Not too long ago, diagnosis of which there were no attendees of color. Around a dinner table, information pills her, another friend of mine, and several guests were gathered and discussing the college process. Expecting me to share her horror at an incident in which a father spoke of his daughter and her college choices, in which he stated that he did not want her to attend school in New York City because he feared for her being around so many “young”––he lowered his voice for the next part, “black”––his voice came back to normal levels–– “men”. She described the looks of shock and horror amidst a small shared silence between her and our friend, but my own personal shock and disappointment came after I asked, “Well, what did you say?”
Part of the reason I and other mixed race or “ethnically ambiguous” people growing up felt the need to establish our races and backgrounds immediately was so that, specifically in the context of being around our white friends and their families, we would not have to endure not feeling comfortable enough to respond to potentially racist remarks. Hearing someone comment something ignorant or blatantly offensive towards part of your heritage or identity without realizing that what they say they is in reality also applying to you is one of the most horrendous experiences as a young person. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve found that what is worse is actually the lack of vocalization from peers who might share my same idea or opinion, but not my experiences––waiting for a friend to speak up to their sibling or parent, only to find that nothing comes and that I am more isolated than before.
My friend replied, “Nothing. We didn’t know what to say.”
“Did anyone else at the table say anything?”
“No, everyone just kind of looked around shocked.”
I say that my shock, horror, and disappointment comes at this part because, as tragic as the sentiment is, I expect racism from those who have never experienced it. I expect bigotry from those who have evaded it. But I don’t expect silence from those who have acknowledged it and have cultivated an air of caring. A condemnation from her, a young white woman like his daughter, and the other white people engaged in the conversation could have easily turned the conversation, though lacking in diversity, into a healthy discussion and prevented the man from spewing rhetoric similar to his remark in the future.
White silence is a large part of what causes violence against people of color––his remark and their subsequent silence only contributes to the recycling of dangerous connotations with black men, those which get fathers, brothers, and cousins like my own murdered. The same sentiment applies to hetero silence, male silence, cisgender silence, and all other imaginable forms of quietness as they apply to allowing for those in positions of power and privilege to control the conversations and manipulate the images of those marginalized people––often including ourselves––that we hold most important in our lives.
My family is not exempt from having debates about different political and social ideas, opinions, and perspectives––but this is the difference between my family and what I’ve viewed as so many others’: we have the debate. From gentrification to cultural appropriation, my sisters’ and I discussing such topics with our parents have proved incredibly developmental and thought provoking, and have even landed in the outcome of changed minds. Of course it can be uncomfortable, but if you read the environment and your family carefully, there are ways to go about the situation without hurting anyone or causing a fight. If the behavior continues after your discussion and specifically confrontation of harmful misconceptions or projections, then you will have at least tried and have begun to become more comfortable with healthy conversation and critical thinking.
Until current generations begin confronting those who are closest to them on things they say or topics that they hold important and that are, or have, the potential to harm others, then the silence that those with privilege maintain will continue to be waged against the marginalized as grounds for mistreatment. If the largest risk someone is putting themselves at in speaking up for someone who cannot is that of anger or coldness from a family member––as opposed to that of their life, the potential for them to establish a livelihood, to find safety or communion––then the risk is not only one that can and should be taken, but one that very few others can afford to take.
Written by Zoe Mills