The other day a friend and I were discussing controversial stereotypes. I found myself getting more and more irritated as I thought about how these generalizations are propagated throughout our society as fact, and the harm it does to everyone.
I was venting my frustration at the fact that black people have very few positive stereotypes and my friend stopped talking. A few minutes passed and he finally said, “Okay sorry.”
His comment took me completely by surprise; it wasn’t in line with our conversation at all. I had to ask, “ Why are you sorry? You didn’t do anything wrong. Or did I do something wrong?”
He replied, “I thought you were mad.”
I couldn’t help but blurt out, “ I’m PISSED! But… not at you!”
And then I realized what had just occurred. I had just stumbled into becoming the most dreaded stereotype of all, the…Angry Black Person.
If you’re a black person, you’ve probably been in my shoes at some point and cringe remembering it. And what’s worse about this stereotype is it winds up silencing many black people from sharing their experiences and their unique perspectives as individuals. No one ever wants to be “that guy” but when “that guy” reinforces a negative stereotype about an entire group of people, you wind up keeping your mouth shut just to not add fuel to the fire (and be personally labeled).
It took me several days of reflection (ie obsessively repeating the conversation over and over in my head) to realize why my friend responded the way he did. I realized he has no idea why I got so angry! In his mind, what we were discussing was understandably frustrating but he can’t connect to my level of frustration over the topic. And truthfully, sometimes the level of hurt I feel surprises me as well.
So today I’m going to explain the Angry Black Person phenomenon the only way I know how to, scientifically of course. Presenting….*drum roll*…….
The Black Allergic Reaction to Racism (BARR) Response
If you treat racism, bigotry, or any discrimination as an allergen, then the BARR response becomes very obvious. Seeing how I’m a geologist and not an immunologist, I turned to the experts. Here is a modified version of NIH’s introduction to Allergic Reactions:
Allergic reactions are common. Most reactions happen soon after contact with an allergen.
Many allergic reactions are mild, while others can be severe and life-threatening.
Substances that don’t bother most people can trigger allergic reactions in certain people.
Although first-time exposure may only produce a mild reaction, repeated exposures may lead to more serious reactions. Once a person has had an exposure or an allergic reaction (is sensitized), even a very limited exposure to a very small amount of allergen can trigger a severe reaction.
Most severe allergic reactions occur within seconds or minutes after exposure to the allergen. However, some reactions can occur after several hours, particularly if the allergen causes a reaction after it has been [digested]. In very rare cases, reactions develop after [long periods of time].
What’s interesting about allergies is most of the time the allergen isn’t an obvious threat. After all, a peanut doesn’t look as dangerous as a lion chasing after you. Yet to many, a peanut spells certain death while they might just have a slim chance with the lion. Well it’s the same thing with discrimination! If you’re not allergic to peanuts, you can’t comprehend how you’re always on the look out for anything that might have been made with nuts. You’re always worried “this might be the one that finally does me in.” However, with discrimination it’s not your life that’s threatened, it’s your sense of hope. And you become vigilant in safeguarding it.
Once a colleague of mine used peanuts in a classroom experiment. He took into account the possibility of allergy sufferers. He contained the peanuts to one area and provided gloves for everyone. And most people were fine, until one student came in and reacted the moment he stepped foot in the room. It was the dust from the peanuts that had triggered him. What was invisible to most, was life-threatening to him. It’s the same with discrimination. If you don’t suffer from it you are unaware of all the ways it can harm a person, even when you can’t see it.
When the rest of us heard about what happened, we couldn’t wrap our minds around why he would even use peanuts in the first place. Everyone knows there’s a possibility of harming someone. Weren’t there alternatives that he could’ve used for the same effect but with reduced risks? Well, that’s how many of us feel about discrimination. We often think “Was that comment really necessary?”, “Please be thoughtful with your words before exposing us to them. Thanks.” and “If you’re not 100% certain, please refrain. This is my life you’re playing with.”
The BARR response to discrimination is as varied as allergic responses. Just like with allergies, some people grow out of them and don’t suffer from them any more. While other allergies, no matter what you do, only get worse with each exposure.
At this point you might be wondering, “How did you come up with the BARR response? It’s such a great idea!” First, thanks for noticing. Second, I’d be more than happy to tell you where I came up with it, you’ll get a better understanding of the BARR response and me as well.
I have a dog who I’ve had for five years. When I first got her, I researched the affordable all-natural dog foods out there and finally settled on one. I became a brand loyalist and over the five years I only bought her different flavors of the same dog food. This past October I noticed she had a rash all over her body. I gave her a bath and waited a few days, but her skin just turned green. I rushed her to the vet. After two months of medication, numerous baths, and $600 her vet finally concluded that she has food allergies. I, myself, don’t have any allergies so I couldn’t understand what had happened to her.
We’ve been using the same dog food for five years!! How on earth could she all of a sudden be allergic? It sounded preposterous. The vet patiently explained to me, that was the exact reason why she’s now allergic. There is probably a compound in the food that doesn’t quite agree with her and in small doses it’s not a problem at all, she doesn’t even feel it. But after five years of constant exposure she just can’t take it any more.
And then it hit me…that sounds a lot like my life.
So folks, even though anger, frustration, irritation, etc is not an emotion that’s pleasant to be around. Before judging, ask yourself “What did this person experience to illicit this response?” Because, excluding the hot heads, most people exhibiting the BARR response have been exposed to more than they should.