What I Want You to Know About My Silence

What I Want You to Know About My Silence: On social media, racism and finding your voice

When we were in Mexico in January, I accidentally bought a racist mug.

It was the last day of our trip. The cab was waiting to take us to the airport. All week, I’d noticed through the gift shop window a particular deep red mug with an etched, Aztec-inspired circular print, cactus in the middle. Cozumel, Mexico, it said.

I bought it that morning from the hotel gift shop in a rush, counting out the pesos, waiting for the gift shop clerk to wrap it and stick it in the bag, knowing that Andrew was likely getting impatient, holding the cab, pacifying the kids, waiting for me because I’d said, “We need a souvenir! I know just the thing! I’ll just be a sec!”

Only when we got back home and I unwrapped the mug did I notice the caricature – a drunken Mexican man, passed out against that cactus, sombrero covering his face, tequila bottle lying next to him on the ground.

I gaped at it in my kitchen, shocked by what I now held in my hands. How had I missed it? How had I bought that mug without ever noticing what was dead center?

And I suppose the answer is as simple and as complicated as this:

I wasn’t really looking.

*

Over the last month, terrible things have happened in our country. I am thinking about the Orlando shooting that targeted, so tragically and specifically, the LGBTQ community. I am thinking about those iPhone videos of police shootings of black men – stark evidence of a system that is broken. The one taken in here in Minnesota, just a few suburbs away, cycles through my head again and again – the shell-shocked woman, the dying man, the cop outside the window panicked, electric with fear.

I am thinking about the violent anger of the sniper in Dallas who targeted white policemen and shot them one by one. I am thinking about their wives, their children. I’m in church, sneaking peeks at our own county sheriff – a kind man whose daughter has babysat my children for years. I wonder what he is thinking as he closes his eyes during a song.

I am thinking all of these things, and yet, my voice has been absent in the Internet sphere in which I often write and blog, where so many conversations take place.

Silence is violence, people are tweeting.

To say nothing is to take the side of the oppressor.

And yet I can no more bring myself to jump into the social media fray of it all than I could add my voice to the cacophony of class discussion in school – even though my “lack of participation” meant I didn’t get an A. My finger hovers over the empty status box, but I can’t think of what to say.

Does not adding my thoughts to that pulsing, twitching thing called Twitter mean I’ve taken the side of the oppressor? Social media interactions have always been an ill-fitting suit for my soul, like Saul’s armor on that boy-child David. I never got the hang of it, and I’ve never been very good at protest. My work has always been more about writing about my journey to make peace with God, with the Bible, with faith – so that God can make peace in and through me.

So I did not add a French flag filter to my profile after the Paris shooting or a rainbow filter after Orlando, though I read the names, read the names, read the names over and over like a liturgy of loss, like a prayer of confession.

And I have to believe that, contrary to what the teachers always said, “participation” does not necessarily always have to be about entering the relentless, volleying classroom discussion – or the social media one. Sometimes it looks like something else entirely.

*

In an essay in the New Yorker called “Memoir is Not a Status Update,” author Dani Shapiro quotes Adrienne Rich, who said “It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment – that explodes poetry.”

Shapiro goes on to talk about the difference between writing a memoir and sharing a Facebook status. “In order to write a memoir, I’ve sat still inside the swirling vortex of my own complicated history like a piece of old driftwood, battered by the sea. I’ve waited—sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair—for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me.”

And what I want you to know about my social media silence around these giant, important cultural issues is that it is not a passive silence. It’s a soul-searching, heart-rending one. The buzzing quiet you hear when you turn to my social media feed is the sound of me, listening.

I have written two memoirs, and I am used to the quiet it takes for me to cobble meaning from madness. So I’m not writing Facebook updates or tweeting and retweeting the news, but I am sitting inside that swirling vortex of our complicated national history of race and injustice, of hope and despair. I am sitting with my own oblivious past, with the stories of others, with the wise words of those who do wear the armor of the social media protester well. I am letting it all gather pressure inside of me.

After all, it is only over the past few years that I’ve begun to understand that my faith does not inoculate me against racism. I grew up singing, Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight, but I’m just now learning that those worlds sang in a Sunday school classroom of predominantly white children is no match for the systems that reinforce a hierarchy of worth, for that thing Jesse Williams named in his BET speech an “invention called whiteness.”

I have been a Christian – albeit a wobbly one at times – all of my life. But still, when I dare to look deeply into the deep places of my own heart, I find that there are trace amounts of fear and judgment towards those who are different from me. Though I am desperate to live in the Kingdom of God, there is a part of me that has been formed by the systems of this society. I have to admit that I am prone, however unintentionally, to strip the humanity from those whom God loves, accepting the cultural caricatures embossed onto the mug, simply because I’m not really looking.

