I just finished reading Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. I suspect many are unfamiliar with her name and her work. This African American journalist, born into slavery in 1862 in Mississippi, was among the first to speak out against lynchings. Loudly and continuously, she used her voice to say that lynchings were not the legal punishment for falsely stated rape, or disrespect, of white women, as was often suggested. Sexual assault was the deceit. The real crime, committed consciously or simply by accident, was disrupting the established racial norm. A Black person had overstepped. At a time when Black people were persecuted and killed for any number of actions, but particularly for questioning or acting against established racial practices, Ida B. Wells spoke up. She did not allow any threat to her safety to silence her response to injustice. She was fierce.
Throughout history, many have risked their lives for what they knew was right … fair … just.
Others have stood by, seeing injustice, and said and done nothing — afraid of the risks.
Which camp do you fall into?
What will you risk for racial justice? Friendships? Community standing? Financial benefits?
- Speak up when a friend, family member, neighbor or acquaintance makes a racist comment?
- Speak up when coverage of a news event seems to be biased against one race or group?
- Speak up when a policy proposed by an organization with which you are affiliated or employed seems to be racially unfair?
- Decline work that contributes to racial injustice?
- Recommend interventions to promote racial justice in those spaces in which you have a voice?
- Promote learning (books, podcasts, documentaries) and actions that will broaden the knowledge of people in your sphere of influence about race, racism and reparative justice?
Can you say yes to all of the above? If not, you are more afraid of what you might lose than what you might gain. Instead of a commitment to racial justice, you are worried that a person won’t still be your friend if you speak up about a comment they made or an action they took or that your neighbors will shun you if you say something about racism at a community meeting, or that you might risk advancement or maybe even your job if you speak up. Those are real concerns. Just know that if you have them and if they stop you from speaking up, regardless of your heartfelt sentiments, you are enabling racism.
When former quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the national anthem to showcase the inhumane treatment of Black people by police, he risked his career and lost it, but he elevated an issue and demonstrated integrity. More recently, while not working for racial justice, Congresswoman Liz Cheney decided to speak up against a different type of injustice – treason. She knew she risked her position in Congress, but she did it anyway. Like Kaepernick, she gained the respect of many and demonstrated integrity and a moral consciousness even while losing her position.
Your profile may not be as public as that of Colin Kaepernick or Liz Cheney, but loss is relative and yours might be as significant – loss of friends, loss of community stature, maybe even loss of job. Only you can decide what you are willing to risk and possibly lose.
We must take racial injustice as a personal affront. We must learn that some things and some people aren’t worth holding on to if they jeopardize society. Think about it. Reflect on it, and decide if you are truly an anti-racist, ready, willing, and able to take a stand for a better society, a racially just America. I hope so.
Postscript: If your silence is driven by not knowing what to say or how to say it, here’s a guide from the Southern Poverty Law Center that I’ve found helpful.