The Privilege of Staying Silent

In the weeks since Michael Brown’s shooting death there, I haven’t said anything about Ferguson. I’ve quietly retweeted a few things, but I haven’t so much as shared an article on my own, though I’ve read plenty. I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m staying silent.

It isn’t because I’m not outraged. I am, though it’s a tired rage — one that, for better or worse, lessens as it deepens. We’re used to this narrative by now: a young, black person and a cop, a story that doesn’t add up, attempts to criminalize the child, as if what s/he was doing where is enough to justify an execution in the street. And with repetition comes fatigue.

But I don’t think I’ve stayed quiet just because I’m frustrated. 

The other night, I was at a gathering of wonderful, brilliant, writer-women. Over whiskey drinks, we chatted about our work and our lives, and those of us who are professors spoke a lot about the upcoming semester, and one writer told a story of a minor flame eruption she’d experienced after tweeting that she wished she was surprised that only two men had enrolled in her gender studies-themed composition class.

She received numerous replies from men making comments about why it might be that men wouldn’t want to take gender studies classes, including the pervasive notion that men “don’t feel safe in those environments.”

And as a group of intelligent women, we were able to roll our eyes and laugh at the luxury of men to throw around phrases like “don’t feel safe.” The privilege of not knowing just how wide the chasm is between being uncomfortable and actually being unsafe.

Several women in the conversation mentioned how sad it was, truly, that men who felt that way wouldn’t subject themselves to that discomfort, wouldn’t try to live in that place in order to interrogate it, to ask themselves whether perhaps their discomfort (or attempts to avoid it altogether) might indicate complicity.

We talked about the #NotAllMen response to #YesAllWomen and our frustration that so often, when women speak of their experiences they are accused of being accusatory. We talked about how obvious it was to us: when we share our experiences, we are not doing so to accuse all men of bad behavior. In fact, it has nothing to do with you, and that’s the point.

I don’t want to become a white person who treats racial discussions the same way. 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about becoming a better listener. In my personal life and in a larger social sense. Personally, I really do enjoy listening to other people, but I’m a fast talker and an interruptor, so I don’t always seem to be listening. And in recent years, I’ve tried to listen as some of my closest friends have undergone experiences of loss or trauma that are foreign to me; I’m learning how to get comfortable listening and not talking back. I’ve not been very good at it (sorry, friends). I change the subject a lot, and too often to myself, and I’m learning to recognize that’s the action of a scared person. I’m being selfish because I’m scared to hear how hard it is for them. I’m still working on it. I’m learning to recognize they occupy a different perspective, one I can’t understand because I haven’t lived it. I’m learning that any attempt I make to speak to their experience is a kind of appropriation.

Turns out the best things to say are “I hear you. I’m here. That fucking sucks. I’m sorry.”

So for awhile I wasn’t saying anything about Ferguson because I was trying to listen. In some ways, I was trying to check my own white, upper-middle-class, suburban privilege in order to just hear what it must feel like to be a black person in America.  To genuinely fear for your life whenever you leave the house — whenever you interact with law enforcement. Cops might make me uncomfortable, but I’ve never been worried one was going to shoot me, and if I have a child, I won’t have to worry about her safety around the law either. I’ve never lived institutional or de facto segregation. I did genuinely want to just absorb the raw chaos of the streets of Ferguson, the primal screams of mothers for their children’s lives. I did want to listen and learn

But I think now I’ve let the pretense of listening become a place of complicity. I think I’ve gone too long without saying anything.

I forgot that one of the most important parts of listening is saying “I hear you. I’m here.”

I was on a plane a few weeks ago, and I read pretty much all of Kiese Laymon’s essay collection How to Slowly Kill  Yourself and Others in America in one sitting. The writing literally took my breath away at times — I had to look up and stare at the ceiling and concentrate on breathing to get through it. The fire. And I realized something that’s so obvious it’s easy to miss for those of us in positions of privilege: you really, truly do get something out of this writing you can’t get elsewhere. 

By “this writing,” I mean writing by people of color (or, probably, any marginalized position, but for now, people of color). By all means, I’ve learned buckets about the acrobatics of language and the swirling chaos of the human mind from the Cormac McCarthy’s and Denis Johnson’s and William Faulkner’s of the world, and you should read them. But reading Kiese Laymon, I saw in real-time the truth that writers of color carry something else in their words. Their writing feels like a hot poker moving around the inside of my body. It is flame and ash, volcanic eruption. I hope this isn’t problematic language, because this is genuinely what it feels like to me. It burns. But it lights me up. I feel illuminated after reading it.

If you are a writer or reader or human being with a heart, you simply cannot get by without reading from these perspectives. You have to read James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. You have to read Kiese Laymon and Taiye Selasi and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Teju Cole and Jesmyn Ward and Roxane Gay. You are robbing yourself of something if you don’t.

I’m not sure all this is building towards something clearly, or if it’s just in my head.

The point is, I don’t want to make the conversation about Ferguson about me. It’s not the same as being a white woman, and I don’t want to just lay platitudes. I don’t want to succumb to armchair or internet activism by just Tweeting. I don’t want my voice to take over the myriad voices coming straight out of Ferguson. 

But I also don’t want to do or say nothing. I don’t want to let my discomfort become complicity.

So I’m saying to all you others out there who maybe felt like me: listen. Listen closely and widely, and not just when an occupation is happening. Listen to the in-between, the everyday of systematic racism. Find it in your own community and listen there and work to be an ally. Don’t hide because you don’t know what to say.

You don’t have to say anything. It’s not about you.

Say, “I’m here. I hear you. That fucking sucks. I’m sorry.”

Resources for Becoming a Better Ally:

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