The Injustice of Silence

Ayona Riley
Ayona Riley

I graduated from Marquette University in the spring of 2014. As a political science major, I did not have an exact “dream job” pinned down. The only aspect of my post-graduation plans that I had pinned down, was that I knew I wanted to help people. Naturally, throughout my senior year of college I applied to various post-graduate service opportunities. I chose to serve with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), because it was the only program I applied to that emphasized the connectedness of faith and social justice. I wanted to put my faith in action. Through the JVC, I was placed with The Advocates for Human Rights to serve as a full-time program assistant for the Refugee & Immigrant Program and the Research, Education, and Advocacy Program. Aside from serving full-time with The Advocates, I live in intentional community with four other Jesuit Volunteers (JVs).

I applied to JVC knowing that there would not be many people of color, and I thought I would be okay with that. However, when I arrived at the baggage claim area in the Indianapolis airport, seeing that I was indeed a pinch of pepper in a sea full of salt, I thought: “Why did I do this? Why did I intentionally place myself in an environment where I would be the only African American, or one of few?” At that moment, I realized just how difficult my year of service would be. An additional reality was that my year of service in JVC corresponded with a time in U.S. history when a civil rights movement (although, I would like to think of it as a human rights movement) was being revived within the Black community. As a result, I spent most of my time this year analyzing and re-analyzing similar experiences I had as an African American in JVC and within society.

The #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName protests have forced me to reach a deeper level of consciousness about my blackness, because the racial injustices that have gained national attention over the course of this year have reminded me just how actively blackness is policed, persecuted, and ostracized within society. As a result, I felt a need to preserve and protect my blackness from ignorance, and that process began by being intentional about following cases of racial injustice, not only in the United States, but abroad as well. I sat and watched the videos of the several African Americans who were killed by law enforcement officers this past year. I made myself watch, in its entirety, a video of a 14-year-old-girl being manhandled in her swimsuit by an officer, and thinking “that could have been me…that could have been my sister.” I watched the video of Israeli police officers beating an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier. I sat and read countless articles by Whites and Blacks across the political spectrum on these issues. Through these experiences, I have reaffirmed that I am not a fan of Fox News. I like The Washington Post, Time Magazine is bold, and “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart is the gold standard. I have come to love the less mainstream news sources, like AfricaIsACountry, Jezebel, and MadameNoire. Throughout this year, I have fallen in love with my blackness and feel even more connected to what Paul Gilroy, Professor of American and English Literature at King’s College London, describes as the Black Atlantic; however, throughout this year, I also needed a place to express my feelings.

Unfortunately, I did not find solace within the JVC community to discuss issues of racial injustice, in part because I have never felt 100 percent comfortable. I come from a background where the threshold for trust and comfortability could never be met in a year of knowing someone. Additionally, many times – although not every time – when I expressed outrage over incidents that displayed racial injustice, I would be met with blank stares and silence – as if fellow JVs were afraid to delve deeper into these issues or lacked the language to thoroughly discuss these issues. Or, perhaps JVs were listening, but they did not hear me.

Listening but not hearing is common. As a child, my mother would talk and I would show little interest, because I was eager to go outside and play. My mother would say: “Ayona, do you hear me?” and I would reply with, “Yes, mama, I’m listening.” Her follow-up question would always be, “But do you HEAR me?” Fellow JVs often use the phrase “I have to unpack this” as a response to discussions about racism. Unfortunately, I have come to equate that phrase with “I cannot or do not want to offer up an opinion on this topic.” Either way, it is privilege: to be able to hear, but not listen, and to have the option to disengage on issues of racial injustice. Therefore, I mentioned these issues less frequently during my year of service. Instead, I would spend hours texting and talking on the phone with my friends or tweeting incessantly about what it means to be Black in America.

JVC attracts White 20-somethings who are social justice-oriented, or at least have a desire to be. In essence, JVs should be the pinnacle of young White allies, liberals, moderates, or any other word used to describe White Americans who support social justice. From experience, however, topics centering on race have not merited much thought-provoking conversations amongst this group. If you are outspoken on gender and economic inequality, yet remain mute on systemic and institutionalized racism, you are not an ally. You are the problem. It is not the duty of African Americans to spark or carry discussions about racial injustice. As an ally, these are issues you should already know about and have a desire to discuss.

Being an ally means standing with, not for, African Americans. It means knowing when to speak up and against racial injustice, because “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”[1] It means being conscious of micro-aggressions – notably, constantly correcting African Americans’ speech or statements, or outright dismissing our thoughts and opinions. It means being okay with African Americans having valid points on issues. It means understanding the methods we choose for redressing grievances; which means you have to be okay with African Americans being right on occasion. Being an ally means being intentional about hearing African Americans when we speak. Unlike you, when race comes into play, African Americans do not have the privilege of listening but not hearing. For an African American, listening but not hearing a White person could result in being labeled incompetent, reinforcing stereotypes, or being shot multiple times by a White police officer who has been raised in a society where blackness is deemed dangerous.

While the “quotable” portions of MLK’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” are often used by society, I will end this entry with a portion of the letter that is often ignored:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill-will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all of the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.[2]

As activists, allies, and supporters for social justice in the 21st Century, this quote is saying: Racial injustice requires your attention. Post your outrage of racial injustice on Facebook and other social media sites. Speak up against racial injustice. Protest, boycott, die-in, and do these things proudly. Most importantly, be intentional about engaging in conversations about race, even if it is unsettling for you.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”[3]


[1] Archbishop Desmond Tutu

[2] Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. Letter From Birmingham Jail. Birmingham, Alabama. 16 April 1963. Retrieved from: http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf on 23 June 2015.

[3] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Loving Your Enemies. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. 17 November 1957.

By: Ayona Riley, program assistant with The Advocates for Human Rights.

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2 thoughts on “The Injustice of Silence

  1. You’ve touched on a topic that troubles me. I think I know what you mean when you ask why supposed allies are quiet. I read your essay yesterday and I was quiet. I didn’t want to comment even though I agree with much of what you are saying. Why? There are several different answers to that question. One answer is that, on the issue of racial discrimination in America, I choose to spend my energy trying to “hear” and understand the perspectives of African Americans and trying to challenge and change the perspectives of white Americans and other people I encounter who hold discriminatory attitudes and/or behaviors. Another reason for my reluctance to speak up is my perception that because of my privilege, I am not entitled to take ownership of this issue . I have learned that African Americans own this issue. They live it — not me — therefore I do not know where I can contribute to the discussion without being accused of appropriating the issue. And the third reason, which is the one I think is most easily changed among non-African Americans concerned about racism, is that I need something to do, not to say. Words on this issue are a mile wide and an inch deep. If I can engage/help/do something worthwhile, I will. I marched in DC’s Black Lives Matter ralley after Eric Garner’s murder. I have written an unknown number of letters on behalf of African Americans unjustly imprisoned. I’m not saying that my paltry actions made any great contribution to change. All I’m saying is that these are things I felt I could do, so I did them. The swell of pain that has arisen from so many violent, horrible events recently has been translated into words. We need community leaders, cultural leaders, religious leaders, political leaders to translate the words to actions. Actions that respect a shared vision of a better society. I encourage you to become one of those leaders in whatever sphere you choose, and I thank you for reminding me that I must be a leader in my spheres, too. Keep challenging people who seem to be silent on racism, but do not be too discouraged by that. Sometimes friends just need to know what you want from them.

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