As someone who pursues racial justice as a speaker and writer, I am regularly faced with questions- immediate, emotional questions. Sometimes they are questions folks have been sitting on for awhile- especially when the question is situational. But for the most part, I hear the questions before there is a filter, before they’ve been completely thought through. So if you have heard me live or virtually, you know I do not give short answers to questions. And I dont want to. I give loooong answers because I want to offer folks not just a quick response, but a framework, examples, context, metaphors…. anything I can do to deepen our learning together. But in doing this, I sometimes run the risk of accepting the premise of a question that should be challenged.
For example, before the pandemic I gave a lot of lectures at Christian colleges. And almost without fail, a student would ask, “Can you make the connection for me between the Gospel + race + justice.” Because this is an extraordinarily common question from white evangelicalism, I often responded with examples or a list of authors who have been addressing this topic forever. I mean, the list is long, folks. But there was one day, when a student asked with all the earnestness he could muster (and I am a sucker for students who lean all the way in while Im speaking or who laugh at my jokes), so I was ready to give him a 10 minute master class. And just as I started to move backward to the white board behind me (I mean I was about to lay it out, yall), I paused. I realized there was something about the premise that needed to be challenged. This is what I said instead:
“I get this question a lot, and I want you to know there are many wonderful books written on this topic. You should check out Brenda Salter McNeil, Lisa Sharon Harper, Drew Hart, Jemar Tisby. If you want to go further back you should read James Cone or Howard Thurman. And if you want to talk about the relationship between white evangelicalism and (in)justice there’s another set of books devoted entirely to this topic. But what I want to tell you is that I only get asked this question at predominately white, Christian institutions. The Black church doesn’t ask this question, because by the time we get to the second book of the Bible there is a whole story dedicated to God freeing the enslaved. And this is important. I want you to understand that while you may be “wrestling” with the connections, there are people of color in this room and far beyond who have never known any other kind of Gospel except one that easily and obviously encompasses social justice.”
I needed to challenge the premise that the connections between the Gospel + race + justice are difficult to find, or require “wrestling” at all.
I share all of this because I’ve come to fully realize that there is another question I receive without fail from nice white people in corporations, nonprofits, schools and churches that I need to start addressing differently.
Here is the question: How can I overcome my fear of speaking up?
Of course the question is not always framed this exact way. [See also: How can I start using my voice as an ally? What do I do in xyz situation? In what ways can I be an ally to my coworkers of color?] But regardless of how the specific words change, the premise of the question typically remains the same, which is: I am scared to speak up, and I need to know how to overcome my fear.
I am no longer accepting the premise of the question.
Dear Nice White People, its time for you to honestly answer the question, “What are you afraid of?” because there is a reason you are scared to speak up and its not some vague notion of inability.
Let me get you started.
You are afraid to speak up because you know there will be repercussions for doing so. How do you know this? Because you have been watching it happen. You are not afraid of a ghost in the closet or a monster under your bed. You are not a child afraid of some intangible, imaginary outcome. You are afraid of being on the receiving end of the oppression you have witnessed.
You are afraid they will talk about you, the way they currently talk about your Black, female co-worker.
You are afraid that you will no longer be invited to the secret white people meetings where decisions are being made.
You are afraid that you will fall out of the good graces of those with power.
You are afraid that you will be labeled “the problem,” the person who is “not a team player,” the one who is going to ruin a good time.
You are afraid of not being invited, of not being favored, of not being liked because there are benefits for being liked.
You are afraid of challenging the system, the supervisor, the policy, the conversation because you have participated in the destruction of others and now you are afraid that you, too, will be destroyed.
If you are afraid, then you know there is danger in speaking out. And if you its dangerous, you have either been complicit or you have been a willing participant in allowing others to face that danger alone.
You see, Nice White People, you have believed your lie longer than anyone else. You have believed that you could maintain the status quo, reap the benefits thereof, and if you are nice to people of color perhaps they wont notice. But we can see you. We can see you better than you can.
We can see how you always manage to fail up. We can see how you use niceness to make yourself feel better about the injustice(s) you’ve witnessed. We can see how you have taken positions, created positions, skipped over qualifications and done all manner of systems changes to get what you want when what you want is whiteness. We have seen how you manage to find your voice when you are asked to praise the system or enforce the system or justify the system.
And your weaponizing of niceness is so complete that you get mad at us, when we reject your niceness. You are mad when you apologize privately for something done publicly and your apology is rejected. You are mad when no one makes you feel better for confusing the only two people of color in your department for the fourth time. You are mad when no one wants to have coffee with you to discuss how your niceness sickens them. You are mad when you don’t get a pat on the back for your niceness. You are mad because we see your niceness for what it is- a desire to believe you are good, even as you uphold a system that oppresses.
And then I come speak at your MLK celebration, and suddenly your niceness takes the form of shyness, frailness, an inability to know how to speak up, a feigned ignorance that allows you to believe that the reason you wont speak up is because you don’t know how… when the core issue is that you don’t want to speak up because you know it will cost you.
If you really want to be in solidarity with Black people, it’s time to answer the question: What are you afraid of? Release all the bullshit answers about your own frailty, and get honest. Your hands are dirty. And they wont ever be clean unless you start being honest about the dirt you’ve been involved in or witness to.
Your niceness serves only you.