“There is a big difference, after all, between being silenced and silencing oneself … In silence, I had found a reservoir of strength that, if I could just learn to draw from it, could make my words weightier. In silence, it seems, I had finally found my voice.” (278)
Rachel Held Evans’ words on the power of silence are perhaps the most evocative part of her challenging book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. There is, after all, such a grand tradition of willingly silencing ourselves in our Christian tradition. We need only think of the seemingly endless exhortations to silence scattered through the book of Proverbs. Indeed, “Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace” (Proverbs 17:28).
In recent weeks, Rachel Held Evans’ comments on the gift of silence have risen again in my mind. I have been pondering on the gift of silence that someone like me — a privileged white Christian — can offer to other, perhaps more marginalized voices. The role of “white allies” has been debated hotly and controversially of late in light of the issues raised by the Grand Jury’s failure to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. I don’t want to re-hash my thoughts on that subject. Those in church on Sunday heard enough about it in my sermon. But there is an issue in how white Christians (such as myself, and, I imagine, the majority of people who read this post) can best serve as allies to the black community who, understandably, feed an form of outrage at the moment we cannot ever fully understand.
An anecdote: Several (white) people I know went down to the Toronto Consulate last Tuesday night to protest the Ferguson decision. Apparently, the white allies in attendance were asked to stand behind the black protestors and also not to talk to the media but instead point reporters to interview the black leadership. This request, it seems, outraged many, and at the very least confused this reporter from the CBC. Lets all just pause for a moment an ponder the irony of a reporter producing an article about why white protestors were asked to “silence” themselves that fails to interview a single non-white protestor.
Why are would-be white allies asked to silence ourselves when attempting to fight for a just inclusion of people of colour in all levels of our society? It is precisely because our white voices are heard all the time. We do enough talking about our non-white brothers and sisters. It is time for us to step back, to silence ourselves especially when we are addressing the experience of people of colour. We do not know what it is to have our basic humanity debated by the people around us. And when we stand up to talk about our experience of racial issues we (perhaps not intentionally) make it all about us and detract attention from the voices that desperately need to be heard–lets just go back to the CBC article, shall we? We need to let ourselves be told by people of colour what they need from us. We need to be told how we can best be servants to their need in this time of (their) deep pain. Because we cannot share their experience. This is not an issue of “reverse racism” (not least because reverse racism cannot exist). This is not an issue of white people being unfairly “silenced” in favour of black voices.
Rather, we have come to a point where we as white people (and, in the context of the church … white Christians) need to consider silence as power. At this time our collective silence is the greatest gift we have to give people of colour and especially the American black community at the moment. Willingly silencing ourselves so diverse voices and experiences can be heard and–God willing–begin to bring about a more truly just society.
Now, I am aware that I am very non-silently addressing the need for silence on a platform I speak from every week (not that it is really a very big platform, but still … the irony is not lost on me). And I will admit, recent events have made me far more mindful of how many white faces appear on the list of people I follow on twitter, and how many white authors’ works sit on my bookshelf. With that in mind, I would just like to point out a few black voices that are well worth following–voices I am striving to be more intentional about listening to. Some within the church, some not.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for the Atlantic–I’ve been reading him for years. The man speaks some harsh truths about the black experience in the U.S., and the ways in which white Americans continue (consciously or not) to benefit from a system rigged in our favour.
Colorlines — This is a handy news source for getting news coverage on racial issues that sometimes fly under the mainstream radar.
I’ll confess I haven’t read many of her columns at Sojourners (that I’m aware of), but Lisa Sharon Harper as been an illuminating new voice on my twitter feed.
Then, there is the delightful Medieval People of Color tumblr, featuring the non-white faces that go unstudied in medieval art. Well worth checking out.
I admit it’s a woefully short list. If you’re reading this and you know of good people I can start following/reading — please let me know!
Let us consider how we can give the gift of our silence to others. Not just people of colour but to any who may have a different, less empowered, less privileged experience than our own. In so doing, it may be that we come closer to the image of Christ dwelling within us, the example of whom calls us “in all humility to think of others better than ourselves, not thinking of our own interests but the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Let us silence ourselves so that we may empower others.