A few years ago, I found myself at a party with The Husband and a few other people. We weren’t parents yet, and this was our first time out at one of these sort of affairs: a pleasant dinner party with fancy food and fancier wine. It was a weekend or two before MLK day weekend, and people were talking about their plans. Many of the other guests were married with children and I was the only Black person in the room. This being Massachusetts and everybody being liberal and all, I was asked a question: “We’ve got two young children and we are thinking about ways to get them involved in MLK day activities. We’ve been looking for Black role models to talk to them about, but there are only really Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell….” (as if somehow party affiliation negates race… a debate for another time…) “…do you have any suggestions about what we can do to really engage the kids in the holiday and in Black History Month?”
Now, they weren’t asking me just because I was the only Black person in the room. They were asking me because I’m an educator and I was just talking about being waist-deep in my annual Slavery unit for my class. I was excited to answer the question. I told them that they should consider making it an annual day of service work for the kids and yadda yadda, which went over well. And then I finished with one more thing.
“But if you want to really make an impact, you really ought to make yourself uncomfortable around your children.”
This was confusing. They asked for explanation.
“I’m saying, you should let your kids see you speak up in uncomfortable moments. Kids notice when we are silent in the face of social discomfort and when we choose to do the right thing, even when it isn’t the most comfortable thing to do. If you really want to teach them about Dr. King and his message, you should be mindful of what your silence means in front of your children. Non-violent dissent in the face of unspeakable discomfort [(read: violence)] was what he was doing. It’s what you have the power to teach, too.”
That is an easy thing to say at a party when everyone is drinking. It’s a beautiful idea, yes. But it’s hard to practice. I don’t always practice it. I have given plenty of examples on this blog when I’ve chosen to stay silent and walk away rather than speak up. I can make excuses about safety and social status and what not, but the truth of the matter is this: there are times when I could have spoken in my own defense or for my own empowerment or to teach a lesson when one was needed in the context of where I live/send my children to school, and I haven’t. I admit that I’m not always as brave as I project myself to be. Maybe, actually, I’m not terribly brave at all. But what I said at that party is the aspiration: Speaking in the face of uncomfortable consequences can be an aspiration. Maybe you can’t do it all of the time. Maybe you can’t even do it some of the time.
But this year, I’m asking you to commit to doing it at least once.
There are a lot of people out there who are thinking about the state of America (not just Black America, but all America) after the racial nonsense we saw in 2014. From the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act to the deaths of so many young men and women to unimaginably tragic circumstances, the great injustices within our “justice system” afterwards, the Great White Out of Hollywood, the increasing segregation of schools… The last 12 months have really seen a lot of fire and brimstone instead of hope and change. Maybe you woke up on this MLK Day morning and wondered “what can I really do? Little old me? How am I really helping?” That’s me included. I have no idea, sometimes, what the hell to do about keeping things moving forward.
Take up the cause as you see fit, dear reader.
You don’t have to be on the front lines or the loudest voice to be part of the movement. Actually, I want neither of those things from you. I want your quiet gestures far more than I want your loudest yells. It isn’t to say that protests and marches aren’t necessary and admirable, I’m just saying if you aren’t in a location to do it or if it isn’t your style, then don’t. Give me instead your moments of dissent: your disapproving frown when at the counter at the small business with the hate radio blasting in the background. The shake of your head at the dinner table when Uncle Larry is spewing racist bullshit about how “immigrants are ruining the country.” Give me your quiet conversations at the dinner table about justice and equality, and how it doesn’t always look the same in all neighborhoods. Give me your choice to not clutch your purse or to not immediately cross the street when you see a person of color walking in your direction. Give me you attention to language, not using “thug” or “urban” as code words or pseudo-slurs, erasing “ghetto” from your vocabulary as you have scrubbed other words from it. Your quiet choices to break through the ugly small behaviors that lead to bigger and uglier ideas are the things I want from you. Commit to a small act of defiance this year. Just one. Maybe that one will lead you to two. Maybe those two will lead you to five…
And if you don’t think you’re ready for that, dear reader, I understand. Maybe you can give if you’ve got it or pledge time/skill if you don’t, to the local organizations in and around your community that are doing great things for underserved folk. Your money is wonderful to be sure, but your time (which I am always writing is the most precious and valuable thing you can give) is so much better.
It’s an unpopular thing to write, these words. I’m asking you for soft diplomacy when so many others have their feet in the streets, their voices raised in anguish. I believe that their work is important and should not stop. I support it wholeheartedly. But for the rest of us who aren’t out there, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a role to play in the conversation. Your small moments of dissent have big ripples, especially when you choose to do it in front of those who are watching and learning and growing. Our actions today determine the course of the conversation tomorrow. That’s what it all amounts to. That’s what today is about, dear reader.
Until then, dear reader, take care.