Thursday, September 4, 2014

On Speaking Out

I spent much of the last two weeks packing, cleaning, and moving, but it didn't keep me out of the loop of what was going on in Ferguson. It was hard to miss. My Twitter feed blew up. (Whereas I had exactly two friends on Facebook posting about it. Um, yeah.)

It was beautiful and angry. There was solidarity in outrage, truth in numbers, people documenting what was really going on despite the media only covering sensational stuff. It was social activism at its most social. It's crazy how many people one kid, Michael Brown, can bring together.

There was division, too. Racist tweets. Vitriol. Insensitivity. There was good reason for the pro-Michael Brown anger. This wasn't about a cop overreacting with his gun (bad enough): this was about a culture that minimizes and justifies what happens to a black man and walks away with a clean conscience. The tweets attempting to minimize the race side to this issue ended up doing the opposite, showing just how unwilling we white people are to admit that there's racism in America.

As I engaged on social media, I was struck again by my complete lack of qualifications. I'm white. I'm privileged. I don't know what it's like to be black, or Latino, or Asian, or Arab, or anything else. I don't know the extent to which racism affects the lives of people around me. I have never been in their shoes.

White privilege means I can forget the color of my skin. I can forget all about race relations if I want. It isn't something I can help, but it's a fact nonetheless. I am privileged.

If it is my privilege to forget, then let it also be my privilege to listen. (Tweet this.)

Here's where it gets confusing. I want to listen and also help, to voice my support for those fighting against systemic racism. I want to say something, anything, that will be useful, because lifting our voices is the most important thing we can do. But is it my place?

Part of the problem of race is that white voices are the only ones we listen to. My white privilege allows me to speak out and be heard.

I constantly struggle with this. Should I speak up and use my privilege for good? Or should I counteract my privilege by staying quiet so that black voices can come to the fore? Yet if I stay silent, there are still other white people--because yes, it's us, my color of skin that oppresses others--who will use their privilege to push minority voices to the background and vomit their own racist agenda.

All I can say is I'm sorry. I'm so sorry you have to deal with this, that we cause it, that we are ignorant. I'm sorry for when I don't hear you. I'm sorry for when I speak without knowing the full purport of my words. Please speak. I want to listen.

When #YesAllWomen happened, a number of men rushed in to defend themselves and prove that they were not misogynists, using hashtags like #NotAllMen. But that reaction only minimized the pain women experience. It silenced the women who have been harassed, raped, and mistreated simply for being women--whose voices we already hear so little. These men were not sexist, but their defensiveness worked as well as if they were.

I can quickly come to my defense and say I'm not racist. I can tell you the ways I'm helping diversity and loving my black neighbor. But it's all bullshit as far as actually solving the problem of racism. Defending our whiteness doesn't bring Michael Brown back. It doesn't make his family and friends feel better. It doesn't end race-based discrimination and prejudice in America.

The only thing that makes a difference is if we listen. Ask questions. Challenge the status quo. You may not be racist, but when you don't do anything to change the way things are, you're allowing racism to continue. You are contributing to the problem. There's no middle ground here. Either you acknowledge your privilege and start listening to the voices that our culture has silenced, or you in your inaction actively allow this to continue.

It's time to stop defending ourselves and listen.

Will I also speak up? Yes, I think I will. As a woman, I am deeply moved when men speak up on behalf of women. Some misogynist men only listen to other men. We need those with power to aid the fight for equality.

With race, I don't want my silence to be taken for silent consent of the way things are. I want to challenge other white people to be humble, because I know some of them will only listen when I, a white person, say it.

However, I want to be careful to not drown out the minority voices calling for the same thing. When men champion women's rights, it's a beautiful thing, but when women speak on their own behalf, we get back a little bit of the power we've lost as women. The same thing goes for race, sexuality, and disability. The powerful in society need to challenge the pervasive discrimination of our day, but ultimately those without power need to take hold of it themselves. Equality isn't something you can receive as a handout.

If you're white, I think it's time to listen. Stop getting defensive, apologize, and let this become a true dialogue. If you're a POC, thank you for risking your safety by speaking. It's about time we started paying attention.

Word count: 928.