On Racism and Silence

07/12/16

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This is a post I should have written a long time ago. Every time I’ve sat myself down to write these words over the last two years, I have either become despondently depressed or overwhelmed with fear by what to say or how to say it. Sure, I talk about this topic on my personal Facebook page with my mostly agreeable friends and family, and mostly by reposting other people’s words, but, really, I’ve been mostly silent.

I decided over the weekend that I wasn’t going to be silent anymore. Why is it that I speak out easily and openly on this blog and social media about acts of homophobia? Sure, I’m gay, so some might argue that’s “personal”. But I am just as enraged about the killings of black people by police. So why don’t I speak out here about that?

I realized it’s because I don’t have to. And for a long time it felt easier not to.

I realized my silence is an expression of my privilege. My silence is my message.

And here’s the thing: I don’t want that to be my message.

Also, this issue really isn’t about my feelings. My feelings of “fear” about what to say as a white woman (hey, let’s be clear, white women typically don’t like to ruffle anyone’s feathers) have zero significance in relationship to the disproportionate killing of black men by police — killings which are a direct result of centuries of insidious racism in this country.

So here’s what I’ve got to say:

Racism is the most pervasive problem in the United States of America. Racism is inexorably linked to poverty, the achievement gap in education, mental health problems and violence. Everyone is harmed by it, and yet we allow even the most blatant expressions of it to go ignored and unpunished.

Don’t think the targeting of blacks by police is actually a problem? Here are some facts. And here are some more and some more.

Let me be clear before we go any further: I support and respect police officers. Police officers serve a necessary and important role in our society, and most of them do honorable peace-keeping work. Not all police officers commit acts of racism. I am devastated by the shooting of officers in Dallas. This is about the disproportionate and widespread instances in which white police officers have committed acts of violence against black men. This is about the lack of punishment for those police officers. This is about the lives of black people in this country.

I began to understand institutionalized racism and white privilege deeply for the first time about seventeen years ago when I was in my thirties. I worked in a non-profit organization in the Bay Area that did change work inside of high poverty public schools in California — with the goal of closing the achievement gap between children of color and their white counterparts. As part of my job, I went through intensive and immersive trainings with my fellow staff members around race and privilege. We studied and engaged with the work of Tim Wise and Peggy McIntosh, among many others (many, many more anti-racist teachers and programs exist today). A very diverse group of people, we talked and we talked about race and privilege from all perspectives. There were arguments, horribly uncomfortable moments, and tears. We developed programming to help the teachers and leaders we worked with also have conversations about race and privilege, and we engaged with them too. It was the most important work I’ve ever done. And it opened my eyes and changed how I understand my experience living in this country as a white person.

To this day, I think about race nearly everyday. Aside from my wife and family, the person I am closest to in the entire world is black. Because we interact and talk every single day, I am confronted with thinking about how this person I love experiences the world. And that, ironically, has been a great gift in my life — because it forces me to look squarely at her reality (not that I could EVER fully understand her reality) — as horribly awkward and painful as that is for me (and for our friendship), at times.

My wife and I talk about racism almost everyday now in the light of recent events, in the privacy of our own home, and two nights ago we talked about ending our public silence and becoming more actively engaged in addressing racism head on. We want to contribute to the eradication of racism in our country. We want to contribute to the conversation. We want to help change minds and hearts. Like many white people, we are overwhelmed by what to do.

I have spent a lot of time recently reading about and talking to other people about what I can do. I found this article on Salon particularly helpful. Here are some basic things it suggests:

  1. Talk to everyone about what is happening, even though it feels really uncomfortable, especially the people who are the most resistant or make you the most uncomfortable. Don’t know how to talk about race? Practice. Make yourself feel the discomfort of it.
  2. Check yourself. As white people, we benefit from the system we have created as the holders of power. No one is immune, no matter your pure, progressive intentions, thoughts and feelings. As Clodfelter writes, “If you’re doing work as an ally as a means of earning capital to counterbalance your white guilt or as a way of seeking accolades for how not racist you are, stop taking up space at the table.”
  3. Show up at events and rallies. Donate money to causes fighting racism. Participate in the conversation. Read what people of color have to say. Build your own awareness.
  4. Bear witness. Download the ACLU’s mobile justice app or similar tools and prepare to record police interactions if you find yourself witnessing an encounter.

This essay I am writing is not for the people who are already doing all of these things. This essay is for people like me who care deeply, but are unsure about speaking out — what to say, what to do, how to make a difference.

This essay is also for people who are spouting the words: “ALL LIVES MATTER.” Yes, all lives matter. Of course they do. But here’s the point of the phrase Black Lives Matter, eloquently explained by Kevin Roose:

“…the phrase “black lives matter” also has an implicit “too” at the end: it’s saying that black lives should also matter. But responding to this by saying “all lives matter” is willfully going back to ignoring the problem. It’s a way of dismissing the statement by falsely suggesting that it means “only black lives matter,” when that is obviously not the case. And so saying “all lives matter” as a direct response to “black lives matter” is essentially saying that we should just go back to ignoring the problem.”

Let’s not ignore the problem anymore. Let’s stop denying our privilege. Let’s begin to try to understand the complex layers of racism and where we fit in. Let’s express that “love” we preach with action to change.

Let’s stop being silent.

CATEGORIES: Personal Essays
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