I awoke on my day off determined to write something. Anything. Over a cup of burnt coffee I wracked my brain trying to think of what I had to contribute to our societal discourse in this moment. Every day we face fresh tragedies, injustices, sources of collective pain. In my mind, frustration, anger, sadness, helplessness and fear layer into an unsavory cake. It can be difficult to think clearly.
I decided to spend time reading others’ words before putting my own metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper. I got to work browsing Twitter and Medium for essays to read, opening each in a new browser tab as I went along. By two in the afternoon I had finally closed out enough tabs to arrive back at the empty draft I had created in the morning. Though I had been moved and inspired by the pieces I’d read, the stark white page stared me down as if to intimidate me out of even trying.
Then I thought about how many other people are currently sitting in front of their computer screens just like me, hands hovering over keyboards, wanting to say something but not knowing exactly what or how to express themselves.
I started to wonder: during this time of upheaval, should everyone chime in with their opinions and feelings? Why are so many individuals clamoring to wave their subjective versions of reality like flags in the wind? Does everyone’s story hold equal weight right now?
I want to say the answer is yes. Our society is deservedly in a moment of reckoning and — as its innumerable failings and white supremacist atrocities rise to the surface in ever-blatant ways — inevitable chaos. Multiple public health crises are ravaging communities at scale. A fraught, nerve-wracking, immensely consequential general election is approaching (and with it, the looming threat of dictatorship). The devastating effects of human-driven climate change are kicking into high gear. Domestic income inequality is worsening. Our education system continues to fail the most vulnerable students. Compassion for immigrants is wearing thin; last week’s allegations of mass hysterectomies committed at an ICE detention facility barely made a splash in the news cycle. Historically racist institutions comprising our law enforcement, judicial and prison systems continue to prevail and perpetuate state-sanctioned violence. And those who protest with their bodies against these institutions are beaten and jailed daily.
The list goes on. In the year 2020, disabled folks and Indigenous communities are still presented with barrier after barrier to their mere existence. Women and LGBTQ+ folks already don’t have autonomy over their bodies and lives and now face further threats as the the Supreme Court’s future hangs in the balance. The latest glaring display of the faults of the systems governing our lives was the shameful grand jury decision to not indict Breonna Taylor’s murderers.
Many Americans, myself included, are stewing in negativity in their homes. Rightfully, we want to say (or perhaps scream) something. Anything.
Instead, maybe the right thing to do is to listen. Marginalized voices have always struggled to break through the noise. The time is (over-)ripe to take accountability for this negligence and make space. To yield your time. People with race/class/ability privilege, you might think this lets you off the hook. If your role is to step back and listen, that means you don’t have actually do anything, right? Wrong.
Making space means more than ordering books, Instagramming in solidarity and shutting up (until your next semi-masked outdoor brunch with 6–8 close friends; you have to share photos of that with the world). It means more than boycotting unethical businesses. Hell, it means far more than registering to vote.
Somehow many of us have convinced ourselves that standing by is a noble act. Yet in fact it’s not an act at all. Listening as action looks like giving, uplifting, conversing, participating and supporting, admitting complicity, learning, working daily to re-wire unconscious biases, ceding power, showing up to fight when you’re needed and able. Sometimes it also looks like chiming in with your two cents.
I’m thinking back on some of the essays I read today. One of the most gut wrenching, Professor Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Post-It Dreams,” explored her thoughts upon learning that Breonna Taylor had made a habit of writing her goals on Post-it notes which she put up all over her apartment. The professor writes: “…a person is who they are and also who they are not yet. Every one of Breonna’s Post-it notes is a future that we cannot weigh.”
Breonna Taylor will never have a chance to attempt to achieve the (very socially acceptable) goals she aspired to, like buying a home and having a child. Just one of the three cops who stormed her apartment was indicted, and only because his bullets endangered her neighbors, none of whom were injured. Those cops are scot free, in their homes, with their families.
After her death, practically everyone on left-leaning social media used Breonna Taylor’s name and image to convey their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Companies made money from doing so. It’s the same formula that plays out time and time again: tragedies affecting oppressed communities gradually dissipate until they’re forgotten by our collective conscience. Meanwhile, the concept of justice steadily moves toward untenability, and individualism takes precedence over communal healing. But perhaps, if we all listen heartily and, in the right contexts, say something, this moment might lead to something different.
I guess I had something to say after all.