“All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity.” bell hooks
What do you do when oppressive structures force you to be silent? This is what crossed my mind as I found myself, once again, confronting race-gender oppression. I was in battle—for my daughter and myself. I’ll start with her situation first.
My daughter previously attended an all girls school. We selected this school because of its articulation of a core set of values; a set of values that we thought to be aligned with our family values. The first few years were good—not great but good. Then the summer between 7th and 8th grade came. This was the catalyst that led us to leave this school. Simply put my daughter was harassed by a classmate. There is a bit of history to this young woman. She was the one common dominator in a series of harassment claims since 5th grade. Those families, like ours, choose to leave the school (there might be other factors that contributed to their leaving, so I won’t pretend to know it all). But in our case, this is why we left.
She has harassed our daughter from summer up to an including the present day. She has done so by accessing other people’s social media accounts to send lewd pictures and images of herself. Now some would say that the best thing to do would include a) contacting the school and b) contacting the parents of this young woman. Well we did both.
The school remained and continues to remain silent. Well that’s not completely true. We had a series of meetings with the head of the middle school and the school where we aired our concerns. As the harassment of my daughter continued, to the point where she called me from school sobbing and asking me to come get her “because she couldn’t take it no more!” is when the lies and the silence ensued. The head of the middle/upper school out right denied having a meeting with my husband and myself about the harassment of our daughter. This was followed by other mistruths on this individual’s part an on part of other representatives of this school. What was common was the not so veiled attempt to refer to my daughter’s experience as something other than bullying and/or harassment. For example, others in the school, after we decided to leave, because of the denial of our daughter’s treatment, decided to frame her leaving by sexualizing her. They made claims such as “she wanted to leave because she wanted a co-ed experience”. Interestingly at no point did our daughter or us offer this as an explanation. We were explicit in naming her experience. So I sent an email asking administrators of the school to cease from engaging in such false representations of my daughter. This was met with a response of “who does your mother think she is”. In an instant, I went from the mother who served the community to the angry Black woman because I wouldn’t bow down to their false conceptualization of my child.
This was my daughter’s first exposure to how some institutions attempt to silence minoritized individuals vis-à-vis false representations. She also got a lesson in how not to accept people’s definitions of her. She learned, rather harshly, that to accept false definitions of her is also to be complicit in race-gender oppression. A hard lesson to learn, but one that I believe will serve her well.
Well my child has left this school and is now a student in a very affirming school—a school that truly honors her humanity and social location. Sadly, the harassment continues. So I reached out, once again, to the parents and the school. Almost two years later we were told that there was a “through investigation” and no “evidence was found”. This was literally a laugh out loud moment for me. Almost two years later there was a “through investigation”—it’s just incredulous on the face of it all.
Rather from a tactical position or from a position of resignation, there is silence. However, in their silence, the school is perpetuating the same behavior that they would condemn in others–bullying. Bullying like racism requires silence.
Now to my situation with silence.
For the past seven years I have been racially targeted, eight times to be exact. Yes, I keep track. In each case, the behavior has been met with institutional silence.
After each incident I’m told, “I’m so sorry that’s happened to you”. Or “we have to do different.” I finally filed a complaint. Like my daughter I was told that there was an “investigation” and there was “no conclusive” evidence. Unlike her, I became the “evil” person for speaking about my experiences.
In an instant I became Jezebel. You know, the Black woman who can tempt White men into behaving badly. So the story is that I intentionally remove my parking decal in order to trap the white security officers. Exactly why I would behave in this manner, no one can explain. Why would I draw such attention to myself? I guess that I worked for all these years to earn a Ph.D. simply to harm White men. I’m still trying to determine what my gain is by behaving in this manner. But you see, this is how racism works; it doesn’t require logic for some to believe the stories they concoct.
But this works only if we are complicit. This only works if we are silent.
Silence is a form of speech. Langston Hughes wrote, rather beautifully,
I catch the pattern
Of your silence
Before you speak.
I do not need
To hear a word.
In your silence
Every tone I seek
Institutions, like people, can choose silence for a number of reasons. However, silence does ideological work by either reinforcing bias and/or prejudice in those that are reading, writing or even listening. Silence should be understood as serving a functional role and thus, as embodying its own meaning and interpretive value.
The silences around bullying and racism (and maybe their intersection) contradict the marketing of both these places. Such silence suggest that the publically constructed image around inclusion and acceptance, a community where all can thrive because they are protected and honored, is revealed to be a figment of imaginations. What’s really sad is that the wider community knows of the fiction behind the marketing of the “inclusive” spaces. So the image that these spaces are trying so hard to hold onto via their silence is one that is often recognized as existing on paper and by those who do not necessarily engage in critical conscious thinking around some issue.
So this leaves me to wonder. Why not speak out, boldly against such behavior? Why not actively engage in pursuing the image one holds dear. Why not behave in a manner where your constructed sense of self matches your action sense of self.
This takes a type of honesty that those invested in whiteness simply cannot engage in. It’s the same ideology that we see permeating the justification of the killings of Black and Brown peoples. Alleged investigations and alleged claims that officers/private individuals feared for their lives. The racist-gendered claims that those killed are some how a “danger” to society. The denial of racism. The denial of bullying and harassment. They all come from the same cesspool. The need to maintain white race-gender hegemony.
This rhetoric of silence works to (re)enforce race-gender norms. It says to those in the racial minority that the state/pseudo-state/institutions will work to protect their interest. It says to people of color and those of us harmed by race-gender oppressive structures that we ought not to speak because no one will believe us.
Silence and the act of silencing require Black women and girls to bow down at the throne of racism. To say to those in power to “investigate” their own bad behaviors, that we accept their silence (and lies).
What those in power fail to recognize is that we understand the tactile use of silence. Although we aren’t formally taught, it’s in our blood, not to bow down. Our ancestors teach us not to bow down. Instead we are taught, even when we know our experiences will be denied, to hold our head up high and speak our truths.
So yeah, we bow down. We bow down to Black women’s self-empowerment that’s grounded in the truth. We know we aren’t Jezebels and Sapphires. We see your silence and respond by raising our voices and telling our truths. So like Ida B. Wells, we’d
Rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said.
So we choose not to bow down to race-gender oppression—just so you know.