Recently, I was chatting with a student after class. We’ve been having a robust conversation for the last two weeks on the environmental implications of Mary Shelley’s most famous novel, Frankenstein.
“What I don’t get,” the student said, “is this drive for achievement and production at the cost of environment and the well-being of humans. Mary Shelley knew about the dangers of it when she wrote Frankenstein. Why haven’t we learned in two hundred years?”
This student is indigenous, a senior looking ahead to a graduate degree in Environmental Science, and the conversation inevitably turned to the massive organization taking place in North Dakota, what has essentially become the first global summit of indigenous peoples committed to protecting not just Native rights, but human rights. My student and I talked about how, time after time, indigenous people have put their bodies on the line to preserve whole communities and ecosystems, not just Native (or even human) ones, while white folks seem to go on about their business, unfazed.
“You know about the White Person Eye Roll, right?” he asked. “Every time a Native person starts talking about political issues, all the white people in the room roll their eyes. We see it all the time. You white people don’t think we see it, but we do.”
While I’m not sure if I’ve witnessed a literal White Person Eye Roll (let’s hashtag it, shall we? #WPER?) en masse, I’ve seen plenty of it on an individual level. I’ve certainly felt the energy in the room change when a person of color speaks to a group of mostly white people. I’ve felt the awkward shift of weight, the aversion of eyes and, most tragically of all, a silence with so much mass, so much gravity, it becomes a black hole of apathy.
My student is certainly on to something: I’ve witnessed not only a vast silence from white friends and family regarding the controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), but a general ignorance about it.
White folks as a whole are not paying attention.
But the White Person Eye Roll – literal or figurative, conscious or unconscious – is not limited to indigenous voices. There’s a similar aversion of white eyes surrounding the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
I experience a surreal juxtaposition of lived experiences when scrolling through my social media feeds following a significant #BLM or #DAPL news story. The people of color in my newsfeed – significant in number – use this space to voice their pain, their rage. They talk about life and death and a fear that has seeped into every corner of their lives. Some actively call on the white community to speak up, to explain their silence, to just look at their anguish. And sandwiched in between these posts, these calls for action, these digital wounds, is a stubborn silence from white friends and family. No, not silence. Silence might be more respectful. No, what I see is an entirely different mode of reality, one that is the antithesis of the way people of color experience their lives.
Perhaps these white folks don’t have diverse voices in their newsfeed. Perhaps they don’t see the pleas I do. Perhaps they aren’t aware of the forces of violence and oppression in our nation and our local communities, or read the news. Perhaps they don’t feel qualified or knowledgeable enough to speak and so turn away. Worse, I’m sure some of them simply don’t care.
But here’s the thing: ignorance may be bliss but, in the Information Age, it’s also unforgiveable.
One of the most pernicious lies we tell ourselves is that we can remain silent – for whatever reason – and not be changed by that choice. Because – never forget – silence in moral matters is a choice, and it will weigh on our hearts and minds. It will alter us, harden us, make it easier each time to look away. Patterns of silence make it more difficult each time we are confronted with a moral crisis to step up and do the hard (but right) thing, to engage in difficult but transformative conversations.
Don’t fool yourself: silence is deadly. It’s deadly in the people-are-literally-dying sense and deadly in the way it erodes and kills moral courage.
Silence is killing us all.