Silence Hurts

The other day I was reading a brilliant article on “People of Color Organize!” and this part stood out to me especially:

Silence – You are in a group of people, you’ve just heard someone say something racist. Not full blown N-Word racist just run of the mill racist (we’ll get to this in a minute) and you stay silent. You are a piece of shit.

I don’t expect anyone to go out and call out each and every racist thing they hear from each and every human being. Not only because you’d have no time to eat, sleep or breathe but in some cases, it could actually be dangerous to do so.

I am talking about that one time when you and your black friend were out with a group of people and someone said something racist. The black person was left to defend themselves while you stayed silent. Later, when you and said black friend were alone, you let them know how wrong you thought that person was and how much you agreed with everything the black person said.

You are a piece of shit.

If being friends with a black person is too much for you, don’t do it. If you are going to sit and silently agree that something was racist and wrong, keep walking. You are not a friend.

Being an ally behind closed doors and only behind closed doors is not being an ally at all. It is being a coward. Be a coward with someone else. You are not a friend.

Unfortunately, a lot of people of color can relate to this. It shouldn’t happen, but it does.  Many of us are already familiar with the phrase “silence is complicity” and how it is commonly written on signs at social justice demonstrations.  The statement is directed at governments, political leaders, and society in general for remaining quiet and not taking action against war crimes, colonial occupation, sexual violence, and other oppressions. As the excerpt above demonstrates, we can also look at how racism and silent complicity operates in the realm of personal relationships, such as friendships.

I’ve lost count of how many times certain white “friends” would remain quiet while someone else relentlessly demonized my culture and faith.  One awful memory was in my early twenties when someone I once respected lashed out on my research on Islamophobia and made utterly racist remarks against Muslims.  The silence from my “friends,” who sat as quiet observers during the whole tirade, was devastating.  It was more difficult to deal with when this happened on numerous occasions.

It took several years for me to realize that these people are not my friends. It took time to realize that their assertions of “colorblindness” is a fantasy and that there is too much at stake for people of color to ignore the reality of racism. In the process, I also had to confront my own internalized racism and the way I perceived myself, my culture, my religion, my community, etc. I couldn’t simply pretend that I wasn’t brown or that racism didn’t exist.

No one should have to tolerate situations where their friends suddenly fall silent during unwanted encounters with racism. No one should be left alone to defend themselves in the presence of friends.  It amazes me how people of color hear excuses like, “I was going to say something, but I didn’t want to get involved,” or receive advice like, “Just ignore it, that person says homophobic things all the time around my gay friends.”  While the people making these remarks may have good intentions, they are actually making matters worse and not being supportive at all.

Leaving someone unaccountable places the burden and expectation upon the victim to “get over it.” While the victim is told to “forget” about the damage that has already been done, the perpetrator’s behavior is normalized and allowed to carry on.  This is not how it should be. When you leave your friend to defend him/herself and then tell him/her to “ignore it,” you are participating in that abuse.  You are complicit because you allow the perpetrator to go unchallenged while your friend is hurt. That is not being a friend.

The disturbing part is that these experiences are not “isolated incidents.” They reflect a larger problem in society, particularly in the way we are taught to discuss (and not discuss) racism.  Throughout high school, I remember assemblies that would address bullying, but rarely was racism ever mentioned. We were constantly taught that “sticks and bones break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” What my school and other schools fail to understand is that words do hurt. They do cause damage. Telling someone to ignore name-calling is to simultaneously excuse the bully of harassing that person.

Furthermore, there is a huge difference between calling someone “four eyes” or “nerd” for wearing glasses and calling someone “Apu” or “Osama” for having brown skin.  There is a huge difference between calling someone a “loser” for being shy and attributing a sexist, degrading word to a woman because of the way she dresses. A white student being bullied for having blue hair cannot say he knows what racism feels like. This is not to negate his challenges, but rather to stress that his experiences are not the same as victims of racism. I bring this up because various forms of bullying often get lumped together when developing anti-bullying strategies.  Such strategies assume victims of bullying “share” the “same” oppression when, in fact, bullying has very distinct forms. The problem with the assumption of  “shared oppression” is that it has potential to trivialize racism (as well as sexism and homophobia) when people say things like, “Hey, I was called a nerd in high school and I was able to ignore it; why couldn’t you ignore the people who called you ‘Osama’?”

