Social Consequences of Breaking the Silence

Tatum (2008) argues that there isn’t enough talk about racism in the United States. White people in the United States don’t have to talk about race, but for people of color it is sometimes impossible to escape the dialogues on race. When speaking about racism in the United States, I think it is important to remember to or for whom you are speaking. The to or for whom is often laced with racial undertones and power dynamics.

A White woman quoted in the article speaks about importance of breaking the silence for the people who she is fighting for, which brings up a zeitgeist of our past. In this sort of thinking, despite her good intentions, she is treating the people of color as a poor little people who need her help. Since colonial times, White people have been trying to save the poor, uncivilized, unknowing people through social institutions like religion, for example. Although her intention was not to reinforce the power structures that we have, this way of thinking just reaffirms White power by making them the saviors of people of color.

Tatum (2008) talks about White people not having much practice talking about race. This is a privilege afforded to White people, because they can go through their life without ever having to talk about race. People of color, however, do not have that privilege. For people of color, silence means that we lose something. It means that we are helping to keep our stories invisible. At times in my classrooms, I wonder whether or not I should say something when race comes up. I find myself asking, “if I don’t, then who will?” For me, I feel that it is my responsibility, but I know plenty of other students of color who say, “why should I have to teach them?” In the classroom context, we, as students of color, have to make a choice of to/for whom we are speaking. Are we speaking for ourselves? Are we speaking to the dominant culture? We, too, run a risk. We run the risk of being written off as the angry minority.

Is it then the responsibility of people of color to make it “easier” to talk about racism? An Asian American woman quoted by Tatum (2008) suggests that White people have to let go of the safety that is linked to their silence. As we have mentioned in our class, discomfort is important for progress. It is not somehow inherently easier for people of color to talk about racism. It is harder for them to ignore the topic. I would argue the safety that White people have by ignoring race shows how our society makes things invisible in order to keep the system running as it has for years.

If silence keeps the dominant group safe from discomfort and accusations of racism , how do we get people to start talking about it? Furthermore, how do we get the conversations to go past just the groups of people who already care about it?