Making space for rage (at work).
Last night, despite some cold, steady rain, I got in my car and drove 45 minutes north to my undergraduate alma mater, Rutgers University, going for the express purpose of seeing Brittney Cooper and Rebecca Traister talk about “The Political Power of Women's Anger.”
Taking notes, a number of themes jumped out at me, from both sides of the stage. From access to rage to getting the history right, anger exists in all aspects of daily life — even work. Towards the end of the event, when Cooper and Traister opened up the floor to questions, a senior student stood up at the mic. She asked how, as a woman of color, she could enter the workforce and be her authentic self, without anyone reframing her emotions as “assertive” rather than “ambitious.”
As someone well into their professional career who never quite grew out of their teenage angst, the question hit close to home. And while I’ve managed (mostly) to keep rage out of my public persona and off this blog, staying light and surface level, I am spinning a narrative that’s not entirely truthful. I have pretended to have my reasons, knowing full well how the internet follows us, able to throw previous statements back in our faces when we least expect it. But the fact is, even now, people frequently tell me to calm down, get over it and not to make such a big deal out of things. I am not allowed — nor have I given myself permission — to be angry and use my rage in a way that’s productive and as Audre Lorde put it, generative.
Now, there are some who will say there’s no place for rage in the workplace, but that’s at odds with reality. I have sat in plenty of offices, ruled with an iron fist by a tyrant at the top. Sometimes these were women, though mostly, men. People who made it to the top, displaying “passion” and “dedication” in ways that go beyond anger to borderline mania.
Cooper and Traister encouraged the student to trust her intuition and watch out for people who might try to shut her down. I realize that this is practical advice for someone just starting out, though, reflecting on my personal experience, points to a more significant issue running rampant within the world of work. We tell people that they can be what and who they want and then balk when they try to exercise this freedom. We revise what they’re saying instead of taking the time to understand; we make up excuses like “that’s just how we do things” rather than sit with discomfort and enact meaningful change.
Like politics, to make space for rage at work, we need to start having honest conversations about what this means as a connective power, as a driving force. Discussions that go beyond tools and technologies and take a closer look at the systems supporting the organization’s foundation. And we need to admit, as Cooper shared, that it’s disingenuous to keep moving the goal post when diversity comes into play. Only then will we “level the playing field” and stop making anger out to be women’s hysteria or something equally antiquated in thinking.