Verbal bullying is harmful, most especially when racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and ableist language is used, and it needs to be addressed more effectively in schools. When people are socialized to think insults “can’t” and “shouldn’t” hurt anyone, they end up telling their friends to “ignore” the racist remarks they hear. Such attitudes result in conflict and have serious potential to break friendships, particularly when white people get defensive after their friends of color call them out on their silence.

Interestingly, while I was writing this entry, I came across another blog post that also discusses silent complicity. The author cites recent video clips of white women who used violently racist language to verbally assault people of color on trains. Commenting on one of the videos, she writes:

So let me get this straight: It’s alright to let a raging racist White woman say sh*t about immigration and people of color but a Black man is not allowed to stand up for himself and express his anger at verbal violence explicitly directed at him? And can someone please tell me why the Black woman was the only person on the train who was left to defend herself? Where are the White people? Where are our White allies who should have told the Raging Racist to stop? Staring into space or playing on their phones.  At this point, Whiteness conveniently shrinks into the background as the people of color in the train are forced to listen to Raging Racist and forced to defend ourselves.

To make matters worse, we see people of color internalizing and perpetuating the same racist logic used to oppress marginalized communities.  The author terms these people as “white defenders.” They give excuses for the racism of white people and point fingers at people of color.  I cannot begin to describe the frustration that one feels when fellow people of color blame the victim for discrimination, sexual assault, and other abuses. When anger is expressed towards white supremacy, whether in rallies, in academic papers, or in general conversation, white defenders resort to “reverse racism” arguments. They say, “Not all white people are like that,” or “We shouldn’t stereotype white people,” or “I have really amazing white friends who I really love and care about.”  The conversation suddenly shifts from challenging institutionalized white supremacy to making people of color “anti-white,” as if they have the same power to dominate over and oppress white people.  The blogger of the aforementioned post articulates this much better than I can:

When we engage in ‘White defending’ and make excuses for individual acts of racism, we are supporting and furthering the agenda of White supremacy. Whiteness is highly invested in ensuring that its privilege remains beyond question. Engaging in ‘White defending’ gives Whiteness a free pass – White people can continue to ignore the historical and present wrongs committed against people of color. White defenders are White man’s best friend. This is the thinking and these are the people that people with privilege turn to and point towards as proof that ‘Things are better now’ when some shit-disturber like myself decides to call out their bullshit.

And, yes, this:

And when we come to realize that everyone is in one way or another complicit in racism, we realize that racism is not just about individuals saying some racist things this ONE TIME. Racism is not just an individual’s actions upon another individual. Racism is everywhere – it is in our culture, it is in our everyday interactions, it is in our systems and institutions. And when we shine a light on this bigger picture, we realize that racism is not just about one person doing something bad to another person. It is about centuries upon centuries of groups of people doing bad things to other groups of people and then, those groups of people punishing themselves, defending their bullies and saying they deserve the violence in the first place. Racism is a BIG OL’ GIANT ROCK THAT JUST WON’T SEEM TO BUDGE.

I know some people are thinking, “Well, if you would explain it nicer, then maybe we’d be more willing to listen.”  This goes back to attacking the tone of the victim.  For white friends and allies, you must understand the anger about racism.  You must.  If you sincerely care about ending racist oppression, you need to stop getting defensive when people of color express their anger about racism and stop being condescending with comments like, “You need to love more, just show people compassion and they’ll understand.”  If you try to make this about “tone” or “reverse racism,” then you are not being an ally or a friend.

White allies who do anti-racist work understand that there are times when they should speak and times when they shouldn’t. I remember during a social justice meeting, people of color wanted to have their own space to discuss certain issues and some white people objected to it because they thought they were being “discriminated against” (precisely the reason why people of color requested for safe space).  White allies interjected and told the other white activists that they should respect the decision made by people of color. Similarly, I recall women of color feminists making decisions for women-only spaces for certain discussions. No matter what a man’s feminist politics are, he should not go around complaining about “reverse sexism” or whine about about how he was “excluded” by women and how he “should have” been part of the discussions because “he is a feminist, too.”  If he makes these complaints, he is not an ally.  Sometimes, not interfering is the best thing you can do as an ally.  In the case of speaking up when your friend of color is being chewed out by a racist bigot right in front of you, you need to speak up – not to speak for your friend, but to speak out of support and solidarity.  People of color can defend themselves, but when we have our friends around, we don’t want to be abandoned and take further abuse from your silence.

