Early this winter I was cycling on a wide bike lane. It had been drizzling earlier, and the sky was gloomy. Up ahead, in a long covered portion of the bike lane, were a bunch of boys. They were mostly white, and aged maybe eight to twelve. They were standing around or playing around on their bikes, blocking the entrance to the tunnel. The (white, male) cyclist in front of me had stopped and was patiently waiting for the kids to clear a path.
I’m a less patient person, especially when on my bike. I reached the kids in front and asked if they could move aside so I could get through. They ignored me, which made me less polite and more sarcastic. With exaggerated helpfulness, I said, “Look, it’s not that hard. You just need to move back two steps, so I can squeeze through.”
The boys clearly didn’t appreciate the sarcasm. One of them started spouting gibberish of the “ching chong choo” variety, to make fun of my Asianness. The other boys laughed and some copied him.
This set me off. It’s deeply obnoxious to me when people start speaking in this made-up supposedly Asian language, as it trades on tired ideas about the inscrutability of Asian people and the alien strangeness of Asian talk. It also reveals the ignorance of assuming that anyone who looks East Asian jabbers in exactly the same way, because ostensibly we’re all the same.
I reacted badly. I started shouting at the first kid, “What’s wrong with you? Why would you do that?” I sprinkled in some expletives as well.
Then I reached for my phone, as this is my first reaction when a stranger is harassing me. The idea is that I’ll take a photo of the harasser with the aim of publicly shaming him. But I realized that was a non-starter here. These were kids; there was no way it would be okay to photograph a child I didn’t know. Stymied, I left my phone in my pocket and moved away.
One boy followed me. I was peeved and shouted at him to stop, at which point he called me a fucking bitch. I lost it again, and started shouting at him and the bemused boys around him, asking how they could be friends with racists. This was obviously an ill-judged move. Kids of that age were not going to turn on each other, and yelling at them didn’t make me feel more mature.
I took off angrily and caught up at the next light with the other adult cyclist, who’d managed to pass through the group of kids amidst the confusion. I was outraged at him, and outraged at the boys. It was a familiar feeling.
I find myself angry a lot. I’m writing a book about racial justice, so this is unsurprising. Examples come faster than I can digest them; there’s no shortage of statistics that should be enraging. My outrage has also hit a fever pitch over the past year, for familiar orange-colored reasons.
But I’m outraged by the small and the petty as well as the large and systemic, and a near-constant supply of anger makes it harder to maintain barriers between the two. Someone cuts in line, or cuts me off in traffic, or cuts me off in conversation. These petty incidents have an outsized influence on my mood, and on my emotional reserves. Separating annoyance from outrage isn’t always easy. And the constant frayed nerve that the news cycle induces isn’t helping.
One such petty incident was this encounter with the boys in the bike lane. It’s been interesting to tell other people about the incident, because their reactions and recommendations have all varied so much, while being well-aligned with their own personalities. The soft-hearted teacher who works with students with special needs says that if she’d seen a bunch of kids hanging out in a tunnel, she would have made conversation with them. The former teenage dirtbag says that it’s best to keep in mind the still-developing brains of kids, and not try too hard to shame or change them. I appreciate what they’re saying, but can only take on board some of it—I just don’t have the personality to chit-chat with kids I don’t know as they’re blocking my way.
But the teacher also pointed out, from her knowledge of child development, that pre-teen kids are often confused by sarcasm. They have the vague sense that they’re being made fun of, but have a hard time pinpointing the mechanism. A common reaction for some, then, is to react with defensiveness and anger. That’s interesting to me. Maybe if I hadn’t defaulted to sarcasm when the boys didn’t respond to me, if I weren’t carrying the low-level aggression that I often have when cycling after learning that aggressive cyclists are actually safer on the roads, if I hadn’t been simmering with anger and frustration all year because of the political situation and because of events in my own life—maybe I’d have a better sense of proportion for my outrage.
If I default to sarcasm in annoying incidents with strangers, I often default to outrage during painful times with relatives. In the fall, I took my partner home for a Thanksgiving visit to my parents—his second time meeting them in the decade-plus we’ve dated. I have a fraught relationship with my family, because of a complicated stew of abuse, addiction, illness, and theft. Oh, and guilt—heapings and lashings of guilt.
On one of the few excursions my partner and I took away from the family home during this visit, we did that classic LA thing of spending longer on a drive than at the actual destination. The destination, in this case, was the Snow White Cottages , a complex of whimsical homes that reportedly served as inspiration to the animators working on Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. After doing that other classic LA thing of circling several blocks looking for parking, my partner navigated my parents’ pickup truck into a street space. We—neither of us frequent drivers—worried a bit about the parking job (Had we left too much space? Had we left too little?) before deciding that it seemed okay.
As we were walking toward the cottages, a woman walking past started grumbling something inaudible. I wasn’t really paying attention, but eventually it became clear that she was muttering complaints about our parking job. I apologized and asked if we should re-park.
“Oh noooo, ” she said. “I love it when people take up the whole damn block.”
This got me heated. I said something in a nasty tone about passive-aggressiveness not being terribly useful in this situation. We both stalked away. I tried to shake it off, but the chain of irritability this minor incident set off meant that I wasn’t in the best mood on returning to my parents.
