Why White People Can’t Afford Silence

Racism is a daily reality for persons of color.

Even to say that I think about racism and privilege more and more is to admit the privilege of having the choice to ever not think about these issues. People of color don’t have that choice.  I acknowledge up front that people face discrimination and hatred for many reasons other than race, too; right now I am writing about race. Trust me, I’ll get to others.

I cannot imagine what it would be like as a young person to cross a threshold of realization that every single morning I wake up I could fully expect my day to be filled with racism taking the form of everything from tiny slashes and pricks by the unwitting to full-on intentional deadly assault by haters who know nothing about me but the color of my skin. Maybe today would be better than yesterday. But the odds aren’t great.

No one in America, no one anywhere, deserves to live that way. Anyone who does not live in such a constant state of assault has a responsibility to fight for those who do.

I was deeply disturbed to see a president who did not immediately and unequivocally condemn racism in the face of a public demonstration of activities that were inarguably intended as such.  I disagree with his policies, but his implicit support of racism betrays the fundamental American values established in the constitution (and its amendments) that he swore to protect and uphold.

For me to be silent about his behavior simply to avoid the discomfort of being in disagreement with people I know who support this president flies in the face of everything that America stands for, everything that drew me to seek the American citizenship that I now hold. As a citizen, it is my responsibility to stand up and say, “No more,” and then actually do something about it.

Events in Charlottesville brought my attention back to facets of racism that I either didn’t know or hadn’t thought much about recently.

I read arguments on both sides of the “Lost Cause” of what the Confederacy stood for. I remain convinced that it was, at its core, about the fate of slavery in the United States. Any other arguments simply obscure the fact that thousands of people sought to sustain a way of life in which they could legally treat fellow humans like objects.

I discovered that the surge in new statues of Confederate generals represents racial conflict, response by white Americans to their fears during times of greater advocacy of equality for black Americans.

I was heartened by the community leaders who covered or removed those statues from places of honor. I was left wondering why communities wouldn’t all go back into their own histories and seek to replace those statues and names with those of people whose work and actions and sacrifices represent all that those communities and all their citizens aspire to today.

I live on a street probably named for a Confederate general. My city of Alexandria recently rescinded its 1953 policy to name all new north-south streets after Confederate generals and are in the process of re-naming the Jefferson Davis Highway. There are no plans to systematically change the names of over 60 streets named for Confederate leaders, I just discovered how someone may apply to re-name a street in Alexandria.  I have a feeling there’s more to it than submitting a form. Re-naming streets takes time and money, none of which is infinite. Would I rather use that time and money keeping young kids out of the criminal justice system? Actually, yes. But I’d like to ask some of my African-American friends how they feel about that, too.

I noticed the memes, like “This is not a wakeup call. The alarm has been ringing for over 200 years, and y’all been hittin’ the snooze button,” and “Where would you put a statue to honor someone who raped your wife and beat your children?”

It was clear to me that people who say they want to exercise their right to freedom of speech to say things they know are offensive to the majority of Americans have more in mind than expressing their views when they take to the streets to exercise that freedom armed with weapons.

I am still ashamed by my utter naivete and blindness in thinking for even an instant that a country that could elect Barack Obama had risen above racism. I cannot believe that I was not awake to the signs of how many millions of Americans loathed that president specifically for his race. I cannot believe I didn’t pay attention to how many people felt threatened by all he symbolized for them as a black man in a position of power, and how determined they were to replace him with someone who represented as much of a polar opposite as they could imagine.

A white woman recently said to me, about protests against racial injustice, “They should just get over it.” I am ashamed that I didn’t know what to say to her, and that I did not say something as simple as “That is not okay.”

But I know that racism isn’t something from which white people can seek personal absolution. I can accept responsibility for the times when I did not speak up against racism in its many pervasive forms, and work to become ever more conscious of opportunities to do so. There are still plenty of those.

Until every person of color everywhere on the planet all agree that they are not discriminated against because of the color of their skin, it’s not over. Discussions of racism make a great many white people profoundly uncomfortable. That’s particularly so for those who look at their ethical selfie and say, “Well, I don’t behave that way. Explain to me again why you think you still have problems, and what you expect me to do about it.”

“Structural racism”… has been perpetuated throughout history and is present in education, politics, public safety, culture, health, and also social relations.

~ Aline Ramos

So long as it’s present in our laws, education systems, media, culture and society, we’re all responsible for working to eliminate it. In other words, white people, racism should make us feel uncomfortable. That’s the very least it should do. If we are not noticing it around us every day, then we’re not trying hard enough. Racism should make us feel disturbed and angry and compassionate and on fire with determination to wipe it out.

Yes, if you are white, it can take a lot of deliberate effort to try to see the world and understand the stories of centuries of pain and humiliation and fear that fill the daily lives of persons of color.

I’m grateful for every person of color who has published examples from their own experience to help white people understand what privilege is. I’ve written about the gifts of insight I have received from my step-mother-in-law, Pocahontas Gertler, whose life story is of a determined warrior for social justice. Re-reading Lori Lakin Hutcherson’s ten poignant examples of privilege brought it home to me yet again.

I’m working on understanding the worldview and experience of people of color. That’s well-defined task, because that experience is changing every day, both for better and for worse, depending on who you are and where you are.

“There aren’t any crib notes or 5-minute YouTube videos to fix you. If you’re really determined to do better, know that this journey will take the rest of your life. Think of it as continuing education or an independent studies class where you need to proactively seek out the content. Don’t ask us to provide the information for you. Instead, participate in your own education. We’ve already given you enough of our free labor. Don’t ask us for anymore.”

~ Real Talk: WOC and Allies

Here are three of my favorite stories that bring this home.

