I engaged in my fair share of mean girl behavior when I was young. I strove to be a prescribed ideal. I vetted others against that ideal and aligned or didn’t align myself accordingly. But meeting a standard alone, wasn’t all - scarcity was also in play. In this system of adolescent girlness there wasn’t enough room for everyone even if you could approximate the pretty/popular/fun/smart/athletic ideal close enough. I somehow spent my middle school and early high school years simultaneously conforming to be more like my friends while also competing amongst my friends for who had the closest connections or most power. It was awful. It was my turn to be “out” of the power dynamic in 6th grade, and again in 10th grade, when after a full year of what we would now call bullying, I transferred schools, moving away to school in another state.
There were lots of lessons buried in this heap of teenage trauma. I learned a lot about conformity and power and how popularity works. I learned a lot about how to hurt someone and what makes for a good friend and a healthy social life. I hope that the messages I give my kids about all of the above help them to be more resilient and self-reliant during the same periods in their life. We already talk a lot about how different friends are great for different reasons and we like to spend time with them differently as a result. We already talk about how we appreciate the parts of our friends that are different than us. And how real friends let you be yourself. And I never use the term best friend.
One of the most powerful things I learned about during this time though was just how destructive and dangerous silence can be. It was my most salient experience of public suffering. Yet most of the time no one said anything. I could talk to my mom and a few sympathetic friends. But for the most part it went unacknowledged despite it’s obviousness. I had one friend who tried to split her time between the girl bully and me. She didn’t want to get in the middle. I understood. It was the safest thing to do. The stakes seemed high. But over time this kind of silence grated on me. It hurt. A lot. More than the bullying sometimes. After I moved away people (teachers, administrators and other parents) would see my mom and say what a shame it was what happened to me and that I left. I remember feeling surprised. And also angry to know about their concern after the fact.
It’s amazing to me, even now, what a profound impact silence has on all of us – it breeds more suffering.
This weekend I listened to one of my favorite podcasts “National Conversations About Conversations About Race”. The guest was Jamil Smith (host of another great podcast “Intersection”). They were discussing whiteness and Trump, in particular the scary, hateful white-centered rhetoric that Trump spouts and promotes. During the course of conversation two groups of white folks were discussed: White Supremacists (the white race is a better race) and White Nationalists (our country is a white Christian country, and let’s keep it that way). The dialog was great (and worth a listen). Yet during the podcast and since I can’t stop reflecting on how the national conversation about whiteness is being driven by practically no one that I know and can identify personally. The majority of the people I know cover the wide berth between the supremacists/nationalists and the white social justice activists. A silent statistical majority who, by virtue of not speaking up, give greater representation and voice to those saying hateful and terrible things.
It made me think: what would the conversation on whiteness sound like if many of us were just a little less silent? If the haters weren’t the ones in the spotlight. If there were a few more white narratives to pull from and nuance to consider.
How much good can come from just a few more white folks saying “me too” or “how can I help” in response to the black and brown leaders in our city? How much good can come from just a few more white folks stopping casual discriminatory statements instead of subverting their discomfort or internally rolling their eyes?
How might politicians act differently if they didn’t think they’d be left hanging? Would they seek to better understand the tremendous issues at play and enormous amount of suffering. Would they be more willing to listen to different voices and perspectives? How many more white voices would it take to make it safer for that representative to be a leader who considered the existence of ALL constituents and the larger vision for a stronger St. Louis?
There are so many reasons to be silent. There are so many reasons that I myself have been silent about smaller interpersonal dynamics and big community-wide injustices too.
Sometimes I’m silent because of convenience. Somehow I think I don’t have the time or energy to say something.
Sometimes I’m silent because of social norms. It’d be rude to say something, I think. I don’t want to make someone else feel uncomfortable.
Sometimes I’m silent because of fear. I’m scared there will be repercussions. People will dislike me or I will lose access to something I had before (information, power, like-ability). I’ve shared my paralyzing fears before. And, Margaux Sanchez recently wrote eloquently about what might be lost if she speaks up.
Sometimes I’m silent because I’m awkward. I feel insecure and inept about the issue at hand. I don’t to what to say and to whom. I feel stupid intervening. I’m don’t feel like I belong in the conversation.
And these reasons aren’t fantasy. I have spoken up before and made someone uncomfortable. I have also lost things as a result. And I have also felt stupid. A lot. But staying silent sucks. It’s suffocating. It demoralizes me and dehumanizes others. It allows tragedy. It prolongs trauma. It undermines responsibility and progress. It maintains the status quo and makes it more dangerous for others to speak truth.
There are some white folks who are still considering their feelings and thoughts on racial justice. They may not see how it connects to them. They may still be battling their inherited prejudice and fear. But there are MANY white folks who know how they feel, but are stuck in silence, unsure of what to do or how to engage. Maybe you too are calculating the risks of speaking up and questioning the value of your own voice. What good does it do to talk differently about race? What good does it do to talk to different people about race? What good does it do to write my representative? What good does it do to support a voice that’s already out there?
It matters. A lot. To you. To others. To progress. To history.
It was recently the 60-year anniversary of the acquittal of the white men who killed 14 year old Emmett Till. There are only two people who were present at the time of the trail alive today. One is 93-year-old Betty Pearson, who in recounting the horror of the event and trial specifically mentioned the shroud of white silence.