And my folks, like usual, like many retired people, had cable news on, in a near-constant loop. CNN’s endless repetition of the same one or two news stories, and its incitement to constant outrage, aggravates me. But somehow my parents find this ritual soothing. The cable news staple of shouting matches between talking heads is left on as white noise, the background to domestic life. That day, I’d already used up some emotional reserves on shouting at a stranger. I had less for my family, even though being around them requires more than usual, especially now. Outrage had bested me again.
Despite resolving to avoid unhelpful repetition of the cable news kind, I’ve been engaging in it as well. I told the story of the boys in the tunnel to a couple of white female acquaintances. One of them turned it into her own story of dealing with bratty children, as if the racism element of my incident had been the least consequential bit. The other one commented that boys weren’t being racist; they were just kids trying to be funny.
This produced a kind of secondary outrage in me, probably familiar to many women, people of color, and other minorities: when people who weren’t there feel qualified to pass judgment on it; when white people feel confident telling non-white people what is and isn’t racist; when the unspoken yet obvious accusation hanging in the air is that we, people who are used to being less represented, are just being too sensitive about how others are representing us.
Here, clearly, the telling and retelling of the incident had ceased to be useful. I understand the communal venting and sharing effect of lots of people expressing similar feelings in different outlets—it helps to establish a community of shared opinion and a groundswell for change. Besides, talking doesn’t need to be productive to be worthwhile. But at some point, this starts to feel almost like a perverse aesthetic enjoyment in wallowing for its own sake. Of course the latest immigration policy is a travesty. Obviously the president’s most recent tweet is sickening. Repeated viewing and sharing of traumatic details aren’t always necessary for understanding. I’ve already heard about the deeply disturbing habit of the latest news anchor exposed for sexual assault; I don’t need to go over and over it in ghoulish detail.
I have to be okay with not being able to participate in every conversation about a Twitter-based provocation. I have to recognize the habit I have of turning feelings of helplessness (my mother had been recently diagnosed with cancer) into outrage at others (the boys in the tunnel).
While my fixation with the boys-on-bikes incident was unproductive, ultimately I did find some compassion for the people I’d been seething against. My acquaintances who’d dismissed the story—they have loud voices and loud personalities, and I’ve been complicit in not pursuing important arguments with them because I find their loudness exhausting. The other adult cyclist, whom I’d condemned as a passive coward—maybe he’d been frightened of the large group of boys. The other boys in the tunnel, who’d either laughed or remained neutral—peer acceptance at that age can feel like the most important thing in the world. The boy who’d followed me and called me a bitch—I remembered that before he’d insulted me, he’d said that he liked my bike. Maybe he’d been trying in some way to make amends, but I’d been too pissed off to hear it. Maybe that was true of lots of things.
Obviously, there’s a lot to be outraged about right now. But if that outrage is spilling out to be visited, in irrational ways, upon people close to me, that’s a sign that something needs to change.
Some amount of anger is good, is necessary. Contributing to activist movements is a positive outlet for righteous anger. But there’s a point at which outrage becomes surplus for me. Any tragedy can and should be discussed over and over—bringing fresh details to light, giving a platform to an under-heard voice. On the other hand, I’ve found that numbing repetition doesn’t always help me better understand a situation.
These days I’m attempting to not invite outrage. It’s clear that diving into the comment sections on certain articles, or instigating conversations with certain pigheaded acquaintances, isn’t going to change opinions and is going to give me a skewed sense of what opinions are commonly held. It’s not hard to avoid these surefire sources of unproductive fury.
I visited my parents again early in the new year. This time I was driving without my partner in tow, but with my newly frail mother in the passenger seat, before and after her hospital stay. This visit had stirred up uncomfortable memories of vulnerability—hers and mine, past and present—combined as ever with guilt, anger, and compassion. I felt the familiar simmerings of outrage specifically related to transport. The fact that medical facilities charge their patients fees for parking was one reason. The normal cuttings-off and tailgatings in everyday traffic were others.
As an outrage addict, it was tempting to start railing against these things as a proxy for dealing with the big things. It would have been easier to vent at a stranger in the next car instead of at the fragile parent whose car I was driving. But obviously that’s not what she needed. And my outrage, even when it’s on behalf of other people, so often feels narcissistic to me. My anger, my frustration were trifling next to my mom’s.
So as I drove my mom, I didn’t complain about fellow drivers. I tried not to think dark thoughts about LA parking lots. I started listening more, whether to my mother’s words or to her silence. And that’s a kind of gift, to hear the space that opens up when oh-so-familiar outrage takes a leave of absence.
Sometimes it’s still tricky finding the right balance between not sticking my head in the sand and constantly feeling the need to shout. But no matter how often I fail, it’s encouraging to see all the things that a leave of outrage allows for: More curiosity. Complexity. Empathy. When pedestrians dart in front of my bike when they have a red light and I suppress my instinct to yell angrily, this makes me think instead of the times when I do the same thing they did, and wonder what kind of day they might be having. Sure, sometimes I miss the simple knee-jerk rhythms of pure outrage, which can be perversely satisfying in the moment. But at this point, I’d miss the serenity and openness and compassion more.