Try this example
You are at family gathering and your 6 year old niece walks in from the backyard. She looks up at you and says, “they called me dumb and ugly.” You realize she refers to her cousins who you see laughing in a huddle by the patio. You look back in your nieces eyes and walk away in silence as if she never spoke to you.
What message might this send to the little girl who experienced pain due to the verbal aggressions of her cousins? In this moment, would you feel comfortable remaining silent when you know your silence might reinforce the negative messages? The truth is that in many daily contexts, we already know that silence does not equate with a neutral stance.
Bringing context into focus
Of course, the main mode of socialization with the U.S. context is to focus on the individual and rarely notice context and social forces at work. However difficult for white people to recognize, we are operating in a system of white supremacy. Perhaps better to say, the system of white supremacy is operating on us. We can never step out of that system. And when we exist in this intricate, yet invisible, web of systemic racism, there is nowhere to stand where the web does not reach and engulf us. The realities and consequences of racism are swirling all around us each day, whether we acknowledge and speak or not.
In such a system, there are only two options:
challenge the system or perpetuate the system.
The messages behind silence
When white people stay silent, we send a clear message that we are just fine with the racist microaggressions we witnessed at work, the racist joke just told by our friend, and the white supremacy perpetrated by our local school boards. We may not intend to send such an uncaring and dismissive message about the pain and harm done by racism. Yet the damage done is real. The good news is we can align our intent of anti-racism with our actions by breaking that silence.
In order to dismantle the system, we must be actively anti-racist. There is no silent option.
Speaking with a group of doctoral students this week, I was asked about how to handle calling another white person out/in when encountering a microaggression in a group setting (e.g., committee meeting). So many variables must go into the split second decision to choose the path. My advice was to focus on what approach would maximize the chances of being effective in helping that white person reflect more on their words and actions. That complicated algorithm will include quite the list of considerations to inform HOW you go about breaking the silence.
- For the questions below, I labeled the person you intend to call out/in as the “speaker.”
- do you already have a positive relationship with the speaker?
- what power differences exist between you and the speaker?
- what are the power dynamics in the group setting?
- are their people of color in the room who prefer that you speak as a white ally?
- are their people in the color in the room who may feel you are taking over if you speak up as a white ally?
- will the speaker be more open to hearing your message in private?
- what are the benefits to you saying something in front of the group (rather than a private conversation)?
- might people of color prefer you not say anything in front of the group while they are present?
- what are the benefits to improving the group’s cultural norms if you speak up publicly?
- is your decision about how to speak up at all connected to your own need to prove you are an ally (versus the drive to dismantle racism)?
- is your approach to how you speak up influenced by a desire to tear down or punish the speaker?
in other words, the how of breaking the silence is never simple. The one thing that remains simple and true is that we must find ways to speak up and move away from the myth of race-neutrality.
Learn more about the White Anti-Racism and Action course I created for (aspiring) white allies and my group coaching program for social justice academics called Choose Your Own Adventure.
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