Struggling with silence …

One day during the holidays, I had a disturbing incident that I’ve been grappling with ever since…

I went for a walk down the street with my father-in-law and my 2-year old to the local cheese store, to buy cheese for our lunch. We walked into the store and as my father-in-law picked out his cheese, the man at the counter said to me: “Wow, you have a really cute boy.” I said ‘thanks’ and then he proceeded to say…: “You made such a good looking child, I would sponsor you to make more children, and I’ll give them a job when they grow up. It’s always the Indians on my street who make so many ugly children, 6 or 8 children, and they aren’t good-looking like your child is.” But that wasn’t the disturbing part. The disturbing part is what happened next, which is that I … said nothing. I became uncomfortable, looked at the ground, my father-in-law quick bought his cheese, and we left the store.

I can make all of the excuses in the world about why I didn’t speak out against such explicit racism – I was tired, I was stressed, I didn’t want to make a scene in front of my father-in-law etc etc. But that doesn’t excuse my silence or change what happened. I did call the cheese store that evening and make a complaint. But that’s not good enough. I should have spoke up. I wish I spoke up. I feel ashamed. I have gone over in my head, again and again, what I should have said – clear, assertive language, naming the racism and letting him know that I won’t shop there.

I don’t think its productive for me to get swallowed up in guilt and shame. What I think is productive is to pose the question: why? Why was I silent? Why, as someone who is well versed in anti-oppression and anti-colonialist thought, who cares deeply about social justice, who teaches about racism and power and privilege at a community college, was I silent? There is a clear disconnect between my values and my day-to-day actions.

What is this disconnect about? How do I change this? And other questions: would I have been silent if he was homophobic instead of racist? I think the answer is yes. Have I ever directly spoken out against racism/discrimination/sexism/homophobia etc (not in a ‘rally/protest’ kind of way, but in a ‘naming someone’s behaviour’ directly kind of way)? The answer is yes actually (thank god!), but usually not spontaneously. Usually, its a conversation that I initiated, and had thought about and rehearsed in my head beforehand. And these conversations generally haven’t been easy and sometimes, haven’t turned out the way I want (which in my rosy world would be for the person to listen, not get defensive and change their viewpoint/behaviour…).

In grappling with this, I reread Audre Lorde’s piece “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, which has been very helpful for me in thinking through this (see here – http://shrinkingphallus.wordpress.com/the-transformation-of-silence-into-language-and-action-by-audre-lorde/). She writes about the emotion of fear – fear of being ostracized, fear of a fight, fear of the unknown. When we are silent, we have let fear win over authenticity and truth. As Lorde writes:

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired. For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

This resonates for me on a very personal level, because I have worked through the emotion of ‘tired’. I truly used to be afraid of ‘tired’ on a daily basis, and now I’m not. This work needs to be done for ‘fear’, which may be trickier because it comes up sporadically, whereas I faced ‘tired’ every day when I first became a parent (and continue to face it every day). I think some of this work needs to be connected to mindfulness work – in the mindfulness literature, there is a differentiation between reacting versus responding – reacting being unconscious and automatic versus responding being conscious and reflective in action. I was clearly reactive in the cheese store – I felt embarrassed and just wanted to hide my head and leave as quickly as possible. I didn’t respond consciously or reflectively. I feel like this mindfulness work is critical to changing our actions, so we are present in all of our day-to-day actions, confronting incidents that make us uncomfortable and afraid. In my mind, no amount of anti-oppressive literature can prepare us for day-to-day action, when our values don’t connect with our behaviour, and when our behaviour is reactive.

To end with another one of my favourite Audre Lorde quotes, that I want to keep remembering every day:

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

I want to dare to be powerful.

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2 thoughts on “Struggling with silence …

  1. I’m sorry that you experienced this. Very sad. But I also wish you would be compassionate toward yourself. It’s possible that a response that comes over time, either toward this particular person or perhaps not, is equally as valuable as anything you might have said in that moment. This is a person in your neighborhood, so you have the chance to respond over time. How could any of us be perfectly prepared for every unexpected moment? Yet every time we reflect and perfect what we wish we had said, the better prepared we are for the future.

  2. Sometimes we don’t say anything because we feel like we need a big speech planned. Responding with something simple gets your point across. My reply is always something simple like… “There are ugly kids in all races.” or even simpler “That was really rude.”. It always shuts them up and makes them rethink their remark.

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