A personal reflection from a Black Woman fighting against our own self-imposed silence…
I’m actually not sure when it shifted for me. When the place became a place where it wasn’t safe anymore. When the place of me, the world I live in, the world I work in, was no longer safe. The truth is, it never was. But if I’m being really honest with myself, I remember the exact age I decided to stay silent about it.
Third grade. I was 8 years old. There was a white boy named Brett who really struggled with me because at the time, I was very outspoken and I was getting better grades than him. There was a day that I raised my hand to speak up about something, and Brett turned around and said, “I wish you would stop talking nigger.” And I remember in that very moment pausing because I was so shocked that he said that to me and my parents had taught me very early on what that word was and what it meant. And how wrong it was. And it just hurt me, and then I remember just standing up. And in my little third-grade chair, yelling at him.
I’m so thankful, so thankful that my teacher was Black. Ms. Kitrell. And she was able to call me down, but also reprimand Brett, in front of the whole class, and really stood up for me. I always remember her and that moment so fondly. But I also remember that even though I yelled at that moment, even though I made sure that Brett knew that he was wrong…that I began after that day to silence myself. I stopped speaking up for myself, started turning my head when I saw wrong being done to other Black kids. His words made me live in fear of my own self. Of my own power. And I continued to silence myself, in my head, in order to continue to be safe and not give into my own fear. I’ve done it so much that it became the norm for me. I couldn’t break the white dominant culture because I was too busy, as a Black woman, upholding it.
There are so many moments in my career where I’ve gotten to a certain place I was leading HR and DEI work but I stayed silent. A few organizations where I would just do what the white leaders told me to do, even though I had some positional power to say no. And yet, I stayed silent. It makes me so angry with myself that I did this. Even though I knew that the actions that I would take would be so harmful to a fellow black colleague or someone that worked for me or worked for the organization. I convinced myself that this was how you ‘play the game’, how you stay safe as a Black woman in America.
I look back at those moments, and I feel so much shame, and I feel so powerless, even though I had a title. I feel so shameful that I would allow myself to be used in that way that I wouldn’t get up on that chair again and use my voice to yell back.
But I was convinced
that silence is safe.
that silence is safe.
that silence is safe.
And I can’t tell you the moment when I realized that silence isn’t safe.
But one day, I just knew.
There have been so many murders, so many macro, and microaggressions, so many systematic burdens, so much racist behavior that has happened in this country that I have seen. I have mourned, cried, felt desperately alone, and yet still went to work with a smile on my face, and when people asked ‘How are you?’ I said I’m fine, even though I was breaking inside because I had convinced myself that being silent is just easier, safer. You get to a place, a moment though, where you just finally wake up and realize it’s not safe to stay silent and that by doing so, you cause more harm.
It becomes a moment you can’t ignore and then you suddenly find yourself standing in the chair again, this time realizing you’re NEVER going to get down again.
I can’t say to any person that there will be an exact moment, that there will be an exact reckoning for you. What I can tell you though, it will come. It’s going to come, so quickly, so fast so deep in the night that you aren’t going to know what hits you, you are going to look at all these pictures of yourself, where you are sharing joy, where you are, upholding white privilege with joy. And you will wonder why? How could I have ignored it? How could I have shunned it? How can I have said it doesn’t apply to me?
It will gut you and make you feel pain like you’ve never felt before. It is going to make you question everything and rightfully so. But I also think it will make you fight as you have never fought before. It is a fight that I don’t know how to explain. You’ll know when it comes. People will ask you how you’re feeling and you won’t be able to tolerate that question much, because there are so many things that you will be feeling.
But also feeling like you don’t have the right to be exhausted. Because for so long, you lived in a bubble. You stayed in your safe place.
When that moment comes, whether you’re at work or you’re at home, it will change how you operate at work. It won’t let you see things differently, it will ask you to position yourself differently, you will recognize that it is not about you that it is not about staying safe, and that if you do stay safe. If you stay silent, it still doesn’t mean you’re safe.
We must recognize that committing to not staying silent will require each of us to think differently, act differently, move differently. It can be isolating, hard, and exhausting work. But if that means, by doing so, we can get to a place where we are all treated equally and fairly: I would say it’s worth every second of that work.
I don’t know when it will change for you, but when it does. I just hope you are ready. I hope you are ready. And I hope you’ve gotten some sleep. Because once you know once you have shifted and the light is on. It is on.
And there is no turning back.
There certainly isn’t for me.