“Killing Rage”: Looking for the in between while Reflecting on Race, Racism, Whiteness, and White Rage


“White rage is acceptable, can be both expressed and condoned, but black rage has no place and everyone knows it.” –bell hooks, “Killing Rage,” 1995

“White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies . . . the trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement.” –Carol Anderson, “Kindling,” 2016

“There may be no more consequential White privilege than life itself.” –Ibram X. Kendi, “Definitions,” 2019

I don’t know where to begin.

I’m a patch work of feelings, trying to keep it all together—but most times I find myself oscillating between two extremes: being a militant bell hooks or a liberation-striving Christian—and wondering if I could be both, should I be either?

bell hooks in afroOn the one hand, the militant bell hooks sits next to a white male she “long[s] to murder” (8). In her 1995 essay, “Killing Rage: Militant Resistance,” hooks describes a racist, sexist encounter with two white female flight attendants who mistreat her black female friend with whom hooks is travelling to New York. As a result of a mis-issued seating upgrade, hooks’ friend is given a boarding pass that doesn’t reflect her reassigned seat in first class next to hooks; a white male passenger, however, is issued that seating arrangement. Instead of allowing hooks’ friend to communicate the boarding mistake—which was made at the gate—the two white female flight attendants silence hooks’ friend and humiliate her back to a seat in coach. In taking his first class seat next to hooks, this privileged white man “liberally” apologizes, recalls hooks, repeating “it was not his fault” (9)—to which hooks says she shouted to him that “he had an opportunity to not be complicit with the racism and sexism that is so all-pervasive in this society” (9). As she recalls her travels, hooks writes:

[S]equences of racialized incidents involving black women . . . intensified my rage against the white man sitting next to me. I felt a ‘killing rage.’ I wanted to stab him softly, to shoot him with the gun I wished I had in my purse. And as I watched his pain, I would say to him tenderly ‘racism hurts.’ (11)   

I feel like that militant bell hooks after reading Carol Anderson’s 2016 White Rage, coupled with the recent Breonna Taylor decision. The first time I encountered a rage similarly violent, I had just finished watching John Singleton’s 1995 Higher Learning. I was 16, and I left the movie theatre hating white people; in my head, I dared higher learninga cracker to look at me wrong. No other work, I can recall, has since aroused such killing rage in me. Instead, I have found myself more melancholic about racist violence than I have been outraged—and that’s the other hand.

On this other hand, the liberation-striving Christian Ibram X. Kendi carelessly mentions in  “Definitions,” the first chapter in his 2019 How to be an Antiracist, is closest to what I often feel when I encounter racist violence. According to Kendi, who—by way of his parents’ religious experiences—is explaining the significance of “defining our terms so that we could begin to describe the world and our place in it,” (17) “‘[a] Christian . . . who is striving for liberation’” [1] (17) is adopting a “Christianity of the enslaved, not the Christianity of the slaveholders” (17). In other words, it seems Kendi is claiming one who subscribes to “the Christianity of the enslaved” is limited in her or his efforts at liberating oppressed people, for such a liberatory theology—as Kendi scantily explains how to be an antiracist imagein his text—aims to liberate oppressed people from their oppressive other versus eradicating the systems through which the other (hegemony) maintains its oppressive power. Alas, not only does Kendi come out the gate failing to make his point when, in his introduction, he claims, “I no longer believe a black person cannot be racist,” (10) thus giving white folk permission to call Black people racist, while also placing the onus on Black people to participate in dismantling racist systems, Kendi implies the limitation of a liberatory theology without a discussion on Jesus.

Side note frustration: I can’t with Kendi. This dude lacks so much depth and clarity—replacing his grandfather’s name with X, thus symbolizing an unknown relationship to himself and his familial ancestors (39); defining terms with their terms. (“Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequalities” (18). ß What the hell does that mean? We still don’t know what racism is by that definition!); failing to ever define the prefix “anti”; claiming: “Internalized racism is the real Black on Black crime” [emphasis mine] (8), thus inviting Black and white folks to believe the myth of “black-on-black crime,” so further subjugating Black people; and writing nine scant pages—about three of which are personal narrative—under the chapter title “Power,” but never quite explicating race as a power construct operating in 21st century America. I can’t with this dude. On top of all that, he wrongly attributes Alice Walker to coining the term “colorism”–although she coined “womanism.” Aaaaand, he lightweight minimizes Christian liberatory theology.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about Jesus a lot lately, especially since I’ve been doing some work on Nikki Giovanni who mentions Jesus quite often—though she admits she isn’t religious. Neither am I religious, though I believe, as Kendi’s parents, I may subscribe to a Christian liberatory theology. Like many 20th century Black folks I, too, identify with Jesus, for He, a poor, oppressed Jew, belonged to the disinherited group with whom he communed and worked miracles. He was like most of us. Jesus ain’t try to overturn Roman’s oppressive system nor was He ever so enraged He’d even think about killing His Roman oppressor— which then, I reckon, makes Him better than us. Instead, Jesus, as the embodiment of God, says Howard Thurman,[2] symbolizes the source of ultimate reality.

