In the pre-cell phone era, here in Maine, I was out with two friends, one white and one black. The black friend ducked into a local bar to find a pay phone. She came out a few minutes later, stony-faced. The bar patrons had called out comments the whole time she'd been trying to make her phone call
- "Look, it's Whoopi Goldberg!" "Hey, Whoopi!" She was sunk inward, both angry and disheartened, all the stuffing knocked out of her by one-too-many encounters of being Othered. I, who'd been at ease in conversation with her the previous hour, could find nothing to say in the face of her distress.
At a chapter meeting of a diversity leadership training group (NCBI), a member of color voiced a concern about being tokenized. All the white members (including me) - all skilled, experienced trainers - sat silent.
How many times have I heard a comment - a racial slur or epithet, or something less hostile but still "off" - and found myself incapable of responding?
As I've been writing about this topic in the last month, two white friends have written directly to me, and although they were each simply recording how they experienced being white as a child, they both ended with something like, "I could never say this in public." I notice a curious lack of comments on listservs and blogs - except ones that are about race and therefore attract an audience that wants to talk about it - when the topic of race is raised directly.
Why do I and other white people lose our voices at such times?
In my own experience, this is the inside of my brain at such moments:
1."OMG what just happened what should I do what if I say the wrong thing was it something I did what if I say this no that might be taken the wrong way no I can't say that yikes somebody save me this silence is really uncomfortable but I have absolutely no idea how to respond no matter what I do it's going to be wrong;"
or 2. -- (blank screen)
Responding with silence can be a symptom of many other reactions: carefulness, self-consciousness, nervousness, avoidance, numbness, going "stupid," freezing, guilt, shame. Whatever the cause, it doesn't move anyone or anything forward.
If we want to be allies in pursuit of a world of books that represent and celebrate all children, white people must find our voices around the topic of race. (One of the most useful things that white people can do to is practice by telling our stories of being white to each other.)
Take the risk of making mistakes, dare to make ourselves vulnerable, and begin to build bridges with our words.