"What Woman Here is so Enamored of her Own Oppression That She Cannot See Her Heelprint Upon Another Woman's Face?" -Audre Lorde
BY SAWYER HILL
I was angry for much of March. At school systems and penal systems. At the US government for its stew of negligent inaction and callous overreaction. Mostly I was angry about sexual assault. Its existence. How it is handled. The hoops that must be jumped through and the ways survivors must prove their trauma. Prove their worthiness for justice. Prove that they did not deserve the violence committed against them at the hands of someone who sought to strip them of their power, their voice. My journal is filled with these frustrations, spilling from one page to the next. The anger has been both intoxicating and exhausting.
I’ve spent most of my time thus far in Loretto learning how to be a bit quieter. I have little trouble speaking for myself and even less discomfort when anger begins to fill me. This clear comfort was no better exemplified than when, earlier this week while at a coffee shop, my housemate Amelie and I were approached by a news team interviewing El Paso residents on their feelings toward an armed militia coming to “help defend the border” in Sunland Park, NM. They asked us both our opinions.
“Oh I’m not good on the spot,” said Amelie “she’ll be better at answering the question,” pointing a finger across the table.
I answered their questions, riling myself up more and more as I continued. Armed militias at the border fall pretty easily into the category of things that make me angry.
The speaking up part is not what I struggle with. But the being quiet bit is more of a challenge.
When I felt frustration and confusion early on, Sister Elisa gave me some of the most sound and well-suited-to-me advice I’ve received. She told me that when she started at the Loretto-run nursing home here, Nazareth, she did not make any changes in structure for six months. Instead she listened. She learned. She remained
I tried to channel her after that. Beyond the practical nature of how her advice helps to facilitate the building of healthy relationships, it was particularly pertinent to me as a white, non-El Paso native in a predominantly Hispanic space working alongside people who know the community better than I could ever hope to and have lived here all their lives. This is not my space. I do not know better. And so I’ve been learning to shut my mouth. When to be quiet, when to listen.
In this period of slightly less speaking, I’ve been able to build beautiful relationships with the teenagers who I work with and foster connections with colleagues who I work alongside and admire. One of these teenagers recently stayed after a support group to chat. She’d made a mistake recently and had received school consequences that she was sharing with me. We spoke and spoke about what she’d done, why she’d done it, what she was feeling and she ultimately said to me “I was just so angry.” When asked what the catalyst could be to make her feel such blind rage, such frustration she said, exasperated, “Some people have everything handed to them and other people just have to work so hard for nothing.”
Many of my students are angry. Some in ways uncontrollable to them, frightening to adults in their lives, frustrating to their teachers. They do not want to be controlled by their anger, but they feel it. It is there. It rages on and it is real. This is not something I hope to extinguish. I do not want for my students to be ruled by their anger when they do not wish to be. I do not want for them to harm others. But I do want for them to feel the range of their emotions. To speak when they sense injustice. To feel both jubilance and warranted frustration.
More recently, while at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, I attended a panel titled “Empowering Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada” by the Native Women’s Association of Canada. NWAC presented a panel of women of different ages, different tribal affiliations, different provinces. The women spoke of the Canadian Indian Act in Canada, legislation that is still in place, that South African apartheid used as a model. They spoke of the missing and murdered indigenous women throughout Canada, forgotten by the government. They spoke of the lack of domestic violence resources for women in North West territories and the limited access to shelters. They spoke of intergenerational trauma, of the high numbers of indigenous youth in the foster care system. And eventually, they shared that it angered them that they’d been invited to do a UN panel, and were still relegated to a church basement rather than a conference space in the UN building blocks away. I was silent for all of it.
Like my student, the women who presented felt frustration and pain that seemed insurmountable to me from my position seated on the floor in the back. Like my student, they had felt anger.
After my student shared her anger with me, I had her read Audre Lorde’s 1981 piece “The Uses of Anger”
In it, Lorde writes, “Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.”
My anger propels me forward. It is uneasy-making and intoxicating in ways that I did not imagine or realize it could be. It energizes me to keep going. But it also beckons me to be quiet. It reminds me that what makes me angry can live in me as well, that I can benefit and thrive in it even with the best of intentions and the kindest of hearts. I feel confident that I know when to speak. The real struggle has been learning when not to. As Lorde says, “anger is loaded with information and energy,” and the only way I am going to learn and change is to learn when to shut my mouth and listen to the information and energy of others.
Sawyer Hill is from Roselle, IL and graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI in 2018 after majoring in Theology and Social Welfare & Justice. Sawyer enjoys spending her free time outside climbing, cycling and soaking in the sun. She has been known to cook the occasional lasagna for a crowd and loves having people over for tea. Sawyer is serving at the Center Against Family and Sexual Violence in El Paso.
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