Black musician Darryl Davis has been befriending Ku Klux Klan members through gentle conversation for almost 25 years. They hand over their hoods when they change their views.  Just watch how he does it in this two minute trailer of the award winning film, Accidental Courtesy.

Accidental Courtesy – Theatrical Trailer from Sound & Vision on Vimeo.

Said Davis,

The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me, I’ve heard things so extreme at these rallies they’ll cut you to the bone.

Give them a platform.

You challenge them. But you don’t challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.

See for yourself how people with deeply-held views behave when they first discover each other as human beings rather than carriers of opposing ideologies. (Credit: Heineken UK)


More binds us than divides us — if we are willing to look past what we see and get to know who we are. See all that we share, in Three Beautiful Human Minutes by Danish filmmaker Asger Leth.

What can white people do?

I’m now remembering the vow I took after election day: to seek out conversations with those whose beliefs are different from mine. I’d kind of tailed off my efforts. It’s I got back into my discomfort zone.

Silence in the face of racism is not acceptable, and never has been. Neither is righteous hand-wringing. Just saying, “Isn’t that awful?” to all our white friends changes nothing if we are not also taking action.

As Ali Owens says, white people doing nothing is part of the problem. Noticing, denouncing, and pushing back against white supremacy in all its forms is our constitutional responsibility.

Aline Ramos suggests nine ways that white people can support the fight against racism.

The Southern Poverty Law Center offers these community-focused ideas.

Probably the most powerful is conversation. Research shows that in order for someone to change their position, they first need to feel heard. We need to discover each other as humans. That is anywhere from uncomfortable to surprising to downright scary.

Why would anyone even listen to racism? Consider this: because it has better odds of opening the door to changing someone’s mind than does arguing.

Listening to views we find offensive or repugnant is uncomfortable. Actively drawing people who hold these views into conversation is even more scary. In part, we’re afraid of what someone might think of us as listeners. We’re afraid that the person who’s speaking these things might infer that we agree with them. We’re afraid that a bystander to our conversation might infer that we tolerate these views and think the worse of us.

The president’s words and actions since Inauguration Day this year have left me with a continually-deepening sense of paralysis.  I remembered the prescient voices of those who, last November, predicted a dangerous national numbness as a new normal swept the nation. There was nothing I liked about the incoming president. He had said he was going to do a lot of things I didn’t like. Democratic government permitted Americans to elect him and offers me ways to speak and act to contradict his policies.

Since the election, I’ve felt increasingly overwhelmed by wave after wave of this Administration’s words and actions that I disgree with. I want to be thorough and thoughtful when I write, to check my facts and sources before I publish. But when events in Charlottesville brought racism once again into the front and center of public discourse, that drove my choice for this post.

Some people will disagree with me. Others will show me things I didn’t know, and I will need to be prepared to process the inevitable shame I feel from appearing to be less than perfectly knowledgeable. I will disagree with some of them, too. I don’t like conflict. But staying silent to avoid the discomfort of being in disagreement with someone gives implicit support to actions and policies that fly in the face of everything that America stands for, everything that drew me to seek the American citizenship that I now hold.

Brene Brown’s video “We Need To Keep Talking About Charlottesville” in the aftermath of violence reminded me that I don’t have to wait to find the perfect words to speak about racism, about immigration, about human rights, about all the fundamental human values that are under an assault led from the highest levels in America right now.

Okay, and what else will I do, besides listening and writing? I’ve found two issues I’m ready to work on. One is voter registration. For the other, that’s my next post.

One thought on “Why White People Can’t Afford Silence

  1. We are all part of the human race. We need to start with what we have in common rather than what divides us. I have experienced racism, I have experienced bigotry and it is painful when you feel misunderstood or not heard because of the way you look or believe. That might be in your MDs office, it might be round your dining table, the fact is when we deny another person their experience it can lead to isolation which creates an ‘enemy’ image in our own heads. My sense is that we each need to be guided by our hearts, less sitting trying to figuring it out in our minds and more connection. There are countless experiences I have had in my life which have shown me again and that kindness and love win.
    I grew up in Nigeria, I attended an International school, where my best friend was Huerera, a Nigerian girl. Her father was a Government officer. He was involved in a Coup d’état to overthrow the Government. It failed and I held Huerera’s hand tightly in class the morning her father was shot at Bar beach in Lagos. We were both 9 years old.
    Years later I was on a bus in Edinburgh. I was sitting on the top deck travelling to meet the rest of my family at a rock climbing park. The bus stopped at the Airport, a few people got on but the bus didn’t move on. I heard the driver asking someone to sit down, then another voice saying he didn’t want to as he was getting off in a few stops. The driver’s voice started to shout, he threatened to get the police, he continued to ask the man to sit down.
    I got up from my seat and walked down the stairs, I saw an African man standing looking extremely distressed while the bus driver shouted aggressively at him. I asked the bus driver to stop while I spoke to the man.
    I looked at the man and enquired to where he was going, he told me, it was about 4 stops on. I asked him if he wanted to get to his destination, he said yes, I asked him kindly if he would sit down on the bus so we could begin our journey again. He said yes. And then I looked at him and spoke to him in pidgin English and said “Thank you my friend” he looked at me and smiled.
    The driver and the rest of the passengers had their mouths open.
    I sat with him until my stop. As I approached the bus driver to step off the bus, he looked at me and said nothing.
    These are love stories, nothing else. I would have done the same for anyone of any colour or creed because I stand up to fear and hatred and aggression.
    I think that is all we are being asked to do now. To look at fear and hatred and not away from it. To beam love and at all forms of cruelty because if we don’t it will hide and isolate itself and fester away and grow like a cancer, consuming its host…our planet.
    Thank you Judy for starting the conversation ❤️

    Like

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