While I now agree that “your silence will not protect you,” I didn’t understand what the fierce Audre Lorde meant until this summer – after I lost a few friends.
Because growing up, I really thought that keeping my mouth shut about the jokes would be better for me in the long run.
I assumed that as my friends grew older, left the sheltered suburbs we grew up in, and got to know the world for what it really was, they’d become more understanding and compassionate.
I assumed that the joy that they got from fried chicken, watermelon, and orange soda stereotypes would stop.
I assumed that the laughter that would abruptly stop as soon as I walked into a room would end.
This was a naïve mindset.
The jokes did not stop.
I still had to monitor what I chose to eat or drink, lest a stereotypical comment was made. If I wanted the orange soda, for instance, I didn’t want to hear my friends joke that it was because I was Black.
I still had to monitor how I was speaking, lest someone make an off-putting, disrespectful AAVE comment. I didn’t want to feel mocked for the way I spoke. I didn’t want my delivery to somehow be taken as a hindrance to my message.
So, after having whittled myself to the point of self-misrecognition, I decided to let them know how I felt.
Needless to say, not everyone took it well.
I got called all of the names possible – from an elitist to a bad friend. And I’ll be honest, that hurt.
I did a lot of crying. I listened to a lot of Me’Shell Ndegeocello. And then, eventually, I decided that I wasn’t going to be sad anymore.
I decided that I wasn’t going to be sorry for standing for what was right – that I wasn’t going to be sorry anymore.
So instead, I’d like to address something with you.
You, as a person of privilege, must understand that it’s hard, especially if the person in question is a friend, to raise issues regarding what makes marginalized people uncomfortable about oppressive behavior.
One of the reasons for that is that when we raise our discomfort about being othered, we other ourselves.
We automatically become the one person of the group who can’t take a joke, the one who is too sensitive, the bitchy or the angry one.
As soon as we raise our voices to speak, we affirm that we’re of a different mindset than the one who makes jokes about oppressive stereotypes.
And that makes the friends we call out feel guilty. It makes them feel ashamed. It bruises egos. And sometimes, people do not respond to that well.
You need to understand, though, that your marginalized friends don’t want to call you out.
It’s even more uncomfortable for us than it is for you, because in the end, all we want is for you to be on our side, and there’s always a chance that you won’t be.
So here, for you, is a list of things not to do when a friend finally summons up the courage it takes to tell you what’s what.
1. Don’t Use Your Friendship as an Excuse
Don’t remind them of all of the things that you’ve done for them during your time as friends as a way to shame them for coming to you about the issue.
Your time spent together is not a bargaining chip to be used whenever you want to make light of important issues.
You cannot trade a few rides to the mall and party invitations for another person’s sense of comfort with their identity.
It makes it sound like your entire friendship was a series of purchases instead of a gift.
More importantly, it makes it sound like you care more about the things you’ve “given away,” instead of the time you’ve spent getting to know the person.
Don’t answer in a way that makes it sound like you’re counting your losses.
The material things you have given are never as important as the inward destruction caused by your racist jokes, what you’ve taken.
What you’ve given is never more important than that.
2. Don’t Use Your Own Feelings of Marginalization as an Excuse
Don’t list the ways in which you’re not privileged as a way to dismiss the issues I’m raising.
First of all, help me understand. If you are also a constant survivor of these same acts of oppression, shouldn’t you understand where I’m coming from in regards to my being upset?
Shouldn’t you understand, then, what it’s like to be in situations that you have put me in?
It needs to be a two-way street – always.
You cannot feel like you’re allowed to speak of all the ways in which you feel oppressed, but I am not.
3. Don’t Turn the Calling Out into ‘This Is Why I Hate Your People’
Does this even need to be said?
Do not tell me people that their coming to you to let you know what you did wrong is the reason why you hate People of Color.
Do not dismiss someone’s anger over oppression as being simply anger caused inherently by being of a certain race, gender, orientation, class, or ability.
I’m not mad because I’m a Black woman.
I’m mad because articles are written about how, “scientifically,” I am unattractive because I am a Black woman.
4. Don’t Say You Understand My ‘Perspective ’ or ‘Point of View’
While it seems like a reach for understanding, it’s not.
It’s you giving yourself the option of seeing what I say differently.
Because if an opinion that makes you feel better about yourself comes along, you’ll probably latch onto that.
If I tell you that something is racist, it is. That’s not my perspective. That’s real life.
As a white person, you only have a voyeur’s understanding of racism.
You, at most, know what racism looks like. You’ve seen it. Maybe you have an understanding of it being about privilege and power.
Maybe you have a friend that got denied a job, or you read that article about Bank of America, or you have a Black friend that gets pulled over all the time.
You have a point of view.
You are viewing us from a certain point in your life.
As Black person, this is my everyday life. I don’t witness this, I live it. This is our lives.
And while this list is for those on the receiving end of a call-out, we, the marginalized, must understand that we cannot be silent anymore.
We will not be.
While it’s hard and it’s uncomfortable, you, as a person of a marginalized group, must speak.
We cannot lend passage, ourselves, to the ideas which were created to silence us.
We cannot laugh out of feelings of loyalty. We cannot lower our eyes out of shame. We cannot chip away at ourselves to seem more presentable to a group of people who supposedly love us.
Speaking up may not keep you from losing friends. It may not keep you from getting your heart broken.
But your voice will protect you from being around those who make light of stereotypes which are meant to justify a group’s oppression.
It will protect you from having to go to gatherings where you have to shrink yourself down just to keep yourself from being othered.
It will protect you from being around people who may one day not think twice before throwing you under the bus because they simply would not choose to listen.
We must be held accountable for our voices, but we must also be held accountable for our silence.
We have to stand up in the face of these destructive messages and say no.
We must find ourselves in situations where we are being silenced because of a fear of being othered and speak, regardless. They’re othering you anyway.
We have to speak – and not just for ourselves.
We must also speak for the next generation, so that they may never have to find themselves in the company of those who make them feel like carving parts of themselves away.
Stephanie Ambroise is a Haitian humanist currently working for a non-profit organization as mentor and tutor to middle school students, in hopes of decreasing the drop-out rate in America by helping students build confidence in their personal and academic skills. A happy subservient to her wanderlust, she works to combine her love of traveling and service to see and serve as many people as she possible can, starting in America, where she was born. With a B.A. in Psychology, she hopes to take in every facet of this world and to chase as many versions of herself as she can possibly stand to become. In her quiet moments, she’s a poet nostalgic for concrete free ground, mangoes in the heat, and cicada songs. Check out Poetess Parlant to read her poetry about intersectionality, feminism, and love, and follow her on Twitter @DaPoetSteph!