“She[Pearson] says stores throughout the Mississippi Delta had set mason jars by their cash registers to raise money for the defense, and every lawyer in Sumner was representing Bryant and Milam.
It infuriated her.
"To me it said that, OK, every white person in Tallahatchie County — if not in all of Mississippi — is a racist. And they're trying to defend these people," Pearson says. "And I knew that was not true."
Pearson, now 93, says that after the trial she was stunned by the silence.
"I never got one question from a single soul in Sumner," she says. "Their reaction to it was, if we just ignore it, it'll go away."
The courthouse was remodeled in the 1970s, and up until about 10 years ago there was very little said about what transpired here.”
I’m not being facetious when I wonder, “how would our world be different more white people who were not in agreement spoke up?” I was surprised to read acknowledgement of the silence in this case. Because as a modern white person learning about this history the only narrative I have is the utter contempt and carelessness of the killers and the rousing support of the town. How might things be different if the hate wasn’t matched by silence?
We are at a unique point in time in our city where we have access to amazing research and reports and analysis about what is wrong and why. Very smart and engaged folks are working around the clock to link what needs to be done to inviting and actionable steps. There is lots of work to be done. There are many roles to play. There is a seat for you if you want one.
But before we get there we all need to practice strengthening our voices. Pushing against our inclination to be silent. Finding little ways that our voice can be heard. I’m a believer that small steps can make a difference. And, in fact, I believe that for most folks they are the only way to get started.
But because it can be hard to do even small new things, I thought I’d share the small ways that I try to push against my own silence.
1. If I see something, I say something
I try not to be silent when I hear something prejudicial and racist. That doesn’t mean I engage every person in long debate about racism, but I don’t want to let racist comments go unacknowledged. I’ve boo’ed people who made joking comment in a group social atmosphere. I have a friend who at a wedding responded to the father of the groom’s joke about domestic violencewith a very dry, sarcastic “oh that’s right, domestic violence jokes are always funny.” In both cases the evening continued as it might otherwise. There was no major drama but there was a clear statement of “don’t talk like that to me.”
2. I try not to connect around the negative
People like to connect and use random banter to do so. I try to connect on the positive though. I’m surprised by how often random connective language focuses on putting down others. The other day I was picking up dry cleaning and my son was saying “wow!” to all the high schoolers walking by out the window. The woman helping me said something about how she would say wow too because “you can’t even tell who is a boy or who is a girl anymore and so many of them have the pants all sagging down”. I was startled but managed to spurt out “isn’t it great people get to look the way they want?! After all learning is more important than how you look!” It was totally clunky and completely imperfect but actually it worked just fine. I was not going to join with her on that statement, but I didn’t need to call her out either. We still ended our exchange with waves and smiles, and without maligning more people that we did not now.
3. I try to reward other people’s risks
I know everyone has a different love/hate relationship to Facebook. Currently it is the way I get access to curated and diverse news sources, build relationships with people I don’t often see in real life, hear about events and activism opportunities, and share my own thoughts about what needs to change. I know lots of folks who hate all of that about Facebook. They’d much rather keep it light and noncontroversial. Fair enough. However because I think silence is so problematic and that speaking up is so important I try really hard to engage with people that I see taking risks by sharing their opinion on difficult topics and forwarding on news articles. Breaking your silence helps create an environment where it’s easier for people to take risks and break theirs too.
4. Let people know when they are making a difference
Many organizations in St. Louis have shown dedication to issues of racial injustice and disparity. STL public radio has done an amazing job “sticking with” the reporting on Ferguson and the follow up. The Missouri History Museum has also been terrific at supporting events and exhibits that engage with race issues in our area. Left Bank Books has been a reliable supplier of Black Lives Matter signs and an advocate for a broad range of social justice work. These institutions, and more, get a lot of feedback – some of it very negative – from folks who want them to “move on”. It’s always easier to share your feedback when it’s really negative but I’m trying to be better about adding my positive voice to the mix. I look for ways to let them know that I appreciate their focus and dedication and support them as a result.
5. I talk to my children
Talking to my children has perhaps been the most important piece. It's been the easiest and most rewarding way to break my own silence. I refuse for my children to inherit the incomplete history that I did, and that our conservative textbooks still have planned for them. I do not want my family to harbor silence and overlook suffering. So, we talk about race and racism often. It was a process for me to get there and get comfortable. But now their understanding is developing and they now connect the dots more and more on their own.
The other morning the kids and I drove my husband to work and sat in accident-related traffic for an hour – an unheard of event in St. Louis. After I mentioned that I could see the police lights ahead my daughter asked if they were the good police or the bad police. I asked what she meant and she said “are they there to help people or put someone in jail”? I gave a short spiel, which is becoming my police 101 speech. The job of the police is to protect people and make sure that people are following the laws so that no one gets hurt. It’s always important to help people who need help and sometimes that means that some people need to go to jail. They, like all of us, can do things that are good and bad. What isn’t ok is that sometimes the police are encouraged to treat a whole group of people unfairly and suspect them of doing bad things when they aren’t or not protect them as well. And unfortunately that happens. She quickly replied, “that’s why we have our Black Lives Matter sign. So people can stop rassling and harming brown and black people that we love.” Exactly, child.
In some ways I am following their lead and example. I figure, if my kids can have strong and clear voices on race and racism that so can I. And I also figure that so can you. So practice. Try it. Together. With them, me or someone else. Just find a way to speak a little so that others aren't speaking for you.