I refuse to be in situations where I would be left alone to defend myself. I refuse to allow myself to be silent when my friends are on receiving ends of racist, sexist, homophobic, or any kind of discriminatory or derogatory remark.  There is a lot of responsibility that all of us have in the struggle to end oppression and that includes holding ourselves accountable for our mistakes, especially when our complicity hurts the people we deeply care about.


  1. Thanks for another well written post. You are very right that it’s not enough to be aware of racism; we (as those who are not of color) need to defend those of color. I believe it is a social responsibility.

  2. Hey thanks for the shout-outs! :) Love this bit –

    “For white friends and allies, you must understand the anger about racism. You must.”

    Yes, the anger is essential and understanding the anger is essential!

  3. Thank you for yet another enlightening post. It’s just so much easier for people to say “I am NOT racist” and wipe their hands clean of any guilt and to avoid any uncomfortable converstaions that would arise from accepting their part in racism. The silence is dangerous in more ways than one

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Hina! :) I completely agree that silence is dangerous in so many ways. People need to hold themselves accountable for their racism, especially when they’re called out on it.

  4. I can relate to this post so well. Silence is terrible & should be avoided at all costs, but I think it is never simple to retaliate the internal racism that is so deep-rooted within some people’s pysche. Racism exits in various forms, sometimes it’s difficult even to articulate an argument against such subtle forms of racism & marginalising behaviour.
    At work, all my colleagues are of one nationality, they speak one mother-tongue & often converse in that language, even in formal meetings where English should be the lingua franca so everyone [including me] can understand. How do I combat that? I’ve mentioned that I don’t understand what’s being said, I’ve also complained about this to the management but little gets done. Now I just sit silently / avoid attending the meetings because I have no idea how to deal with this situation.

    1. That is a frustrating situation to be in. I could suggest doing two things (from the little info I gathered from your blog post). Maybe you could become a more active participant at these meetings – if you said some things in English, the other people might be forced to acknowledge your presence. Also, do you have friends/allies in the room? If so, you could try talking to them about this and seeing if they would back you up.
      That aside, I do understand that this is really frustrating. I have been in similar situations. Being the person that I am, I gently or jokingly remind the people that I don’t understand what they are saying. That often seems to set them reeling and realizing that they are being exclusive. I know it’s a difficult situation so try everything you can and if that doesn’t work, then maybe you should consider taking things to the ‘next level’ and seriously ask yourself about why you choose to work there (without any allies, friends, people to back you up).
      Again, I realize that my ‘advice’ might be considered unwarranted or completely out of the question to implement – just want to let you know that you have support and solidarity! peace and courage xx

    2. Hi Miraa,

      I’m sorry to hear about the difficult situation you’re in. I’ve addressed issues of racism in certain settings numerous times and the response has consistently been silence. It is frustrating, to say the least. Do you have any co-workers who could address the issue with you? Having more voices to back you up and address the issue can help push for action.

  5. Enlightening piece! You are correct the silence hurts. I’ve always been the one defending myself during race related issues, it does feel like a setback when those around you tremble in the eyes of conflict. Over the years, I’ve come to terms with standing alone in defense. The home training to “avoid conflict” has been the common denominator among my silent defenders; they have a lot to say as long as no one is around. It’s tiring, but I’m strong enough to stand on my own two feet. If someone ever finds the audacity to speak up, it’ll be a very pleasant surprise.

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your experiences, Mona. :) I know what you mean about getting used to defending yourself. I am grateful to have wonderful anti-racist friends who stick up for me, but there have been situations in professional settings where certain individuals just won’t speak up. It’s interesting how those situations make us stronger, as frustrating and difficult as they may be. Thanks again for your comment!

  6. Thanks for the post. You are obviously correct that this happens and often times things go unsaid. Thanks for bringing this into discussion. You may enjoy my blog, Rhymes and Reasons. It’s a series of interviews with hip-hop heads who discuss their lives in the context of a few songs that matter to them. Tends to focus on issues of racism, white privilege, sexism, sexual violence, etc. Please take a look.

  7. Hey Jehanzeb have you heard of the Un-Fair campaign? If you haven’t you should really check it out. It raises the very same issues you did in this post. But not surprisingly it received a lot of backlash.

    I believe it’s still trying to get off the ground, but it seems like it’s something that’s really trying to break into the mainstream and address the issue of white privilege.

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