The most recent examples of social-media-captured racist action—most notably George Floyd’s murder, and the many reactions to them, cause perilous sadness. A swirling undertow of grief that is my own, but more so, part of a mammoth, mounting historical undertow of sadness that is nationwide. I add my voice to the call for justice and a wholesale reckoning for the system that allows people of color to be brutalized and oppressed. Almost always with impunity. While we should act to condemn and fight white supremacy in our country, many have instead ignored its skulking creep into the highest levels of national political power. Silence about these things is complicity, as the saying goes. We can use our voices in many ways to resist.
Yet, I also sense an abiding need to be quiet about so much that is happening. Listening is what’s called for, the kind of listening that isn’t grasping for a response. Just listening. It is more than okay to be quiet and let others speak (in fact, instead of speaking you can point to the many highly qualified speakers out there). We don’t always need an opinion.
If you are someone who doesn’t understand rioting, for example, stop talking. Devote yourself to listening deeply to those who do understand what’s happening. Listen long. Listen not to formulate your response but to build on a listening that will augment your understanding day by day, month by month, year by year. Perhaps listen here, here, here, and here. Trevor Noah, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Stephen Carter. In the linked speech, MLK shares words that have been frequently quoted this week:
“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met.”
The words are from a long speech about economics and systemic oppression delivered in 1967, a few months before MLK was murdered. They are still tragically timely. MLK was trying to help his audience understand, as are Baldwin and Noah and Carter.
When you need to process verbally, talk to your closest friends, your family. Talk about white racism, including your own if you are white. Talk about your questions and what you’re hoping to learn as you listen and work toward understanding. But in the public sphere, cede space to those who know intimately about things that are going on; share them and give them a bigger platform. Let them speak as you listen.
Yes, silence is complicity. But it is also important to be quiet.