Silence is consent
And I’ve been quiet a lot lately.
In the afterglow of a seven-week pilgrimage, the world seems really loud to me. News from far and near about explosions small and large—followed by spin and finger-pointing—has me very pensive. I read a lot. I observe a lot. But I’ve been on the sidelines of commentary, cautious about being another emotional loose cannon.
A client said to me yesterday, aptly quoting Margaret Thatcher, “If you want to change this country, lead it.” While I’ve no plans for public service, I took her words as a sign to speak up.
I want to say something about justice and about lives that matter. I write with the caveat that—like the rest of humanity—I’m in the dark, feeling my way along the elephant-part closest to me when it comes to race. As a white, middle-aged woman raised with privilege, I don’t presume to speak for anyone else.
However, one thing has become super clear to me these last few weeks.
Change comes in stages
In psychology, there is an old chestnut about the four stages of competence. Remember those?
First, you’re unconsciously incompetent—you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s not even on your radar.
Next, if you’re willing to learn, you’re consciously incompetent—you become aware of what you don’t know and begin to learn and change.
If you’re willing to practice, you become consciously competent—you start to skillfully use what you know.
And the masters become unconsciously competent—they don’t even realize what they know. They just live it.
Many white people are in the first stage of unconscious incompetence related to race and injustice. It’s not even on the radar.
Collectively, we lack knowledge about the experiences of people of color. We don’t realize how our daily actions and interactions contribute to oppression. Whether we know it or not, white people have a bubble that insulates them. It’s called privilege.
We prefer being “stuck” to being aware
It’s safe to say that people generally don’t appreciate being woken up. It’s human nature. No one wants their worldview, choices, or behavior poked at.
In fact, becoming conscious is so uncomfortable that we employ all kinds of coping strategies to fend it off. Just read comments online, and you’ll see them all:
- positive thinking
We just want it to go away. We’ll do anything… including tolerating persistent injustice and the suffering of others so we can remain comfortably oblivious.
Unconsciousness a tough nut. Usually it takes a deeply personal connection to an issue or a profound (sometimes traumatic) experience before transformation is possible. For instance, dads of daughters suddenly discover sexism. White people who marry a person of color start to see the world differently. A divorced friend starts dating someone of the same gender. It’s the same world, but suddenly everything looks and feels different.
In the words of poet ee cummings,
now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened
We don’t want to go there
We don’t go willingly. As I’ve been observing current events, I kept coming back to the same question:
Why? How can we be faced with so much evidence that something is out of balance and yet fail to see it?
The answer is simple: waking up hurts. And we don’t want to feel the pain.
I didn’t either
More than a decade ago, my employer gave me the opportunity to attend a one-day diversity training with Lee Mun Wah, a nationally-lauded speaker and facilitator.
I remember showing up to the workshop feeling nervous, yet with certainty that as a card-carrying lesbian I was part of “diversity.” I hoped it might be cathartic and healing to talk about my experiences. However, as the morning wore on, the topic seemed to “only” be about race. I became increasingly annoyed that “my issue” was not being heard.
“But I’m a lesbian,” I protested at last. “There are other kinds of oppression. Why do we keep talking just about color?”
I cringe now when I remember how unconsciously incompetent I was. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Lee responded gently but with insistence—something like, “Because the topic is race. And you haven’t realized how privileged you are as a white person.”
Well! That shut me up! Red-faced, I sat in my seat seething with resentment. I’m a victim of oppression too. How dare he? I’m a lesbian and a woman. That’s two!
While I remained quiet, the words of other participants filtered into my awareness. They told their stories, unscripted and painfully honest. One spoke of taunts about slanted eyes and the threat of internment. Another about being beaten for speaking English with a different accent. Black men shared about being pulled over countless times merely for having dark skin. I could hear the anger in their voices, but sometimes, some of those voices cracked, and sobs spilled out.
I could hear them. And I could hear the pain underneath. How can that be? Moved by their sharing, I started to cry too. It’s so unjust! These people have hearts—just like mine—longing to be loved, to belong, and to feel safe in the world. How could anyone treat them like this?
My indignation disappeared. I bore witness to their pain, which caused me to acknowledge something I had never seen before.
That day, I moved into conscious incompetence—the second stage.
Leaping from the known
To move into the second stage, the shift we need to make isn’t out there; it’s in here. Which is a good thing, because changing the whole world is very hard to do.
For starters, we need to step out of our certainty that the world we experience is the same for everyone else. It isn’t. Some people have very different—almost unbelievable—experiences in the same towns, in the same workplaces, in the same schools.
We need learn how to be courageous witnesses to each other and really listen. Listen past the accents and word choices, swears and anger for the truth underneath. This means slowing down, turning off the constant and caustic spin, and being radically present with another person’s soul.
Consider this wise question from poet Oriah Mountain Dreamer:
I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it
If you can’t imagine this, there’s work to do.
And then build skills
Once you’ve crossed that line, becoming conscious about race becomes something you work at. For example:
- Listen to people of color. Do not interrogate or facilitate. Just pay compassionate attention and believe what they tell you.
- Attend events where people of color are present—from protests to concerts.
- Find tools that help you become more awake. Byron Katie. Compassionate communication. Pema Chodron. Journaling. Activism.
- Attend workshops like the one I took with Lee Mun Wah for a mind-blowing, heart-opening experience.
As for the rest of the issues related to race, I will leave that to other voices I admire who stand at a different part of the elephant and report in on what they experience. Like Desiree Adaway. Charlie Gilkey. If you have other leaders you admire, please mention them in the comments.
All I know is that staying asleep serves no one. Waking up isn’t an easy journey, but there is no better time than now to leave the bubble. Making this leap creates just a little more understanding, peace, and connection in our loud-but-beautiful world.
Note: In writing this piece, I’ve consciously used the word “we” and “our” to address fellow white people living in the United States. If you live elsewhere or are a person of color, your voice and experiences are most welcome here.
Timing is everything. So glad to see this today. I’m reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. My eyes and heart are opened in a way as never before. I think I’m starting to get it, at least a little. So now I’m consciously incompetent. It’s going to take a lot of practice toward competency.
In my experience, change is a dance of “two steps forward, one step back.” Reading a book that opens your heart and eyes is a step forward. Reading my blog and remembering is a step forward. Forgetting is part of the process too, so be gentle with yourself when you remember again. Like any skill, practice strengthens the muscle which, in this case, is the heart. Thanks for your comment, Sandi!
You asked for inspirations beyond the ones you’ve mentioned, also Bunmi Laditan. She mostly blogs about being a mom of young kids, but has also covered this topic. As a mom of young kids I find her work especially relatable. Her writing is at once beautiful, smart, spiritual, raw, hilarious, and heroic.
Well done, Jen.
Another in this vein:
This past week, two new lessons for me, another late bloomer to the slow procession leading in the direction of culturally sensitivity and caring. Thanks for your considered words.