There’s a growing craze that suggest that President Obama should openly express outrage, most recently over the Gulf Oil Spill. According to a recent News Week article, this demand for a show of presidential fury is not coming from a few people:
“…New York Times columnists want to see Obama angry; the filmmaker Spike Lee is demanding that the president “go off”; Democratic strategist James Carville wants “rage.” Whole cable shows have been devoted to the question…the Today show’s Matt Lauer informed the president that his critics were saying, “This is not the time to meet with experts and advisers, this is the time to…kick some butt.”
The Gulf Oil Spill is referenced as the worse environmental disaster in American history. Compared with the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, the George H.W. Bush administration specifically denied that the federal government bore any responsibility for the cleanup, and Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner declared that government involvement would be “counterproductive.”
The Gulf Oil Spill is not the first suggestion that the president is “not touch enough to lead.” A 2008 Huffington headline reads: Enough! Why Obama should Release his Righteous Rage:
“…Obama has waited long enough to show us this side of himself. Besides, we need to know that he can be a mean motherfucker if he wants this job… the last seven-plus years demand more than a detached analysis-and certainly more than a beaming smile. They demand indignation. Outrage. Fury.”
Really? And where, exactly, has the previous seven-plus years of kick-ass, cowboy leadership gotten us? The catastrophic inheritance from the past administration, multiple wars including the Republican war on the President, and Mother Nature’s rage, would be mission impossible for anyone, yet it does not seem to sway our obsession that President Obama should be angry, immediate and flawless.
I don’t claim to comprehend the complexity of the challenges we face as a nation, nor do I know the appropriate response, if there is such a think. I can only imagine what it’s like to live in President Obama’s skin, to hold the weight of the world on your shoulders. It’s not a job I’d want. But I am curious: Why are so many of us enraged that President Obama is not publicly outraged? For the 4 decades I’ve been voting, I don’t recall any president being “expected” or “pressured” to display outraged. What are we really after in this collective longing for the President to “go off?” What would President Obama’s rage prove to us? How would it relieve us? And more importantly: What would President Obama’s rage reinforce that would affirm our notion of Blackness?
Imagine for a moment the dilemma: If President Obama “goes off”, he is viewed as threatening and just another out of control Black man. If he rages righteously, he proves his Blackness and shows the world how tough he is. If President Obama does not rage, he is weak, lacking what it takes to be a strong leader. Our story about why he does or does not express rage is just that-our story, not to be confused with who he is.
Here’s my story (at least today): We have a history of tying black and rage together, and when this doesn’t happen, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. I’ll continue knowing my story is only a sliver of the truth.
Consider this: Our need for President Obama to explode in rage is our unconscious need to maintain our comfort with and definition of Blackness: Black folks look like this…, act like this…, and ends up like this… Fill in the blanks.
It is my observation that people of color, and especially Black people, disproportionately embody and express the denied rage of other races and cultures. I see this as a global as well as national issue. John McEnroe, for example, had an “anger management” problem where as Serena Williams’ behavior was “Roid Rage”, “not that of a champion.” As angry as McEnroe became, he was not characterized as violent. When we combine woman (women should not get angry) and Black (Blacks are always angry), it places a particular spin on our perception. This distortion does not happen consciously. It comes from generations of programming and social conditioning. It is what we have grown to expect, and therefore what is reinforced as “truth.”
In Berkeley, California, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run to pay the parking meter only to be met by a Black woman having just placed a ticket on my windshield. My impulse was to scream: “I was only 30 seconds late.” But upon seeing the “I’m not paid enough to take your shit” frown on her face, I would instead snatch the ticket and mumble under my breath as I crawled back into my illegally parked car. Was she given the job because she could ward off potential irate citizens like me? Would she have bitten my head off had I screamed at her? Perhaps she was simply doing her job. Perhaps all of the above and none of the above.
Another example. When I worked in corporate America, I felt it was my job to express the anger in the group. This was not an explicit agreement. It was a subconscious understanding that we all colluded with and benefited from. Other team members held different roles-peacekeeper, cynic, observer, humorist, etc., but my role was “the rager.” When someone did something that required confrontation, all eyes rolled in my direction. Being reliable to the team, intolerable of the anxiety I was experiencing, and unconsciously loyal to a lineage of ragers, I played my role with righteous pride.
While my ego was frequently stroked outside the meetings, when teammates would share how relieved they felt that I had spoken, I was unaware of how my race and ignorance was being exploited as I lived true to the stigma of the “Strong Black Woman.” As I splattered their denied disgust, others could point to my lack of control while their own pressure cooker was temporarily relieved at my expense. My belligerence was consistent with my thoughts but not reflective of my needs. Being out of control did not provide me with strength nor did it offer the peace and authentic connections I was unaware of needing and unable to articulate. Instead, I was reacting more from a notion of who I felt I should be and, at this point, what I had mastered-rage. In my “dead righteousness,” I destroyed relationships with people and causes I deeply cared about.
As I began to heal my rage and shift my behavior, others began to experience their rage more directly. In my relief, I noticed that many team members became upset because I was no longer doing their work. With practice, I learned how to sit with my discomfort long enough to clarify a more authentic destination. Without blame or shame, I began to acknowledge to myself that I not only wanted to speak my truth, I wanted to make a difference that brought us together.
There is a difference between feeling rage and acting on those feelings. What we do today with our intense inner fuel is deeply rooted in our history, our direct experiences, and the insights we glean from self-reflection. Unexamined, our expression of rage can cause life-changing and long-lasting damage. Wars, politics, and Mother Nature herself, are currently manifesting the unresolved rage of generations. This is true in our families, relationships, and within ourselves.
Pick any race, ethnicity, gender or class: the majority of us have been harmed by someone’s fury, often a loved one. And too many of us struggle with the regret of having harmed others. When you understand this human proclivity and its resulting impact, you are less likely to express rage indiscriminately or hold the rage of others personally. The more you understanding and dignify the roots of your own rage, the wiser and more spacious your choices. You understand how emotionally delicate we all are as humans and your actions reveal an intention beyond the emotionality of the moment.
So, consider this story among stories: What if President Obama is simply being President Obama? What if, because of his race, heritage, experience, wisdom, and his power as the President, he is aware of the harm the display of rage can re-stimulate and impart? What if he is using his own personal rage to ripen his understanding of the complex problems we face as a nation and world? What if we acknowledged that the unprecedented challenges of our time requires an unprecedented leadership? What if it takes more time to heal a problem than to fix one? What if we understood that input is not the same as having things your way? What would it mean for each of us to consider President Obama’s humanity over our righteous desire to make him in our own image? And as we consider the impossible challenge of making him in our own image (something we’ve not perfected with our children, our parents, our partners and pets), is raging, blaming and shaming a wise approach?
Ruth King, MA, is a respected voice on emotional wisdom and individual and team development. She is the author of Healing Rage-Women Making Inner Peace Possible, an O Magazine Nugget. As a coach and consultant, King weaves Eastern philosophy, Western psychology, leadership development, metaphysics, and teachings from wisdom traditions to lecture, coach, and facilitate workshops that transform the emotional body and mind. To learn more about how to transform negative emotions into positive fuel, visit http://ruthking.net