During this first week of June, riots and protests erupted in cities across America, sparked by the brutal death of George Floyd, an African-American man, at the hands of a cop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The video of this arrest and death was shocking, and soon after protestors across the country hit the streets, and rightly so.
Sadly, however, these protests were quickly overshadowed by violent looting, rioting, destroying property, and even death. The sadness over Floyd’s death quickly evolved into anger as I thought what is happening now is no longer about George Floyd.
Yet I said nothing.
Among the reports and photos flooding the internet, I noticed a sign held by a protestor that read: “White silence = white violence.”
I have been thinking about that sign constantly ever since.
I am white. And I have been silent. Does this mean I don’t care?
Not at all. I am as horrified as everyone else by what happened.
So why am I silent? And does my silence equal violence?
My answer is multifaceted. Let me try to explain.
As the discussion of race has evolved over the last decade, we have made everything so binary, so “either / or,” that we have lost our ability to nuance.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, my heart breaks for the Floyd family. I have seen racism in many forms. In my home state of Montana, issues of racism center mostly around Native Americans and the reservations. Like people of every color and creed, I must continually watch for racism and prejudice in my own heart.
Yet I also have real problems with what has happened since.
I have a problem with the riots burning businesses to the ground–many built and owned by blacks, destroying their livelihood. (1)
I have a problem with city officials looking the other way as communities burn, leaving citizens and business owners to fend for themselves (which, on a side note, seems to strengthen the case for gun rights).
I have a problem firefighters being blocked by protestors from doing their job.(2)
I have a problem with politicians and media pundits throwing fuel on the fire, spinning the narrative and turning Americans against one another.
On the other hand, I do support the Floyd family, as well as those who’ve suffered injuries, loss of businesses in their neighborhoods, and in some cases their lives. I also support the huge majority of police officers who are doing their best to prevent these losses. Logically speaking, I am curious why the public narrative says we must view all police officers as murderous brutes (a generalization that is not okay), but we cannot view all protesters as riotous thugs (a generalization that is also not okay).
In both cases, shouldn’t we be able to distinguish good actors from bad ones?
But mentioning such points is likely to release an apocalyptic wrath such as the world has never seen since, well, last night on (insert any media outlet here). That’s one reason I keep quiet.
Here’s another: As a white guy, if I stay silent I am labeled a racist, but if I speak out I am labeled a patronizing wannabe white savior of the black community. I have been told that I am not permitted to speak because I am white and have nothing to say because I come from a position of privilege. And because I can never truly understand, I am often told that it is best for me not to speak at all – or if I do speak, I should do so only to voice support for the only acceptable opinion (3), not to voice any inner thoughts or questions that trouble my mind.
I once heard a sermon series in which the pastor passionately challenged his listeners to have “hard conversations” about race issues. Of course I agreed. However, when we as a congregation began trying to comply in the weeks that followed, I quickly learned that those “hard conversations” went only one way. Any question or comment that strayed from the approved talking points was met with anger, labels, or demands to “check your privilege.”
So I stopped talking.
And now I am chastised with “white silence equals violence.”
In all honesty—and please understand that there is no sarcasm here and I truly speak from my heart—I have no idea how to engage, what to do, or what to say.
So what do I do? Do I mark my social media accounts with a blackout screen labeled #blackouttuesday, as was done by many on June 2? Does that help? (4) What if I believe hashtags are an empty gesture that does little good – or actually does harm, as has been said by some activist leaders themselves? (5)
Again, as a Christ-follower, I know I must confront issues of racism, both around me and inside me. Jesus is all about justice. But he is also about peace and understanding. And understanding is hindered when only one side of the conversation is allowed.
I ache inside as our nation tears itself apart. I ache for the Floyd family, for the black community, for the peaceful protestors who need to be heard, for the rioters and their victims, for police officers trying to protect people despite zero support, for politicians treating this issue like a football. My heart longs for truth and justice to win the day.
In my uncertainty, I realize that there actually is something I can do. I can pray (though saying that is even ridiculed today). I can imitate Jesus as much as possible. I can confront the evils of racism inside me and around me as I do my daily work, meet with my faith community, and go about my everyday business.
This plan is not perfect, and I know that some may harshly critique it as wrong or inadequate. But in my conundrum, I honestly don’t know what else I can possibly do.
And when the craziness of this earthly life is finally over, I will be judged. But I will be judged not by the media, not by the pundits, not by the protestors, or guilt-inducing do-gooders but by the holy one on the throne—the one I desire to follow with all my heart.
(2) See Richmond, VA news sources (https://www.wtvr.com/news/local-news/police-chief-details-emotional-rescue-amid-richmond-riot).
(3) For a good analysis, see https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/06/george-floyd-protests-free-speech-progressives-say-silence-complicity/
(4) About hashtags – remember these? In 2014, the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 young girls in Nigeria. As if to illustrate the public’s fickle attention span, the hashtag “#bringbackourgirls” exploded on social media but was within a day or two replaced by “#icebucketchallenge,” a campaign to fund research for ALS (also called Lou Gehrig’s disease). Most of Boko Haram’s victims were not directly helped much by the hashtag activism (https://www.thedailybeast.com/three-years-later-a-look-at-the-bringbackourgirls-catch-22); however, the cause of ALS was greatly helped by it (https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/7/20/20699732/ice-bucket-challenge-viral-charity-als). The point is, raising awareness is not the same as actually investing time or money – though even those investments can sometimes backfire and cause harm; see such well-known books as When Helping Hurts (Corbett and Fikkert) and Toxic Charity (Lupton).
(5) See https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/02/us/blackout-tuesday-black-lives-matter-instagram-trnd/index.html and https://www.instagram.com/tv/CA343EOAkrE/?utm_source=ig_embed.
“I quickly learned that those “hard conversations” went only one way. Any question or comment that strayed from the approved talking points was met with anger, shunning, or demands to “check your privilege… understanding is hindered when only one side of the conversation is allowed.”
So well said, Dan! Thank you for this.
I’m sorry that this is so long.I appreciate your article, and the way you articulate the impossible place that some elements in modern society try to put us. I would like to add one more thing that we CAN do to your list. We can smile warmly. I realize that it sounds so small as to be meaningless, but allow me to share a recent experience.
I was returning to my car after a brief shopping trip at Walmart. Next to my car I saw a young black woman loading copious amounts of bags into the trunk and backseat of her car. I said nothing and patiently waited for her to finish so that I could get into my car. When she turned around and saw me she instantly had a panic attack. (As a combat veteran with PTSD I can spot panic attacks a mile away.)
So not only did she turn around and get startled by someone that she didn’t know was there (something we all experience) she was suddenly facing a 6 foot tall, 250 lb white man with a big beard and cowboy hat who had clearly been standing there watching her. I probably looked like her worst nightmare.
All I could do was smile, apologize for scaring her, and tell her that I was simply waiting for her to finish so I could get into my car.
We all make instant threat assessments as we go about our lives. It is part of the survival instinct that God gave us. I would wager that that young woman’s assessment of me as a threat (even though I actually posed no threat to her at all) was entirely appropriate all things considered.
Since then, I have made a point of trying to smile, and put at ease people who might otherwise assess this big old red-neck looking man as a threat. It’s not a big thing, but given where we find ourselves today I don’t think any positive action is to small.
It is hard to know what to say and do. I’m from the UK and came across this from singer Leona Lewis – I found it helpful to hear her perspective and she has some constructive advice about white people who are concerned can help. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=629044054491521