I don’t know what to say. Writing is where I go to process things I don’t understand. This morning, I’m out of words.
Over the weekend, I witnessed an explosion of righteous anger. I watched Black people march down the streets of major American cities, including my own here in Ohio, protesting injustice when they’ve done this before and will likely do it again. I saw cities burn, windows get smashed, and violence perpetrated by the hands of the oppressors, who put knees on necks and feign innocence, claiming some kind of moral and physical authority. I’m so angry. I’m so sad. I’m so disappointed.
And I don’t know what to say.
I don’t know if I should.
I don’t know if my voice is necessary right now.
Over the past several years I’ve tried to reckon with my station in life, the privilege it offers me, the opportunities I have. I think of the things I’ve never have to worry about, the discussions I’ve never had to have, the consequences I’ve never had to face. I live in a society catered toward me. It’s easy to ignore systemic racism because I benefit from it. I’ve done things to further it.
It’s funny what happens when something challenges your deep seated beliefs. You feel it in your gut, a little vibration, the start of a stomachache. Now, it’s easy to ignore that twinge, to comfort yourself with medicine you know does the trick to relieve it. It’s even harder to sit with it, let it grow, let it take you out in middle and hurt you. That discomfort, I’ve found, is what it seems most people don’t want to deal with. When I’m faced with accountability, my mind presents a counterargument: “But I’m not…” and “I don’t think that…” and “Not all…” Except I am. And I do. And yes, all of us at some time or another have done that.
I’ve accepted that it’s okay not to know things. It’s okay not to realize how you’re inadvertently hurting someone. It’s what you choose to do with that information that matters. When that stomachache leaves me folded over and sore, I have to ask myself, how am I going to do better moving forward? How am I going to atone for my participation? One of the things I’ve committed to do is to be quiet and listen.
Writing requires empathy. I’ve always seen myself as empathetic and mindful, but I’ve made egregious mistakes as a writer, crafting characters I’ve had no business writing in perspectives I don’t even remotely understand. To be a sensitive writer, especially when almost all media is designed to reflect me, it takes work to override my own mind. It requires reading stories where I’m not centered, correcting my biases, reframing my thought processes, changing my behavior. It’s uncomfortable. It makes me squirm when I know I’ve been wrong. What’s been most transformative for me has been putting in the effort to listen to voices outside the one in my head, the white, middle class, suburban voice that coaches me through life.
I’ve hesitated on speaking about racial inequality and police brutality and the agony I feel watching people open their chests to pour out their heartache and offer their bodies as collateral for change. When rage spills into action and quiet voices demand to be heard, privileged people seem compelled to keep a safe distance and put their thoughts on social media, a shrine we build in honor of ourselves, thinking that not only does the world need our opinions on these issues, it expects them. Sometimes what’s required of us is not a rebuttal, but our silence. Not a hot take on social media. Not a breathless self-defense. Not presenting an argument full of cobbled together history lessons we’ve all been taught incorrectly.
One of the most powerful phrases I’ve ever learned was, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” We are our perceptions, our culture, our heritage, our socioeconomic status, our gender, our orientation, our emotions. It’s baked into who we are. It’s difficult to undo. But we have to. Nothing will change if we don’t see each other, if we don’t demand it on behalf of our neighbors. We must use our privilege and our very loud, often heard voices, and to stand up for people we’ve never met, people we’ll never know.
It pains me to think that the words I’m typing aren’t new. They were applicable the year I was born, and fifty years ago, and five hundred years ago, and will be tomorrow, and decades into the future.
I’m trying to be more conscientious of the world, but I have been responsible too. I have slipped back into what’s safe and comfortable. I have been the problem and acted in ways I’m deeply ashamed of.
This argument isn’t about me. This is about all of us. About community. About dismantling structures that exist to oppress and harm and sideline people to build a safer world for everyone. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take work, sweat equity, time. My privileged friends and family, let’s use our silence strategically. Let’s be quiet and listen when it’s not our turn to speak. Let’s get loud when it comes to supporting and amplifying people who don’t have a voice. I encourage everyone to read books and listen to stories told by marginalized authors, and if you need recommendations, I have plenty.
Being human is hard. But it costs nothing to care. It costs nothing to be kind to people. It costs nothing to feel someone else’s pain. No more excuses for inaction. No more claiming to be apolitical. Not choosing a side is still a choice. If we listen, if we open ourselves to receive, to be taught, to set aside what our eyes want to see and our ears want to hear, we can do better.
We have to.