I am learning to look, to finally notice the planters’ warts of fear and indifference and naiveté that have grown inward and are keeping me from truly walking in the shoes of my brothers and sisters. I am asking God to burn, burn, burn them away.

*

Still, the teachers were right in their way; we must participate.

To be a Christian is to choose, as Jesus did, to engage with a world that is so often broken and messy and fear-filled.

But I guess what I want you to know about my “silence” is that it’s not really silence at all.

What I want to say is that there are a thousand ways to use your voice, and it doesn’t have to look like Facebook, like Twitter, like a protest in the street, like a viral video.

It can be as small as a conversation with a friend, as simple as reading a book to your child. An email, a phone call, a hand stretched out into the darkness. It can be the gathering pressure of all the heaviness, slowing forming into poetry or prose in your soul.

Listen. Do you hear it?

There is a choir of voices singing a song of lament and protest and hope and justice. It is diverse and wide and beautiful, and you don’t have to have a solo to be part of it

All that is required of you is to show up. Let the music move you. Find your voice.

Sing.

13 thoughts on “What I Want You to Know About My Silence

  1. Thanks for saying this out loud. I often think what people (all of us) need is permission to stop, to break from the lure of the instant comment or rant.

  2. Yes, Addie. This.

    It takes me so long to absorb and process before I can make sense of any of it. Your metaphor of the armor is perfect. Absolutely perfect.

    Thanks for writing all this out. IT gives me a sense of solidarity with other who aren’t made for quick responses.

  3. Yes. This. I have a “long runway” – it takes me a while to process these things and figure out how to express what I’m feeling. But it doesn’t mean I am doing nothing. The most important thing I did last week was check in with a couple of friends who I knew were directly affected by the recent horrors. It wasn’t public and maybe it wasn’t earth-shaking, but it mattered.

    Thanks for this, Addie.

  4. I understand this silence. Most of the time, there’s too much confusion and pain and sin to say anything helpful. Scripture often extols the virtues of silence. I think, though, that you have hit the nail straight on the head with your suggestion that ‘Speaking ‘ is so much more than a Tweet or a status update. Those things take little from us. Racial reconciliation means taking time to have those conversations, sitting in real friendship with someone who doesn’t look like you, asking in deep humility what I don’t know, delighting in the difference of our cultures. Those things take time. They take love. They’ll take your heart, and they’re so much harder than any social media post, because those things are forged in relationship with someone who sees life through a different lens than I do. The last two years of my life have been spent enjoying friendship with people who don’t have the same color of skin that I do, and what I’ve learned is that I am the one who must address racism with my fellow white people. Once just one heart is changed, once just one heart has learned how to love across cultural and racial lines, then go have the hard conversations with someone who does look like you and tell tell them what you’ve learned and how you’ve changed. They have to see it in you to believe it. Challenge them to ask God where they’re hard of heart. Yes, it’s hard and sometimes embarrassing as I’ve realized my own naivete and ignorance and, yes, subtly racist tendencies, but through the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ, change is possible and so very sweet!

  5. Addie, appreciate what you have said here. I too have felt the “need” put upon us to enter into the fray in social media if we care. I cannot. and so I read, listen, comment here and there, make a date to have coffee with a black friend and then I will listen some more.

  6. You use the phrase “it is not a passive silence” as if there is such a thing as “active silence.” Silence is silence. We may have different reasons for keeping our silence, but the end result is the same. Having good intentions is not the same as making positive progress.

    Us white people have the luxury of choosing to be silent. My black friends do not have that luxury, because this situation is forced upon them through no fault of their own. If you don’t know what to say or do, read one of the many articles on the subject out there. Educate yourself. Ask your church leaders to speak. But do not think that your silence is somehow helping the situation.

  7. Thank you for this. I am always struggling with that feeling that I am never saying enough, doing enough. This year I have just about burnt myself out with campaigning, and I’m just trying to process that. It’s EXHAUSTING. It’s exhausting to read it all, feel it all, be in a state of constant lament. I’ve been doing it, but I can’t sustain it. And, like you, I feel that draw to write about spirituality (which as I define it is not so much mysticism as just working out how to relate to God when your world has shifted.)

    This summer I’ve had some distance from social media and I’ve noticed such a difference. My health is better – both mentally and physically. I’ve been thinking about possible articles to pitch for raising awareness – but I’m just too darn exhausted to do them. I can’t face them.

    I’m saying this like it’s confession, which is how it feels. I want someone to absolve me of the guilt, I think. I know that oppressed people never get a day off. I know that very severe ME people never get a day off from their illness – so why should I, from campaigning? But I also look at other casualties along the way – people who burnt out on campaigning and never got their health back, and that scares me, because I can’t dance along the edge of a cliff and expect not to fall off.

    Whoa. That turned out to be a splurge. Thank you for reminding me to first put on my own oxygen mask

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