White silence

I was recently at a major institution in my denomination, and the national headquarters of an evangelical Christian non profit. white-silenceAt both places, people of color were talking about the fact that when they passed white people, most of us were silent. They felt effaced by our silence. Their very existence was ignored. I feel pretty sad about that, because these are our brothers and sisters and neighbors.

So when I find myself inclined to being a silent introvert, I remember: Jesus was really clear that if we can’t love each other, we can’t pretend we love God. Making conversation is really not that hard, and it’s fun to find commonalities and make connections.

But we white people of good intentions are also often silent online. Now I recently read a stinging analysis of white anxiety and hate politics, and it was hard work to respond.

But we are also silent around tragedies.

Why are white people silent around racial trauma?

We read the news. We know black men are incarcerated. Black boys are being shot. Black women are underpaid and overworked. We know more Black and Latino people experience food insecurity, inequity in housing, education and employment.

I think we are silent because, we care…. We are silent because we do care, and we don’t want to say the wrong thing. Maybe I’m saying, we care but we are incompetent? We need a racial education. We need to build skills for cross-cultural and interracial conversations. If we can talk to people of color about other topics, we can express our concern and stand up for the right thing when it is needed.

We care, but we are ashamed.

Sarah Shin first pointed this out to me. Doug and I talked in our book about white guilt. Sarah’s critique was that really we have a bigger problem with white shame. If we feel guilty that we have done something wrong, then the solution is fairly clear – we can make amends and do our best to set the situation straight, and we can ask forgiveness, to begin the process of reconciliation. But guilt and shame are different. When we feel ashamed, we don’t want anyone to know. We hide from ourselves and others. Shame freezes us. To the extent that white people are aware of our privilege, we know we are complicit in systems of racial inequity.

Can you relate to that? Do you ever feel ashamed of being white? This is particularly challenging when other people perceive we need an education and try to educate us about race, justice and our complicity.

It seems to me a lot of our attempts to educate others about race come with urgency – it is urgent – and with anger -and they may heap on more shame. I have to admit I do that. I recognize myself. My son is black and he goes to college in northern Wisconsin where it’s mostly white. Sometimes when he leaves home, I feel afraid that he’ll have another “driving while black” incident. The last time I told some of my church folks about my fear and my prayers for his life and safety, they were not able to listen to me, or say anything. They froze. And I confess I felt angry. So I’m still trying to learn to talk about race in a committed way, but with a great deal of compassion for each person. Every person is a beloved child of God, and has the capacity for great goodness.

I’m coming to believe, what we need is empathy. Gentleness with our own growth process. And let us not forget, empathy for the violence that people of color face daily. We are growing, slowly; they are dying.

If you identify with any of what I’ve written, next time you witness racial violence or trauma, would you consider saying or writing something like “I care, I feel (….sad, or angry, or confused about why this still happens, or whatever your true feeling is), and I’m not sure what to say or do.”

You will be inviting an education. (That may come with kindness or it may come with some strong feelings.) But when people educate us, it is an opportunity to learn about the real situation for people of other races. And you may need to face your shame. Because ultimately, growing our empathy is important enough to lay aside our shame.


3 thoughts on “White silence

  1. Don’t worry-people ignore or avoid any uncomfortable subject, no matter the race involved. People behave the same way if you have a divorce, lose a loved one through suicide, have a tragic accident, or were the victim of a violent crime. They don’t know what to say, so freeze.
    White people don’t feel “guilt”..they are simply in a bubble that is invisible to them.
    I have been in a bubble my entire life and only now, at 63, just starting to realized a PART of it.
    Are you American? Bubble.
    Are you a native English speaker? Bubble.
    Can you read? Bubble.
    Healthy, with all senses working? Bubble.
    Are your parents still married? Bubble.
    Have a college education and good job? Bubble.
    Under 70 years old? Bubble
    White? Bubble
    Attractive? BIG bubble.

    People only know they were in a bubble when they, or a loved one, loses that privileged status.


    1. I think that’s true, Rachel. Also, when wake up and realize we are in a power “bubble” like you describe, then we can use our experiences of having the bubble burst to offer empathy to others who have been excluded.


      1. That would be ideal.
        In the case of trans and gay people, studies show that even bigots often change their tunes when one of their children or a beloved friend “comes out.” Or one of their children marries someone of another race and they find themselves with biracial grandchildren. Luckily, this new generation has a generally higher level of acceptance, possibly due to popular movies and TV shows exposing audiences to diversity.


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