Resisting the Prowling Lion: The Fatal Problem of White Silence

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image of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church via compliments of their Creative Commons Share Alike license

Edit 6/19/2015: Some helpful people on Facebook have pointed out to me that the African Methodist Episcopal Church has a very rich history that should not be erased by conflating it with the Episcopal Church. Of course it was not my intention to diminish this history in any way, and I’d like to take a moment to promote that history. You can click here and here for more information about AMEC. Click here for more information about Emmanuel Church, and click here to find an AMEC parish near you. 

First, let me start by saying that I was deeply disturbed by the tragedy in Charleston. The detail that hit home for me was that this church is an Episcopal church. I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, and I know the evening compline service forwards and backwards. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of liturgy our church has to offer; simple, profound acknowledgment of the presence of God in our daily lives. I imagined the church I grew up in, the only building in the world where I am not afraid of the dark. I’m terrified of dark corners in my own home, but there isn’t a single space of that building that is threatening to me. It is the house of God. I feel God’s presence equally in the basement and in the nave. The violence of having that safety ripped away from you, of the most heinous crime against God being committed in His house, tears at the fibers that are deepest in me. Earlier today I was listening to Mahler 4 with a friend and had to hold back tears when he told me that the symphony is based off of a child’s vision of heaven. Immediately I thought of the child who played dead to avoid being murdered.

When I read this article about Dylann Roof, the Charleston Church Shooter, I read a sentence that brought my reading to a screeching halt and tripped the switch to the alarm bells in my belly. One of his classmates says that Roof made racist jokes frequently, and they didn’t think anything of it at the time.

They didn’t think anything of it at the time.

They didn’t think anything of it at the time.

They didn’t think anything of it at the time.

This right here, white people, is why it is extremely important, life-saving important, world-changing important, to speak up and refuse to let casual racism slide. Because someone who casually and frequently mentions that a group of people are inferior fails to see them as human beings. That loss of humanity is one step away from justifying violence.

People around Roof say that they can’t imagine how this happened, that they never saw it coming. I don’t know about you, but I can see it all too clearly. I can hear him seething a racist comment to his group of friends after school, and I can hear the silence–that heavy, pregnant silence that white people are so good at–permeating the room. Or, perhaps they laughed that uncomfortable laughter, polite laughter, that whites have mastered. Maybe the seed was planted by a racist family member who made a hateful comment at dinner, and the polite change of the subject was not lost on him. And that silence (or laughter) buoyed Roof’s beliefs in white supremacy. It solidified his belief that he was unshakably right.

I’m not saying that the people who heard him and said nothing are responsible for his killing innocent Black Christians who were gathered for prayer. But when white people decide that it is more important to be polite than to confront casual racist remarks, we are making a decision to uphold white supremacy. We can’t call this man a lone gunman, we can’t call this tragedy an isolated incident, when at dinner tables across the country we shrug our shoulders and excuse Uncle Johnny because he’s just a good ol’ boy.

I write a lot on my blog about words, about the importance of what we say, about the coded language white people use. That’s because I sincerely believe that the root of this problem can be solved by white people committing to having difficult conversations with each other. Advocacy doesn’t end when there are no longer any people of color in the room. I believe this event could have been avoided if the people closest to Roof had decided to cross their comfort zone and talk to their white skinbrother about his racist beliefs. When I speak out against racism it’s not just so that I can stand up for POC; it’s so that the other people around me, particularly young people, can hear a worldview in which racism is completely unacceptable. I speak out against racism because I believe that whites can do better.

So, fellow white people, the next time you hear a racist joke or comment, speak up. I’m not saying you have to be a skilled logician ready for a searing word-battle. Shutting down a racist conversation by simply saying, “That’s racist” is a great start. If they squeal and squawk and insist that they aren’t racist, I’m not saying that you have to counter every point they make. All I’m saying is that white people need to drop the pretense of manners and confront racism in our everyday lives. After all, what good are manners when we’re killing each other over the color of our skin? We’re trying to have a damn society here. Who knows how many lives might be saved if we expected more from each other, even at the dinner table and in the school hallway.

I’ll end this blog post with a piece of scripture from 1 Peter 5:8-9 that struck me today. It gave me strength to continue to confront racism in the white people I love and know, to overcome that initial discomfort. If you are Christian or not, I hope this passage gives your strength and comfort in these difficult conversations.

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.


4 thoughts on “Resisting the Prowling Lion: The Fatal Problem of White Silence

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