Howard Thurman’s theories re: ultimate reality are too complex to even summarize, (so I won’t Ibram Kendi you by droppin an idea you have to muddle through). However, in Luther E. Smith’s 1988 “Intimate Mystery: Howard Thurman’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (1900-1981),” Smith makes a point re: Thurman’s examination of his religious self by way of enslaved people’s attachment to Jesus—not Christianity. According to Thurman, explains Smith, in the poor, oppressed Jesus, the enslaved person experienced God’s love. In other words, one’s intimate, loving relationship with God (through one’s relationship with Jesus) exposes the disinherited person’s value to creation, and thus, is a proclamation of Truth. Smith then explains about Thurman’s ideas—and this is the point I’m trying to make re: a Christian liberatory theology:  

Thurman’s work helps to correct a bias of most academicians, which is to search exclusively for ultimate meaning within experiences and reflections of the privileged. So much of social history is written about the policies of a society’s decision-makers, and intellectual history tends to rely upon major public figures and published data. But truth within a society is also found among those whose concerns do not alter the course of national events and whose voices are neither preserved nor acknowledged by the scholar’s archives. Scholars are mistaken to only study the disinherited as subjects of victimization whose plight only discloses the capacity of the privileged to act responsibly. Under this approach, blacks are merely exhibits for conclusions about white people’s perceptions of reality and meaning. [emphasis mine] (92)

Boom. That.

My perception of reality and meaning has been grounded in a search for ultimate truth, which always resolves in love—and I wonder if more Black folks than not share my perception. I wonder if it’s the same perception that operated through Kendi’s parents’ journey toward the revolution. I do believe love is all there is. I do believe, as Martin Luther King said in his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in ultimate reality.” And so, when I encounter racist violence, I feel melancholic—as I imagine Jesus was most of His life—and I assume being a liberation-striving Christian more than bell hooks’ raging militant. However, I think being both are required for the revolution.

*              *              *

What I love most about Black women’s writing, particularly—whether Toni Morrison is calling out the media for their covert racist bullshit,[3] or Nikki Giovanni is calling white folks “honkies,” or Alice Walker is bringing light to female genital mutilation, or bell hooks is challenging Beyonce’s “feminism”—Black women’s theories are often grounded in a radical love inspirited by a rage that keeps the movement moving. Right?Sistren-1 Like, I’m sitting here writing this essay while tuned into the Gladys Knight v. Patti LaBelle Verzuz “battle” on Instagram. And in between their singing their most popular songs of the 20th century, Gladys and Patti are talking about love and how it operates in their lives and is disseminated through their music. These living legends, who share over 150 years of music between them, said Patti, are reflections of “how we got ovuh.” And I’m writing, and singing, and chair dancing, and reading the comments from the 600K+ IG viewers who are also tuned in, and I feel mad connected to them—to the best of who we are—in our blackness, in our rhythm & blues, in our his/herstories, in our spirit. And that is what democracy looks like: “A coming together in our comingtogetherness.”[4]  In those two hours, all there was was love.  

Listen: I’m so baffled by Black folks’ spirits as well as the lack thereof in many white folks. I was telling a sisterfriend of mine that after reading Oziem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo’s 2017 “Understanding the Structural Nature of Oppression through Racism,” particularly the section wherein they discuss the stereotypical media representations of Black folks and people of color, I don’t understand how so many folks still see the boogey man in Black men versus white men. According to Sensoy and DiAngelo—and her work don’t do it like Anderson’s White Rage does, which explains why DiAngelo and Kendi are today’s hot shit, literally—white middle and upper class men write and direct the majority of mainstream films (133). “In fact,” reports Sensoy and DiAngelo:

the top 25 highest grossing films of all time worldwide were all directed by men (with one woman as co-director for Frozen) and all White (with one man of Color director for Furious 7). Of the top 100 films worldwide, 99 were directed wholly by men. Of these top 100 films, 95 were directed by White people. . . . Yet these men are society’s ‘cultural authors’; their dreams, their desires, their conceptions of ‘the other’ become ours. (133)

