THE BLOG

White Privilege and the Deadly Effect of Silence

05/11/2015 11:59 am ET | Updated May 11, 2016

When it comes to race, White Americans perform a peculiar, if not predictable dance. You know the steps: A race-related event triggers outrage. We dive into analyzing the fall out. We search for who we can blame, identify the systems we can declare broken, and dissect the participants' lives. We cast our vote for the most-likely-to-blame, and after passing judgement many of us sigh with relief and think, "I'm not like that person; I'm not a racist." Others instead declare, "That wasn't about race. We should quit making everything about color." With the issue resolved in our minds, most of our White American conversation about racism falls silent.

But racism doesn't fall silent. It screams in the latest headlines time after time. And it won't stop screaming until we, as Whites, make our next move in the dance a move toward advancing the national conversation about racism. To do that, Whites need to look past headlines and into ourselves and the near panic that comes over most of us when race becomes the topic of conversation. What many White Americans don't realize is White silence and refusal to closely examine ourselves are two of the most insidious elements that foster the racism that persists in the fabric of our country. We need to make the connection between our silence and its more obvious and often deadly consequences -- the disproportionate incarceration of Black men, the killing of unarmed Black men by police.

For folks like myself, silence on racial issues is a luxury, a privilege and a choice. I am a White, heterosexual, highly educated, upper middle class professional woman. I have more privileges than these, but you get the idea. In my circles, when I talk, people tend to listen. When it comes to social justice issues, I can handpick which issues ignite my passion. I can pick up them up and put them down at my convenience if I decide they aren't mine to live because I have the privileged choice to be silent.

White silence is a concept that I have explored as a White psychologist with a specialty in cultural diversity issues. I witness how many White people react when they look behind their silence into the wide range of "-isms" in their lives. When I ask about White racism, an uncomfortable silence fills the room and what I generally hear is either, "I'm not racist," or, "I see the person, not their color." And then, folks want the conversation to be over. I also recognize this pattern because as a White woman I have certainly wanted the conversation to be over myself.

A whole world exists behind White silence and denial and that world is built on White privilege. It also relies on a fear of vulnerability to survive. Four years ago, researcher Brené Brown delivered a Ted talk about vulnerability and the video went viral. In it, Brown defined vulnerability as "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure" in relationships with others.

There are few conversations that elicit more uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure than those about race in this country. White silence shields us from risk by avoiding conflict with our White peers and with others with different racial backgrounds. Silence hides our guilt (or lack of guilt), conceals our racist biases against those who are not like us, and masks our habit of automatically crossing the street when a Black man approaches. Silence insulates us from our fear of being shamed for offending someone. Silence also keeps us from being overwhelmed by how helpless we feel to make a difference. Silence allows us to be blissfully distracted by our privileged day-to-day, and perpetuates our ignorance. With enough days in a row of silence, we can disappear so far behind our choices to keep our mouths tightly shut that we forget how good we've got it in our bubble.

When we make the privileged silent choice, the seemingly safe choice, and stay out of social justice conversations we often do so because we don't see this as a White issue. But racism isn't just about stereotypes, prejudice or discrimination, it is also about White people and fear. When we have the courage to look into our own lives, we can see this fear -- this White fear -- as a fear of differences, fear of the unknown, fear for our physical safety and fear of losing power.

To be sure, there is some risk when White people speak up. We might be criticized, ridiculed or worse, it may backfire and we're seen as reinforcing racism. But when White people experience fallout from speaking up about racism, there is generally less risk involved than for racial minorities when they speak up. We can get defensive, angry and feel righteously indignant that we are one of the "good White people." Odds are we won't lose our reputation, our jobs or our safety. We won't get an "angry Black woman" or "thug" label. We won't be seen as a physical threat who justifies deadly violence like a Black man. Ours is a fear mostly without the razor-sharp edges of life-changing consequences. We can slip back into our lives and our silence again, blending with masses of others who look like us, safely anonymous in our affiliations with the majority and it's over.

Instead of choosing silence, we need to stay in the conversation and get even more vulnerable. We need to choose to tolerate our fear and discomfort, and hang in there with the ambiguity of not knowing what to do next. We need to choose to own our ignorance and mistakes.

We can choose to say, "I'm sorry, you're right. I really screwed that up."
We can choose to say, "I don't get it, what did I do wrong? What did I miss?"
We can choose to say, "I'm listening, and will stand by bearing witness if I can do nothing else."

The more we have in common with those who dominate our politics, our police, and our press in the United States -- White, upper class, heterosexual men -- the greater our responsibility to push through the silence that hides our fear into an honest, personal conversation about racism in our own White lives. Until we do, Black men will continue to die, with the bullets fired on them backed with our silence about race.

Linda Louden is a Licensed Psychologist, Leadership Consultant, and a OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow. She specializes in mental health, women's issues, and multicultural diversity in her practice at Texas Woman's University.