When Silence is Not a Virtue
I have trouble remaining silent. I am almost always in some form of conversation. Typically the outspoken one in the room. It may not even matter what the topic is, I have some opinion on it, some knowledge of it, some important truth I need to impart on whomever is in my space. Never one for awkward moments, I fill them with banter and curiosity. Fascinated by root causes, I probe and ponder. Most times, I feel like my verbosity is welcome.
But for all of the gregarious energy I put into the world, I am painfully aware that it does not acknowledge so much of what needs to be said. It often avoids difficult conversations, upholds my privilege, ignorance, complicity, and the status quo. It doesn't always probe or ponder, fill the room with banter or intrigue, add depth, impart opinions or stay curious about the hard stuff. It is a defense against feelings and words that I should convey, but don't.
This escape route that I have mastered, when it comes to issues of race and white supremacy, has a name. It's called 'white silence,' and it's what I'm working to unpack today.
'White Silence' is pretty straightforward. It's when people with white privilege stay silent about issues of race, racism, and white supremacy. This silence is intentional, either in the face of blatant racism, or in its desire to remain outside of the conversation about racism –– to ignore its need to be unearthed, dissected, challenged and dismantled. But make no mistake, our white fragility –– our fear of confronting racism without coming apart –– fuels this intentional silence, and handcuffs our ability to put an end to a construct we have created.
White silence is intentional, either in the face of blatant racism, or in its desire to remain outside of the conversation about racism –– to ignore its need to be unearthed, dissected, challenged and dismantled.
When I think about 'white silence,' as someone who has dabbled in modern psychoanalysis, I come back to the study of resistance and defenses. In the psychoanalytic world, resistance is our avoidance of certain feelings because our ego is not strong enough to handle the stress of those feelings. To get a little Freudian with you, it is the unconscious defense of our ego when our ego feels threatened.
Why and when does our ego -- our 'self' -- feel threatened? Because somewhere along the line, it's been traumatized, and depending upon the development or strength of our ego at that time, that trauma can be internalized. This makes us feel badly about the trauma, and about ourselves. Our ego takes on the burden of that trauma, and rather than projecting outwardly, it projects that burden or blame onto ourselves. So, we become afraid to access feelings that might trigger an ego in a weakened state –– and we build defenses to resist revealing any repressed information that lives in our unconscious mind. Understandably so, most of us spend our entire lives putting up several different forms of resistances or defenses, so that we never have to open those doors to negative feelings. So heady, I love it.
Anyway, modern psychoanalysts refrain from interpreting these defenses to a patient, but instead they join the resistance. In joining, the analyst conveys a feeling of acceptance of the patient's feelings (stated or unstated, conscious or unconscious) and this joining reduces the need for a patient's defense against these feelings because the space is safe to have them without judgement or fear. The burden of the patients' fragile ego is lifted, and they can more freely express their feelings in a safer space.
But what could any of this psychobabble have to do with 'white silence'? Here's what I'm thinking:
From an early age and as we've grown, we are conditioned to see 'other,' and to understand that our world favors whiteness. In my life, it may have been something my parents said, racial slurs my grandparents remarked with ease, or books that we were or weren't read. Maybe it was the fact that I lived with a Black woman in my home who made my family dinner, but wasn't invited to the table to eat with us. That I somehow intuitively knew it wasn't safe for me to ask why the arms that held me were not the color of my skin. Or it may have been that I was aware that there were only a few Black children in my school, and even fewer in my neighborhood. There were likely hundreds of signals that told me that in order to protect the status quo, it was safer to stay inside my white bubble.
Maybe it was the fact that I lived with a Black woman in my home who made my family dinner, but wasn't invited to the table to eat with us. That I somehow intuitively knew it wasn't safe for me to ask why the arms that held me were not the color of my skin.
Which makes me wonder if my earliest sense of self –– the ego that I was born with before socialization had a chance to sink in –– knew that something wasn't right, but in being asked to betray its own instincts, absorbed the trauma of this challenge, and began to blame itself (as egos do) for the ways of the world it had been asked to believe in. Similar to the way a child who is hurt begins to question the validity of their self and instincts when their parent says 'you're okay, you're okay.'
Still with me?
So, here's the full-circle question: Does our white fragility go beyond our resistance to seeing ourselves as the racial beings that we are, all the way to our own unconscious self-hatred and weakened ego state from managing the trauma against our own internal compass from the very beginning? And could this self-hatred be the foundation that has weakened our egos, and buttresses our resistance, our fragility? And to close the loop, if our white silence is rooted in our white fragility, how deeply tied is our white silence to our ability to repair the earliest of our traumas, our own self-hatred, and how might we do that?
If our white silence is rooted in our white fragility, how deeply tied is our white silence to our ability to repair the earliest of our traumas, our own self-hatred, and how might we do that?
I have no answers to these questions today, but I thought I'd share because as I continue to try to move toward transformational change, I am diving as deep as I can. And somewhere in here, for me anyway, is the path beyond my silence.
So, how does 'white silence' show up for me? It shows up when I ignore or change the subject when my family members make racist comments. It shows up when I choose not to engage or bring up conversations about race with my white or BIPOC friends. It shows up when I keep my thoughts to myself as I hear my friends' racist remarks, and watch them defend themselves through their shields of white fragility. It shows up when I don't share all of my work in the anti-racism space on my personal feeds for fear of how it might affect my life. It shows up when I center my whiteness in the room or in the conversation. And it shows up when I don't overtly acknowledge the systemic traumas of racism, and stick to the small talk. The silence is deafening.
But 'why' does white silence show up for me? Well, I do have that psychobabble theory I shared earlier, but I need to unpack that some more on my own. Likely, my white silence shows up because of a myriad of resistances. It shows up because I don't want to look ignorant. It shows up because I'm afraid of crossing into the 'white savior' (self-serving way to try to help the BIPOC community) territory. It shows up because it helps me protect myself from those fragile and uncomfortable feelings Robin DiAngelo talks about that are too difficult to process. It shows up because it's more comfortable for me to stay out of the fire when I think something doesn't directly affect me. It shows up because it allows me to see myself the way I want others to see me. And it shows up because I haven't wanted to disrupt the balance of what feels like the universe at large.
But make no mistake, regardless of how and why it shows up, white silence protects the system and perpetuates racism. Racism is the white elephant in the room, and our silence, our complicity protects it and keeps white supremacy firmly in place.
Racism is the white elephant in the room, and our silence, our complicity, protects it and keeps white supremacy firmly in place.
If white people today don't actively break their white silence, what is to stop centuries of racism from going on for centuries more? Whose responsibility but mine is it to not only be vocal in the face of blatant racism, but to provide a safe and trusted space for my BIPOC friends? Whose responsibility is it to prevent covert and systemic racism from being a part of the culture around me? Remember, white supremacy is "not just about individual acts of overt racism, but rather it is a system of oppression that seeps into and often forms the foundation of many of the regular spaces where you spend your time" (Layla Saad). And although it is difficult for me to believe that I consolidate white supremacy, my white silence says otherwise.
So here's some thoughts I'm focused on today for breaking the silence:
Recognize how white silence shows up for me in my life and why.
Examine my resistances to breaking the silence.
Form a safe space for uncomfortable conversations with my friends.
Try to make the unconscious conscious.
Sit with difficult feelings.
Sharpen my racial consciousness.
Take some form of anti-racist action everyday.
Speak up and show up against racism wherever I see or don't see it.
If white silence actively works to protect the system of violence against Black Americans, then by the transitive property of racism, white silence is violence. The furthest thing from virtue that I can imagine.