by | Aug 15, 2017 | In the News, Justice, Race

White Silence is White Consent

Dear white people, I write this to you.

In the hours following the Charlottesville terrorist attack, many Twitter users began using #ThisIsNotUs, proclaiming themselves against all violence. Others were attempting to distance themselves, saying while they voted for Trump, they absolutely did not condone driving a car into a crowd.

Physical violence has a way of drawing a line, of bringing out sentiments of “this is too far.” However, it can just as easily spur cries of “But the other side uses violence!” It was not long before #ThisIsNotUs was simultaneously condemning anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter. Violent attacks can leave us uncomfortable, needing affirmation that we are not the attackers. #ThisIsNotUs gives us just that distance, that ability to deny the possibility that we did contribute to this or other violence.

Two responses particularly stood out to me:

But what if #ThisIsUs? I did not engage in the attacks. I don’t tweet anything racist. Heck, I don’t even tell jokes about race. I am, however, part of a system of racism. I may not do anything to outwardly express racism, but my whiteness benefits me by degrading others. I may not holler racial slurs, but I maintain power via economic and social structures. Unless I am actively trying to break down those structures, then I am culpable for maintaining racial violence.

#ThisIsNotUs changes the conversation from the horrendous effects of racism to worry about being called racist. It is more about protecting feelings than about fighting oppression. And frankly, through #ThisIsNotUs, white people created and actively maintain racial violence. As Pax Christi points out, “silence is insidious. It speaks racism softly, deceptively, and effectively.” The outright violence of terrorism hides subtle violence like purposefully disenfranchising voters of color, demanding closed borders, or even refusing to call the events of Charlottesville a terrorist attack. It covers up the ongoing effects of discriminatory housing policies, targeting by police, and gentrification.

Perhaps Fr. Bryan Massingale states it best in Racial Justice and the Catholic Church: “As a nation, we are still plagued with wary coexistence, latent suspicions, subtle exclusions, covert tensions, and barely concealed resentments – all rooted in an often unacknowledged but entrenched network of racial privilege and dominance.”

As Cardinal Cupich says, there is only one side to stand on. Catholics, Jesuits, and their institutions must decide which they will be on. This choice will take a great deal of reconciliation, which may very well be painful and difficult. As Lucas Sharma points out in his piece, it will take listening, empathy, and understanding of those who may experience racism differently than we do. We cannot wallow in the shallows of our racism, but must row to the deep, to the peripheries, where we can be companions in a mission of reconciliation and justice.

Whenever we say #ThisIsNotUs, we free ourselves from responsibility, from engagement, and from further action. I say these things because #ThisIsUs. Unless we as largely white communities acknowledge the oppression that benefits us, Charlottesville will continue happening. Even if further terrorist attacks do not happen, the violence of poverty and oppression will continue to flourish. We must be willing to examine our structures, our institutions, and our hearts, readily admitting when #ThisIsUs. We must be willing to apologize, to ask forgiveness, to pray and to walk alongside in liberation. As the US Bishops stated, “Let us especially remember those who lost their lives in Charlottesville and join them in standing against every form of oppression.”


Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user vpickering, found here.