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Mere weeks ago, the country was in a state of unrest. Crowds of protesters flooded streets—wave after crashing wave of bodies chanting names that sear our memories: Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and countless others, known and unknown. Since Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken the country by storm, bringing police brutality and race relations to the forefront of the American consciousness.
And yet, at the Democratic National Convention this past week, there was a distinct lack of discussion regarding the systematic violence that has taken so many young black men. Excluding speeches by Cory Booker and Barack Obama—both black men—“Black Lives Matter” has been used as little more than a dash of flavor in a speech; a phrase tossed into a list of things that we need to fix but that is quickly forgotten.
The DNC, of course, serves a very specific purpose: to nominate the party’s candidate for the general election. But it is also a place where Democrats talk about their future as a party, and our future as a nation. There is something deeply troubling about this lack of discussion, given that the Democratic party is often presented as the only viable option for anyone who is not a white, hereosexual, cisgender man. White liberal politicians avoid discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement for fear of stepping out of line, when in fact it is these very people who should be taking a stand.
The modern white liberal is a very specific breed: s/he typically comes from a privileged background, is aware of this fact, and as such, has an incredibly deep-seated guilt about the state of our country. As if to make up for years of injustice, s/he would never dare to say anything that could be construed as politically incorrect, for fear of offending someone their ancestors had oppressed. I remember from my own days in middle school when white students would remain totally silent during the entirety of a lesson about the Underground Railroad. As a white girl attending an inner city public school (I was one of eight white students in my graduating class), I followed their lead. I thought it was my place, and that race is something a white person should never mention in polite society.
This silence, while well-intentioned, is deeply detrimental to the discussion of race in America. White people hold most seats of public office—in 2015, the new Congress was described as being the most diverse yet, despite the fact that it is 80% male (CQ)and 80% white. When white people do not speak for fear of being implicated in racial crimes of the past (and present), there is a vacuum which can only be filled by voices of people like Trump. Though Trump is the nominee of the Republican party, he by no mean represents the majority of the party’s beliefs. But because Republicans have chosen Trump to speak for them, their silence implies complicity.
As a white liberal myself, I do not pretend that my voice, or the voices of people who look like me, are the most important. For the most part, it is the responsibility of white people to listen, to help in any way they can, and not to try and lead a movement. And while a white person at a protest should not lead chants, it becomes the responsibility of political allies (particularly those in Congress) to lead the charge until our government has more racial diversity. Black men talking about the murder of black men is too easy for the opposition to ignore—for men like Trump to claim they act in self interest. We must not give them the opportunity.
But listening does not mean silence--the only way for white liberals to learn how to help is by asking questions, and persons of color should consider how to answer. There is a steep learning curve, and it will be frustrating, and people on both sides will push each other too far, but it must happen.
Silence is a tool of oppression, and by keeping quiet, white liberals further oppress those they seek not to offend. Trayvon and Philando and Tamir may be dead, but they are not gone. They speak through us, and our tongues must never still, our mouths must never close, our voices must never be silenced.