The Long Memory of Silence

17 01 2012

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies,

but the silence of our friends.”

                                                         – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Snow’s coming down hard at our house today. Flocks of varied thrush have moved down from the mountains to swarm our feeders. Bear the Boat Cat appears content in her off-season role of house cat; she hasn’t left the comfy chair by the fire all day. I have 10 pages to write for tomorrow’s memoir class, but am distracted by thoughts as heavy as the snowfall.

Martin Luther King Day has long been a powerful day of recognition for me, but January’s third Monday gained heavier baggage some years back. I’d taken a winter job at a blue collar business that definitely did not commemorate Dr. King’s legacy. We worked that day. And all day, I heard white men mock “N***** Day.”

I’m ashamed to tell you that I didn’t turn in my coveralls on the spot, when the first n-word hit the air. I didn’t even speak up. I worked in a back room, avoided my coworkers, and wondered who the despicable coward wearing my flesh was.

That night, I stuffed a check into an envelope, written for the amount I’d made that day. You didn’t earn this, I sneered, and scribbled a note to Seattle Education Access, asking that they direct my donation to an African American male student. This didn’t make me feel better. Exoneration isn’t available for purchase, after implicitly condoning a great man’s denigration. The envelope glue tasted unusually bitter.

That job included other gems, for sure. At one crowded morning meeting, my boss seethed about a woman demonstrating on a street corner: “Fuckin’ anti-war cunt!” The room suddenly airless, six pairs of men’s eyes immediately swung to me, the only person in the room with the genitalia inspiring our employer’s wrath. But I sat in the corner, face down, and didn’t meet their stares.

I usually made it home before crying.

This isn’t to say that my workplace sucked. It didn’t. As if I was a zebra among a field of horses – of the same genus, yet clearly Other – my coworkers treated me with indulgent bemusement. Being hard-working, amiable, and white helped.

Neither did that job present uniquely offensive experiences. Before signing on with Cap’n J, I worked for captains who taught me what a really challenging work environment looked like. Discovering 40 miles off-shore that your core beliefs are diametrically opposed to those of your companions, people you’ll work, eat, and sleep next to for weeks, months, without reprieve. Mentally mining every conversation for safety, only to find that the truly devoted will imprint hate on even the most benign topics. Becoming intimately aware of that burning knot in your throat, the one twined out of every Why do you say that? that you swallow, each What do you mean by that? that never makes it past your lips. Knowing that you’ve cashed in your values for the comfort of getting along.

Every Martin Luther King Day, the weight of these encounters settles over me again. Over time, all but the most outrageous comments have faded from my memory. And just as Dr. King warned, among all the offenses, my own silence rings the loudest.

In the time I’ve taken to write this, Bear doesn’t seem to have batted a whisker, while the birds – chickadees, nuthatches, and juncos – swirl into a feathered tornado around the sunflower seeds. Outside, the snow continues to fall.




18 responses

17 01 2012

well said. in the end, it is through forgiving ourselves, that we can forgive others. i have never needed to forgive myself for standing up for those who are marginalized in our society: women, children, those with disabilities, men unafraid to embrace their emotions, and those less privileged. but sometimes I forget to allow myself to realize how brave that is. I like your courage Tele. keep writing, you have a lot to say and you say it well. of course, your observation is right: time, like snow, softens the edges.

19 01 2012

Thanks for your kind words, Karla, and thanks for your steadfast advocacy of others. Yes, you ARE brave, and inspiring! I’m working on being a better ally, wielding my privileges responsibly, and wonder why standing up for what’s right sometimes feels so challenging… The lessons to be polite and quiet can be tough to shake.

18 01 2012

I believe you may be to hard on yourself. Your mere presence made a difference in ways you may not realize. I take Dr. Kings words in this quote literally, friends being his close personal acquaintances. I am a literal person.
Showing others day in and day out that you are a person of character, walking among them and shining your light, that has value. Throwing yourself on the verbal sword of racial equality may feel good in the instance, but it is a long war against injustice, pick your battles and stick around for the duration.

19 01 2012

The duration is a good goal indeed, Herb. Cheers to sticking around.

15 02 2012
Steffany Raynes

Absolutely… I agree with Herb. “pick your battles and stick around for the duration” rings true to me too. Though Tele your reflection on the role of silence is thought provoking and powerful too. Change happens so subtly and slowly. One thing I try to remember is the notion that I really only listen to people I respect, even if I disagree with them. Speaking out against racism (or any other ism) will have more impact when and if you have established a relationship with someone where they are willing to listen to what you have to say.

18 01 2012
Cami Ostman

Thanks, Tele. I think we can all remember moments we wish we would have handled differently/better/with more courage–moments we didn’t live up to the values we believe make the world a better place–and yet we rarely talk about them with one another. Thank you for this conversation.

20 01 2012

Isn’t that the way these conversations seem to go? That the ones we’re most afraid of voicing and find most frightening are the ones that more people nod along to in recognition? I guess the challenge for me is to always push myself to be a better ally in the moment, and for those times that I fall short, to admit/discuss it with friends, try to see what makes any given situation harder/easier to stand up to.

Friends like you definitely help foster the conversation. 🙂

18 01 2012
Emily a la blog

Beautifully written. Thank you for your honesty.

20 01 2012

Emily, I’ve seen a similar quest for vulnerability and honesty in your writing, just in my first visit to your site. Thanks for stopping by – I’m looking forward to our paths crossing in real time one of these days.

18 01 2012

This is beautifully expressed. All the responses too. I wish I had words to add but I’m watching your “feathered tornado around the sunflower seeds.”

19 01 2012

And what a tornado it’s been! The varied thrush are beautiful, but quite aggressive, spending more time chasing each other out of the feeders than eating. Thanks for stopping by, Pierr – hope you and yours are warm and safe through the snow!

18 01 2012

Wow, your job actually is worse than my auto shop. I worked MLK as well but nobody even mentioned the holiday, that I heard at least. However, I also struggle with my silence which is too often a default setting when social unpleasantness becomes exposed. I do have a black person pinned on the back of my hoodie- maybe the other mechanics can quietly tell which side I’m on.

19 01 2012

Ha! Ross, there was a summer that I totally relief on T-shirts as political billboards, hoping that if I broadcast my stance loudly enough in my clothing, folks might not assume I shared their opinions. A chickenshit way to avoid direct confrontation? Yeah, of course. But I do remember that being a more pleasant season…

Also, I would absolutely buy a ‘zine of your “Older Mechanic/Ross” conversations. Just, you know, as if you needed an additional project.

24 01 2012

We’ve all been there, and no matter how we grow and change continue to find ourselves in that same place, over and over again. Awareness of our silence comes first, then a slow awakening and a growing boldness, a refusal to be silent any longer.

Thanks for this–

8 02 2012

Thank YOU, friend.

28 01 2012
Follow the links | east.bay.writer

[…] This post is so thought-provoking, everyone should read it.  It’s about not speaking up, something we’re all guilty of at one time or another, but something we should all work harder to avoid. […]

6 02 2012

Tele, this is a powerful post. I think what you’ve written is an answer to your silence on those difficult days. Life tests us so very often. And this world is so full of everything that we keep bumping into the same question: What to do about this? Thank you for this reminder.

8 02 2012

I’m fortunate to have some friends who are excellent role models in their responses, and I study their approaches very carefully! I’m not yet the staunch ally I’m striving to be (are we ever?) but there’s hope. Many thanks for your visit and comment, Kathryn.

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