As a string of egregious actions make the news, including personal behavior that reveals the blindness of those in power and far too many policies that will secure that same blind power for decades to come, I am thinking today about the silence people use to avoid reckoning with their complicity. I am remembering moments in my youth, and sometimes later, when someone has made a statement, usually as a joke, sometimes with what he or she considers a keen sense of irony, that offends me whether or not it directly relates to me, yet the burden is on me to decide if I should say something, or if I should leave the conversation, or if I should rethink this friendship. This is the power of culture, especially our culture which relies on discrimination as a tool for power. It is this culture that makes me feel as if I’m being uptight or just can’t take a joke when I am gasping with shock or outrage or confusion (and this especially bothers me because I actually like to laugh, just not at the messed up things that people with too much power find amusing).
I will say this as strongly as I can—it is not the responsibility of those who are offended or directly harmed to speak up in that moment or in its aftermath. We can choose to speak when we are safe doing so, sure. But it is the responsibility of those who are making the jokes or engaging in the actions to be open to the possibility that everything they say or do is not actually fine or without consequence. Pay attention to those unexpected silences. Read the room. Stop and consider that just because you have the power in the moment to do or say whatever you want doesn’t make it right.