An interesting tension is building between two profound changes.
The first change is the privileging of marginalized people’s voices in debates about contemporary issues like policing, systemic racism, capitalism, and criminal justice. Increasingly, this means silencing whites, especially wealthy, heterosexual males so that people of color, gender atypical people, heterosexuals, and the poor can be empowered in ways they’ve long been denied. This phenomenon is completely understandable if you know the history of policing, systemic racism, capitalism, and criminal justice in the (dis)United States.
Despite knowing the history and understanding that impulse, some caution is in order, because in its most extreme form, a strict privileging of marginal voices can become a reverse silencing which is antithetical to a vibrant democracy. It’s understandable why people who have been silenced all their lives want to do whatever is necessary to finally “have the floor”, but completely silencing any particular group’s voices is not a viable long-term strategy for strengthening the common good.
The second, more recent change, is the notion that “silence is violence”, an idea that informs this essay by Mark Fraser, a Caribbean-Canadian hockey player. This is the idea that not speaking up about injustice makes one complicit in it. Here Fraser applauds “white peers” for speaking up:
“I cannot recall a time in my life when I have cried for a week straight. I cannot recall a time when I have been on such a roller coaster of emotions. But out of everything I’ve read or heard this week, what has hit me the hardest and has made me shed the most tears is seeing my white peers stand up and say, ‘This isn’t right.’
I cannot express the deep, deep emotion that is stirred up inside me seeing people who have only ever known white privilege stand up and join our cause. This is a moment in history that we should all want to look back on and think we contributed to forward progress in fighting against systemic racism.
. . . . The majority have to speak up and stand up for us.”
Fraser’s perspective contradicts the first trend, and in doing so, illustrates pluralism’s complexity. The take-away is that diverse thinking is even greater within ethnic groups than between them. Expecting people of color, or African-Americans more specifically, to think and act the same way because of similar skin pigmentation is among the most oppressive things of all.
It’s great that Fraser is finding strength in his white friends’ words of support, but many people of color spent the week getting even more angry as high profile whites in entertainment, sports, business, politics, and other industries made ignorant, insensitive comments that they then quickly apologized for in desperate attempts to salvage their personal brands.
If they had only uttered Fraser’s three words, “This isn’t right,” maybe things would’ve been different. But they were not nearly that succinct. And the more they wrote and talked, the worse things got. It was a week-long argument for intentional silence.
Maybe it’s time for people of my complexion, who share aspects of my privileged background, to consciously stop writing and talking. To press pause. Different than a forced silence, I’m advocating for a voluntary one marked by active listening.
And a week, or a month, or a year, after a change in administrations, let our first words form questions. About what it was like to be George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery. Or what it is like to be Marques Brownlee or Mark Fraser.
Then maybe, we will rise above our differences, find commonalities, and begin building a more just and better future.
Stringer/Sputnik via AP.