Many of you are likely familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.”
I would argue that time has nothing to do with it. Silence equals betrayal anytime – whether we realize it or not, whether we are alone or in a group – because it equals complicity.
When we don’t speak up about racism, or homophobia, or sexism, or ableism, or islamophobia, the message sent is that we agree with what is happening. If we are there in the moment, we have an opportunity to speak up and possibly change the outcome – if not for the person(s) attacking or under attack (physically, verbally or emotionally), then perhaps in the minds of the others who are watching or listening. Our voice or actions may give them something to think about.
Complicity in Black History
Last week in the Metro News, as Black History Month ended, Vicky Mochama wrote about the many times we applaud Black people for their bravery and hutzpah during the civil rights era, but fail to examine the many White people who stood by while Black people were ridiculed, belittled, beaten, arrested, and killed. Vicky goes on to wonder when we will examine this complicity as part of history. It’s a good question, because history could look very different if more people spoke up, stood up, showed support….if more people weren’t silent. Sadly, I can’t find the article online to share.
Imagine if something like the Women’s March post inauguration to protest Trump’s sexism and misogyny happened during the civil rights era, but was a White person’s March against racism? Or what if it happened today?
We may think of this silence = complicity idea in terms of individual interactions with people – when someone does or says something egregious. The challenge is that silence is not only damaging in interpersonal situations. It’s damaging all the time.
Systemic Isms and Complicity
We live in societies that are (largely) built on systemic racism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism, faithism …. I could go on. For today, I’ll focus on systemic racism since I have the whole Oscar debacle as an easy reference point.
A systemic “ism” means that that particular way of thinking has permeated our systems and society, and influences our laws, policies and practices. As a result our way of being together is impacted in ways we often don’t recognize, realize, acknowledge or understand because it simply is “the way it is”. Systemic racism means that laws, policies and practices have been created with the belief that people of colour are “less than” – and that our society and systems are built on that belief. You can create this same equation with the other isms and their respective identities.
What this means is that we see, interact with, respond to, and treat people accordingly – often without realizing the underlying message. And, unless one is a personally impacted (read: person of colour) – and even then not always – it is very difficult to notice that it is happening. Because it’s subtle.
The Oscars, Silence, and Complicity
Last week at the Oscars when it became apparent that the La La Land crew had not won, there was no “Stop everything! We made a mistake, get off the stage and let’s do this properly.” Moonlight’s victory was not announced with fanfare – they were called up on stage with a “No really, this isn’t a joke” by the losing (and likely devasted) crew and were handed the Oscar they rightfully should have received in the shining moment a little earlier. Systemic racism is subtle, but if you connect the dots, you’ll see it: the ways we allow some people to be treated, that show us who has valued and who doesn’t. Here’s an amazing article by Brittney Cooper on the Oscar example.
Other examples of systemic racism in action
When we assume someone of colour got promoted because of their race and a push for diversity, that’s systemic racism in action. When we actually make this accusation to the person about their promotion, that’s systemic racism in action. Because we don’t consider these things when White people are promoted – we don’t say it’s “only because of their colour” – and we would likely never say it to their face. But somehow, it’s ok to think it, and say it when the person is of colour – because our system supports that thought through the images and messages it sends about people of colour and their value every day. And we soak up these messages, consciously and unconsciously.
If you look closely, if you pay attention, you will notice it. And then when you do, remember that injustice survives in the dark – when no one sees it, when no one shines a light on it, when no one talks about it or acknowledges that it exists. When we start to notice and point these things out, we have the opportunity not only to see them, but to talk about them, to raise awareness, and therefore to challenge our thinking, our silence and our complicity, and to create positive change – for individuals, and for everyone. For our workplaces, communities and the world.