‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter’ - Martin Luther King Jr.
It is a hot, sticky evening in Washington D.C., I am sitting by an open window watching the lightning crack across a biblically dark sky. My ceiling fan is providing the only cool relief in the room. Sheets of rain pour down past my cat, who is sitting mesmerized on the window ledge. Across the street, a small ‘English-country-style’ church is ringing its bells, the same bells that rang at 1pm last Thursday to mark George Floyd’s memorial service in Minneapolis.
It has been a deeply painful, sad, enraging and frustrating two weeks since George Floyd’s killing as a result of police brutality. Every day since, we have been reading more stories about the many black lives lost due to police violence, discrimination, and 400 years of institutionalized racism in U.S. history. Stories that were ignored or received little attention before are now being re-told and the countless victims of racist violence are being re-remembered.
When I first arrived in DC I was struck by the racial inequities. You couldn’t miss them. It was clear from day one what the racial hierarchies were. For example, most of the professors in my university are white, while most of the people working in the service sector are black. And while at first I talked a lot about this discrimination with my friends, as time went on I began to accept the status quo, ‘this is how things are here’.
But that has all changed now.
On Thursday night I cycled down to the White House to join the crowds of protesters and add my voice to the chants for justice. ‘No justice, no peace! Defund the police!’ We called out the names of the most recent victims of racist violence, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and of course, George Floyd. We took the knee and chanted ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!’ We held our hands up and cried out ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot’!
The energy of the crowd was emotionally raw, powerful, and peaceful.
As I cycled home over Calvert Bridge the clouds lowered and the storm that had been brewing all day finally broke. The wind was so strong I feared that I and my bike would be blown off the bridge. I put my head down and cycled faster and faster into the wind. As the rain poured over my body, soaking me through to the skin, I shouted and shouted. It felt exhilarating to finally let out all the rage and frustration.
The next day, my school held a zoom call, a space for processing the recent events and their impact on our black community. One person after another expressed their pain, despair and exhaustion at being here yet again, at the frustration of trying to convince the dominant white population that Black Lives Matter. I listened, saddened by the knowledge that I, as an Irish woman living in the U.S. am benefiting from this discriminatory system. That I have more power and privilege than many African-Americans, simply because I have a white body. And, even though I had given a lot of thought to the issue, and prepared some ideas about how the school needed to better support members of the black community, I found myself surprisingly silent. Partly, because I was respecting the space for processing by members of the black community, and partly because I became anxious that I didn’t fully understand the pain of racism and I was going to inadvertently say something insensitive or that my words might sound like flat platitudes. It was this discomfort, and fear of saying ‘the wrong thing’ that silenced me.
My silence and fear of saying the wrong thing reminded me of those debates we had years ago in Women’s Studies, UCD, about whether we should call feminist men, ‘feminists’, ‘pro-feminist’ or ‘feminist allies’. We bemoaned the fact that not enough men were actively involved in dismantling the patriarchy and supporting women in meaningful ways to claim our human rights by having equitable access to resources and power. We voiced our frustrations about men staying silent while standing on the sidelines leaving women to do most of the hard work to end institutionalized sexism. And then men did find their voices, and men did become comfortable with feminist language, when they came out in their droves to support women to Repeal the 8th Amendment.
Now I see and have a deeper understanding of men’s silence and the uncertainty many may have felt about raising their voices against a sexist system. I imagine it was partly because they didn’t know if they fully understood women’s pain and frustration, and partly because they didn’t know if they had the right language to join in the conversation. We can’t just dismiss not having language as an excuse, it is a barrier that can exclude and silence people, especially if we shame them for ‘getting it wrong’.
When I have discussed racism with other white people there is a common sentiment of feeling ‘uncomfortable’ when talking about race. It is uncomfortable admitting our unearned privilege and acknowledging our role in upholding injustices towards black people by not actively working to dismantle the systems that perpetuate racism. Being uncomfortable is the privilege our white skin affords us. We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable! We need to find the right words, the right language, the right way of listening and holding space and being there for our black communities. We need to acknowledge ‘uncomfortable’ as our problem and educate ourselves. This is our job, we need to hold ourselves accountable.
As a feminist educator, I discuss with my students the importance of transnational feminist movements in raising awareness, advocating for women’s rights and influencing societies to become more gender equal. A transnational movement for change is the single most powerful way of forcing governments to pay attention, to transform policies, laws and systems, to end oppression and injustice. We now have a powerful transnational movement to end racism. This is the moment our black communities have been waiting for, we need to grasp this opportunity and add our voices to the call for change. This is on all of us. It is up to the oppressors to end the oppression!
Footnote: I have found listening to the following interviews very insightful: Ibram X Kendi talking about his research and book called ‘How to be an Antiracist’ on the ‘Unlocking Us, Brene Brown podcast. Resmaa Menakem on the trauma of being black in a dominant white culture in conversation with Krista Tippett on the ‘On Being’ podcast. Austin Channing Brown discussing her book ‘I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World made for Whiteness’ on the Good Life podcast.