My stomach jumped into my throat as I read the bolded words from my office manager’s email, “I am not okay.” Shame flooded every inch of my body realizing that she had to illicit support from her white co-workers because we had fallen silent.
My shame was magnified because it wasn’t just my office manager that I had abandoned. A week or more had passed since George Floyd’s murder and I still hadn’t checked on any of my black friends, family or co-workers. Why do I choose silence in the face of racial injustice? What happened to my 12-year-old self whose first instinct was to punch her classmate when she heard him utter a racial slur?!
In full transparency, I am intimidated to write this piece. To talk about something that feels completely out of my depth. A topic that can be so enraging and disgusting that it’s easier to bury my head in the sand. It also means admitting that because of my lack of action, I am part of the problem. After speaking to white friends and colleagues, I know my experience is not unique. I want to share why I have stayed silent in hopes that it inspires you to get curious about your role in ending racial injustice.
Fear of offending someone. I fear being misinterpreted and coming off as offensive. Do I say black, African-American, person of color? Do I acknowledge that we are different colors? Is this going to make me sound racist? My fear keeps me from asking questions and educating myself. My ignorance keeps me silent as the topic of race grows increasingly intimidating. It’s a perpetuating cycle that I am determined to break. I will ask questions, I will make mistakes and I will feel uncomfortable because that is where change starts.
Shame. I am ashamed of my privilege. I have never been judged, attacked, or made to fear for my life because of my skin color. My life is easy, no thanks to anything I have done. I am ashamed of our country’s history of slavery. I am ashamed that I live in a country where people are hated, vilified and murdered because of their skin color. I will no longer allow shame to silence me. Instead, I will acknowledge it, release it, and take responsibility for what is in my control. Have I stayed silent? Yes. Have I turned my head? Yes. Do I want to do better? Yes.
Keeping the peace. This is one of my most embarrassing wrong doings. Justifying or ignoring bigotry because of a person’s age, upbringing, or other attributes. “Oh, you know so-and-so, he’s racist but that’s just how he was raised.” Cringing on the inside and giving an eye roll or chuckle at a racist joke. Pretending I don’t hear a family member’s racial slur. I have done all these things for years to keep the peace. Afraid of offending family or starting a fight that cannot be resolved. I adore my family and am proud to be a part of them. Speaking up terrifies me but I will do it; because continuing to live in a country that does not value all human lives equally terrifies me even more.
Feeling helpless. What could I do that could possibly be helpful? I feel like my voice and opinion doesn’t have a place in this arena because I am white. Since racism doesn’t directly affect me, I think I should step to the side. To top it off, the changes necessary to end systemic racism intimidate me. This mentality reminds me of why I didn’t vote for years, “What’s the point? It won’t make a difference.” It is this exact frame of mind that allows racism to persist. The lack of action, the silence, giving up because the problem is immense – this is preventing change! I will start educating myself and find the places where my voice and actions can be effective.
Unlike my typical posts, I cannot end with a tidy list of tips or tricks. I cannot pull it all together with a warm sentiment or a “we are in this together!” Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing, but for the first time, I’m doing something. What I can offer are these action-oriented attitudes that I intend to adopt. I welcome you to do the same if you are ready to break your own silence in the fight for racial justice.
I will ask questions.
I will get uncomfortable.
I will take responsibility for what I can control.
I will no longer allow shame to silence me.
I will speak up in the face of racism.
I will start educating myself.
I will find avenues for my voice to be heard.