I’m reading these stats, and I’m thinking about “these [white] men are society’s ‘cultural authors,’” and real life, as superficial as I might be right now, I started recalling Freddie Krueger, Jason, Carrie, Chucky, Henry (from the Good Son), the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Kathy Bates; every murdering, stalking, obsessive white male and female on Lifetime; Ed Gein, The Zodiac Killer, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer <<< HE ATE PEOPLE! Shakespeare—and every play he wrote, complete with white folks murdering and mutilating and stealing and backstabbing and being racist, sexist, and classist. Even Cujo felt like a white dog. (And I ain’t even couple my “superficial” cultural recollections of white people’s terrorism with the historical instances documented in Carol Anderson’s White Rage.) And I’m sittin here dumbfounded, like: how did Black folks become so vilified when the whole nation has seen white folks culturally and historically demonize black folks and each other? They the real monsters. (And Malcolm X tried to tell us when he referred to white folks as “blue-eyed devils.”)

So, I’m talking about this with my sisterfriend, and she explains, quite frankly, white people pretend to be afraid of Black people. She claims, because white folks are so inherently violent, they view the world through a violent lens, which only reflects their own violence. And so, to them, Black people are violent, for the violence white people know of themselves, they project onto others; everyone else is a monster because they are monsters. My friend continued to explain, white people are afraid of Black people’s great awakening, for white folks fear the violence they have inflicted upon us will rain down on them a mighty storm. White people can’t imagine a people as passive and humane as Black folks, she said, and so, white people’s fear of our going ape shit encourages them to portray us as uncivilized simians unworthy of human rights, that, according to America’s democracy, belong only to American citizens. And, shiiiiiiiit, with most of us incarcerated, marginalized, murdered, brainwashed and mummified, white folks got us right where they want us: “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”[5] But here’s the gag—we’re still here.  

In an America whose democracy relied on reconstructing reconstruction; derailing the Great Migration; burning Brown to the ground; rolling back civil rights; and un-electing a Black president,[6] Black and Brown people are still here—multiplying, in fact—and I Carol-Anderson-WHITE-RAGEdon’t believe our sustained presence and power have come out of learning to be anti-racist or becoming aware of America’s Bill of Rights—which would never have required amending if it were just in the first place. Deep down in my Black soul, where rage swivels around melancholy, I believe, as Howard Thurman suggests, that as members of the disinherited, Black folks carry a radical love ethic that informs our perception of reality and meaning that doesn’t necessarily all the time jive with white folks’ perceptions. Our democracy don’t look like their democracy.    

Now, I ain’t at all suggesting Black folks ignore the imperialist racist capitalist patriarchal system that maintains America’s white supremacy—their democracy. I mean, how can we? But, in addition to all the literature and scholarship and documentaries and reports already produced about America’s racist history and of the racist policies upon policies upon policies upon policies that inform its racist (and sexist and classist) democracy, I think love has to intentionally and emphatically undergird these continued conversations. I think we have to transform the hearts of the people who create, justify, and maintain oppressive systems, and well—if the coldhearted can’t be warmed—look what happened to the Romans when Jesus died (and then got back up to be the savior). I’m just sayin.

“You gotta destroy in order to rebuild,”[7] so maybe Trump is serving his purpose. Maybe he is the catalyst towards real transformation, for his behaviors, as antithetical to democracy as pundits like to claim, are further exposing America’s deeply entrenched hatred of Black and Brown people—far more clearly seen since Jim Crow.

“Getting back to normal,” “reclaiming America’s democracy” are phrases synonymous to “Making America Great Again.” We can’t democratize America without exercising a radical love fueled by rage that liberates both the oppressed and the oppressor—and inevitably, topples the systems that structure oppression. It must all fall down.   

NOTES

[1] Kendi borrows this definition from James Cone, who Kendi informs readers is “the scholarly father of Black liberation theology” (16).

[2] Howard Thurman, b. 1899, was a Black teacher, philosopher, and theologian whose Christian principles on social justice inspired leaders of the civil rights movement.

[3] Reference to Toni Morrison’s 1993 “A Race in Mind: The Press in Deed”

[4] Line taken from Mari Evans’ 1964 poem, “Who Can Be Born Black?”

[5] From Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech

[6] The five gerunds mentioned are titles of Carol Anderson’s chapters from her White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.

[7] Line taken from Lauryn Hill’s “Rebel,” from her 2002 MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album.

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