One of the best and most powerful lessons my mother taught me was the lesson of “guilt by association.”
“If you’re with someone who’s doing something wrong and the police come, you’re going to get arrested too, even if you haven’t done anything.”
She told all five us that at a very early age, and it stuck to me, on me and in me like white on rice. So when, for example, I was in Berkeley, California one summer and was out shopping with someone I considered a friend – and she urged me to put a swimsuit I liked into my bag, I panicked. She had lifted several swimsuits and wanted me to “join the fun.”
My mother’s words stung me like a swarm of angry bees; I pretended to go along with her, saying I was going to go back in the fitting room and try on a couple more and would meet her in a few minutes outside.
I did nothing of the sort. I went into the dressing room and stayed long enough to see her going away from where we had been and I made a beeline to another door out of the store, got on a bus and headed back to my aunt’s home.
That was in the middle ages; there were no cell phones back then, nor the internet. She called my aunt’s home several times but I never talked with her again. I didn’t tell on her, but I just stayed away.
I thought about that lesson as I was thinking about the rabid racial hatred that is swirling around us in the present time, and I was thinking about the silence of so many white people in light of all that is going on, making them as guilty of racist behavior as the most vocal racist.
Audre Lord, an African American, Lesbian, feminist writer and poet, wrote, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” She also said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Silence is a tool appreciated and exploited by the system of white supremacy; the thought seems to be on the part of many “progressive” whites that if racism isn’t talked about, then it doesn’t exist. The use of silence also seems to be an insurance policy for some whites who appear to think that if they are silent they cannot be condemned for being a participant in an evil system which knows no boundaries to its quest to control, manipulate and destroy the lives of black people.
At the heart of white supremacist thought is the innate belief that black people are inferior. “The white race” as a construct cannot figure out why black people even exist; in the 19thcentury, some scientists and white theologians posited that there could not be one god, but there were, in fact, many gods, a slap in the face of the principle of monotheism. Black people had been created by another god, and, that being the case, it was OK to subjugate, oppress and discriminate against them. Their white god didn’t see anything wrong with and would not condemn those who were full of racist hatred and who participated in and sometimes initiated acts of violence against blacks. They could easily lynch someone on a Saturday night and go to church the next morning to sing hymns, hear a stirring sermon and maybe even receive or pass out Holy Communion.
There have been a fair number of whites who say they hate racism, but they do not say much about it. They rest in the comfort of whiteness, protected by their silence; their whiteness is like a tree which provides shade on the hottest of days. They get offended if called a racist and are annoyed when the word “racism” is used in relation to some of the oppression which goes on, but internally, they know that the talk about racism and the harm it causes is not superfluous, but is damaging many, many lives.
The fear of speaking out is understandable. In our history, those whites who spoke against racism were called “n”-lovers. They were ostracized and suffered in ways that ought not to have been the case. Silence was easier. But silence is complicity. Those who have shied away from actively helping to end racism are like friends of a person who is shoplifting. They are equally as guilty.
The current administration is bold with its belief in and practice of racism; the code words and phrases used have endeared the president to white supremacists, whose desire to “make America great again” is really a push to “make America white again.” Blacks, they believe, must know their place and stay there, and those whites who disagree dare not say too much for fear of the fallout.
People in this country have bowed to the petulant South, which has never gotten over its defeat in the Civil War, but the defeat did not mean the end of the war; it just meant that the war would be fought in a different way. The tools would be Jim Crow, lynching and other violent acts (which is none less than domestic terrorism), voter suppression, discrimination in housing, employment and finances. The war goes on; the troops of the South ever increase, while the metaphorical “Union,” i.e., progressive whites, have laid their weapons down and have basically let those who believe in racism have their way.
But the silence of progressive whites is toxic and, in the end,, will not save them. Even as the policies and practices of white people in power continue to compromise the lives of black people and other non-white, non-Christian people, the wounds caused by this metastatic condition will not heal. The poison which is the foundation of white supremacy will continue to seep out and infect everyone. As long as white supremacy is alive and well, nobody is safe.
And no, your silence will not protect you.
That day in the store, once I realized my “friend” was shoplifting, I ran. I may have saved myself from being arrested but I often wonder if I should have “squealed” on my friend. I wonder sometimes if she kept doing that. But it didn’t matter; what I realized was that I had my own demons that I hadn’t corrected and being silent about them has not healed me or saved me. I, too, have found myself in situations where I chose to be silent rather than to speak up.
We cannot successfully run from evil; we have to face it and it is in the facing that we begin to weaken it. Too many of us are afraid to publicly come out against racism; the cost, we fear, is too great.
I would posit a different thought: that not confronting racism, calling it out, cutting it off at its knees, will result in chaos that will rage out of control. Our silence is not helping us; it is leading this country to a bad, bad place.
A candid observation …
2 thoughts on “The Impotency of Silence, White Supremacy and Lessons from My Mother”
I would say that it’s important to recognize the people who are using their voices, as we know that there are many movements in opposition to the mistreatment of marginalized groups. In the same breath, it would be naive to believe that we have enough voices speaking up, because the reality is that many more people choose to be silent, not just progressive whites, but people of privilege in general. There are too many who either believe that it’s okay to live in their sheltered world and let others do the work or people with a defeatist attitude that believe that their voice doesn’t matter either way. I believe it was Dr. King who said that its the good people who do nothing that are the biggest detriment to our society, not just those who do evil. Using your voice, no matter what your social status is, is extremely important. And unfortunately, there are too many who sit in their privilege and ignore the injustices being done to poor people, and especially to poor people of color.