Violent Silence vs Benevolent Silence

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted a blog. And to be entirely honest, that’s because I haven’t been sure on exactly what to say.

The the recent killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and now countless others, alongside the protests and social unrest, had left me at a loss for words. And I was deeply troubled by my wordlessness. I felt like I should have something profound to say, something meaningful I could add to the conversation. But instead, I came face-to-face with uncertainty, insecurity, and fear that what I could say in the moment would only reveal more of my ignorance, accidentally saying something insensitive or hurtful. It’d be like confusing water for lighter fluid, fueling the fire instead of putting it out, despite my good intentions.

In a world where everyone has a platform, by not saying anything, you’re saying everything. Because “silence is violence.”

Silence is violence….

That phrase has been weighing heavily on my mind over the past month. Man, is it convicting…. The phrase implies that if I don’t say anything against racial injustice, I’m committing a violent crime by contributing to the issue. I absolutely do not wantto remain silent, and violence is the absolute last thing I want to cause. Unity and restoration and healing is all that I’m about. But I would ask myself, “How does that work if what I could say reveals my ignorance, leaving my words to be just as violent if I were not to say anything at all?” My insecurity on what my part in this fight had gotten the best of me. I froze.

Everyone is in a different spot when it comes to the fight of racial justice. There are those who experience injustice firsthand; those who are fighting for changes on the front lines; those who actively bring it up in conversation and make positive changes wherever they are. And there are those who are still learning exactly what they can do, due to their worldview being ruptured and discovering that things aren’t what they seem. They want to help and make a difference, but are taking those first baby steps towards learning exactly how. If you find yourself there in that last category, there are a plethora of ways to start getting involved. But for clarity’s sake, I’m going to focus on at least one of the many steps you can take if you’re still finding your place in this fight. 

As I’ve reflected on all that’s taking place in our nation, and as I’ve been talking with my black brothers and sisters, taking in news articles, videos, and social media posts, I’m coming to find that there are different kinds of silence. Just as there are words that either tear people down or build people up, there are also types of silence that are either violent, or benevolent.

To be “benevolent” is to be well-meaning, well-wishing, kindly, selfless, and good. Benevolent silence, then, is a sensitive, caring, well-meaning silence that actually contributes to the greater good. 

Here’s an example. You and your friend are sitting in a coffee shop, shooting the breeze. After doing the small talk as you get your coffee and find a table, you start to talk about how difficult your marriage has been getting. Your spouse has been overworking, and has seemed more and more distant over the last several months. You start tearing up, saying you have no idea who your spouse even is anymore… 

But when you look up at your friend for affirmation, you notice she’s looking down at her smart phone, completely tuning out the conversation. “Oh, sorry, what’d you say?” your friend asks. And you simply stare in disbelief. Your friend was completely oblivious to everything you had just said. Their silence was violent, because they weren’t even paying attention, going about their own day, because there was something on their smart phone that seemed more important than your dire situation. Of course you’d be offended by this silence.

But let’s try this again. Take 2.

You say the exact same thing, pouring your heart out to your friend regarding the pain of your marriage slowly disintegrating. Again, they’re not saying anything – they’re completely silent – but your friend’s eyes are locked onto yours. They’re leaned in towards you, their phone is set to “do not disturb,” actively shutting out the background noise and activity of the cafe so they can take in every word you say, with an empathetic facial expression that matches the tone of your situation.

When you’re done, you turn to your friend for their response. And they may have no idea what to say. In fact, your friend knows that nothing they could say would magically heal your situation. But they do manage to say, “Oh, I am so sorry… This breaks my heart for you. Please, tell me more.” And your friend keep listening, gathering understanding, hearing the details, communicating your story is valid. And slowly, as your friend begins to understand more and more of the situation in your life, he or she may be more confident in giving a suggestion for a next step—which could be as simple as, “Let’s do this again soon.” 

So the conversation continues.

The first silence was violent. You felt like your friend ignored your pain so they could keep going on about their own interests despite everything you were suffering. But the second silence was benevolent. Your friend was right there with you, listening to your story with a posture that communicated their presence and willingness to understand everything that was going on. It was your friend’s benevolent silence that helped you feel safe, loved, and valued as you went through this difficult time, because it showed you were cared for by someone who wanted to gain deeper understanding. 

Your friend still barely said anything in both examples – but the difference between the two silences couldn’t be more apparent.

The same applies to the battle for racial justice. There are those of us who know exactly what we need to say to stand up for the oppressed, speak out, march, and peacefully protest. But there may also be some of us who legitimately have no idea what to say, simply because of a lack of understanding. Fear, guilt, and shame may creep in because of your loss for words, as such a silence may seem like you’re contributing to the problem if you don’t say something

If you find yourself in that place during this time of deep social unrest that you barely know anything about, then don’t choose violent silence by ignoring it and continuing about your day. 

Instead, choose the benevolent silence of active listening. 

Lean in to the conversation. Admit that you’re not as educated on racial justice as you could be, or how you may have only listened to voices that support your opinions. Listen to black voices. Listen to the individual stories of those who have experienced racism first hand. Ask how your African American friends are doing. Put yourself in their shoes. Try to feel what they feel. Read books, watch TED talks, listen to podcasts, follow social media accounts—begin diversifying your views so you can have a better understanding of what’s going on. Learn about the term “white privilege,” and start identifying any false thinking on the topic you may have had previously. Step out of the way to give the platform to the voices of the unheard. 

Silence is violent if it leads to inactivity and not changing anything, both in yourself and society at large. But silence can be benevolent when you listen to the people who are more knowledgeable than you about their own experiences. This can lead you to greater understanding and how you can, at the very least, begin to make changes in yourself. And over time, before you know it, those changes you make are an active step in the right direction. The end goal is not to feel better about yourself that you did a good deed, only to affirm that you’re not a racist, but rather that you truly care about other human beings because you took the time to listen and understand. 

And the words of solidarity that follow, such as, “Your life matters,” “I’m so sorry to hear about how this is going on,” “Please tell me more,” and “Help me understand,” can legitimately be an active step in the collective pursuit of justice. 

If you’re a white person struggling to understand your place in this fight, know that it’s not too late to seek understanding and have these conversations. Don’t wallow around thinking you’ve waited too long, so why start now? It’s never too late to grow, learn, and seek redemption. And don’t adhere too much to a political stance that dismisses the reality altogether. Seek to understand. 

If you’re a black person, I want to apologize for my own ignorance, and on behalf of others who have committed violent silence, violent words or violent acts. It simply should not be; it’s unjust, and is taking way too long. Your voice matters, and your life matters. Help us understand.

If you’re looking for a good starting place to grow in your understanding, check out this amazing google doc filled with resources and next steps.

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