Let me start with the premise that I, as a sociological social psychologist, recognize emotions as socially constructed non-verbal ways of communicating a feeling or thought. Sure, I know there are biological and physiological explanations. Blah blah blah — as a social scientists, I am always asked to concede room for the “real” science fields to explain the social world. (Can we start asking chemist, “have you considered that this may be socially constructed?”) However, I stand by my point because emotions are 1) regulated by social norms and 2) used in the context of labor or work. For example, we have tacit rules about the emotions one should convey at a funeral or wedding. And, some jobs demand specific emotional expressions as a part of one’s labor (e.g., flight attendants).
It seems, like everything else we study in sociology, there is an aspect of emotions and how they are regulated and used that reflect inequality. I became interested in the sociology of emotions through my introduction to Arlie Hochschild‘s book, The Managed Heart – a study of the emotional labor of (women) flight attendants and the wear it has on their health and well-being. In particular, when forcing a positive, nurturing emotion for so long, the flight attendants in her study noted feeling disconnected from their authentic emotions. I can also relate to the idea of emotion work as a means of navigating oppression (i.e., avoiding discrimination and violence) in Doug Schrock‘s research on transwomen.
I am also interested in, and particularly sensitive to, the seemingly innocent ways in which we attempt to control others’ emotions. “Boys don’t cry.” “Stop your whining.” “Must be PMS. Amiright?!” “Calm down.” “He’s an angry Black man.” Some of these requests reflect good intentions. Some are simply demands to stop emoting in a certain way. Whatever the intention, these are attempts to control another person. But, I worry that the burden of emotional control — or being emotionally controlled, I should say — falls too often on marginalized people. In fact, certain emotions are seen as particularly threatening or inappropriate because of one’s social location.
It almost seems “angry Black” is redundant based on the way that Black people are criticized for presumably publicly expressing anger — anger that would be seen as understandable in a white person. It also seems that anger is read no matter one’s actual internal emotional state and one’s behavior or outward expression of emotion. So, to avoid the penalties of being read as angry and Black, some have to work even harder to seem
I would argue that at the heart of this desire to control marginalized individuals’ emotions is an unwillingness to acknowledge and appreciate their experiences. The best example of this is the seemingly concerned and innocent question, “are you sure you’re not overreacting?” This question suggests that your way of responding to an event or condition exceeds what is seen as appropriate. The flaw, however, is typically in the inquirer’s underestimation of how intense the situation is — and how frequently it occurs.
Let me give a specific example. Well, none come to mind because it has happened repeatedly in my life. In relaying that I feel upset after I have heard something so offensive, or even been victimized by discrimination, to a trusted friend or colleague, I have been asked, “are you sure you’re not overreacting?” Now that I reflect on the question, it is unclear whether the inquirer is suggesting my perception of the event is inaccurate or my emotional response is inappropriate — it is probably both. The question sets me off because I do not feel the inquirer believes my perception of my own experiences, and has attempted to control my emotional responses to them.
It is insult to injury.
The most frustrating piece is that the question of overreacting presumes that the reaction is to an isolated incident. “So, he accidentally alluded that whites are American and people of color are not. I am sure he…” blah blah blah, benefit of the doubt. Because, you know, we are uncomfortable assuming someone is a bigot or fails to acknowledge their privilege, even when their behavior says otherwise. In reality for the oppressed person, these seemingly minor expressions of prejudice or discriminatory acts open up the wound from a lifetime of exposure to this kind of crap. It is not just that one racist asshole — it is yet another reminder that I will forever encounter racist assholes, who are then given the benefit of the doubt, while I am told an appropriate way to emote (if I am allowed to at all).
As these events add up, and the efforts to control your response add up, the larger picture becomes one of an oppressed life with nothing less than a smile on your face. You do not have the right to be upset about your oppressed status. If you are angry that you are oppressed, and that anger is understood by the oppressor, that oppression is no longer justifiable. We can longer reference happy Black slaves, and then miserable freed Blacks. We would not be able to justify the racism-motivated opposition President Obama has faced since the beginning of his presidency if we understood and appreciated his anger; so, we must undercut him by alluding to angry Black men.
Do me a favor. Strike “are you sure you’re not overreacting?” from your vocabulary. Never string those words together when someone has confided in you about their experiences — even beyond the examples above related to discrimination and prejudice. Particularly for marginalized people, we have already replayed the event in our heads a few times before naming it as unfair, discrimination, or at least worth of an upset response. We already have weighed the possibility of being dismissed or told that we are overreacting or simply hypersensitive before telling another soul.
Try, instead, telling someone you believe them (if you do). And, even if you do not, affirm their right to emote however feels right to their experiences. If you cannot muster that, just listen. Be just that one person who does not demand that an upset person justify to you that they experienced what they experienced and are properly responding to those experiences.