A sign I have seen carried at protests says, “White Silence Is Violence.” This is something to think about, for those of us who ask “What can I do?” in the face of racial injustice; it is another and much more forceful way to say that silence is the same as complicity. As good League members, we all know to write to our representatives supporting legislation, and we speak up at local town halls and other meetings. Sometimes we go to protests and join marches.
But in order to change the systems and structures of injustice, we must deal with the underlying culture of race in this country, and with the acceptance of that culture, which allows people like the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery, or the woman who called the police about the birdwatcher in Central Park, to feel entitled to take those actions.
Here is a striking comment someone shared on Facebook recently: White supremacy is not the shark in the water, it IS the water. Refusing to remain silent can be done on a small-scale, interpersonal level, with people we know. Not dramatic, perhaps, but cumulatively and in the long run deeply effective. There are many jokes about how to deal with your bigoted old Uncle Joe when he goes on a racist rant at Thanksgiving dinner. Many of us are lucky enough to have few open bigots in our circle of family, friends, and neighbors; an increasing number of us, like me, are members of multiracial families. The risk here is complacency. Calling people out for hatred is easy (though of course it may be risky), but we may hesitate to point out a lack of awareness or sensitivity, an unthinking acceptance of an underlying culture that reinforces racial injustice, when it comes to the people we like, because that is bad manners.
Recently, a white friend of mine, an ardent conservationist, said she was baffled and annoyed at hearing “Black lives matter” all the time because, “after all, don’t all lives matter?” I cautiously reminded her that she has a bumper sticker saying “Save the redwoods.” This doesn’t mean she thinks no other trees matter, just that right now the redwoods are the most endangered. She admitted that she had never thought about it that way, but now she understood. Her feelings weren’t hurt, and I didn’t feel like a self-righteous prig. Not a dramatic moment, but a satisfying one for both of us.