereotype of the Scary Black Person is one I constantly wanted to avoid. I do not want to harm or strike fear in other people, and therefore overcompensated by exaggerating more ‘socially acceptable’ – i.e. less assertive – elements of my personality.

The shame of inadvertently limiting what you say and how you express yourself is a complicated phenomenon to deal with. When I was younger, I knew it when I was mad, but I didn’t know why. More importantly, I didn’t have a healthy outlet for it. So, instead of talking about it to my friends (who, at the time, were all white) I didn’t talk about it at all. Although I never actively told myself those emotions were invalid, I did do so through my actions. In turn,  the emotions grew.

After reflecting deeply on my anger, I realized that our society has a gross misconception about outrage. Our perception of it seems limited to its explosive tendencies. However, outrage is not the lion. Nor is outrage the rapids that roar through a canyon. No. Outrage is the little flea that stubbornly sits in the lion’s ear, and instructs him to roar. Outrage is the delicate stream that seduces solid stone to give way to a canyon filled with thundering rapids.

Outrage, if we let it, can erode faith into cynicism and unity into division. However, the only way we grant it such powers is if we refuse to express it. To be clear, I am not arguing that we should constantly be tossing our emotional baggage left-and-right. The point I am making here is that when you don’t get to voice your outrage, it can consume you.

It may seem like outrage is evil. A force to be destroyed. Even something to be outrageous about. Whether or not outrage is any of those things, I’m afraid, is up to you. You should always listen to the flea, you may find that he is just trying to help – in his own crafty way. But after doing that, consult your heart, then your mind. Thank all the faculties which are trying to help you, and continue. Perhaps more outraged, but maybe more understanding of and thankful for your outrage as well. Who knows? Maybe even at the bottom of that thundering ravine is a delicate river, just begging, with all its might, for you to stand up for yourself. The key to unlocking that potential is simple; it’s your voice.  You won’t get to choose what people hear, but you will be in control of your narrative. Your truth. Your outrage.

Benjamin Koponen studies Political Science and Philosophy at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Image: 齐健 from Peking, People’s Republic of China, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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