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To Speak Or Not To Speak? That Is This Week's Question.

Last week, I initiated a conversation with someone that gave me pause. This is unusual because, as a coach, speaker, and facilitator, my job is literally to talk about things. Sometimes I speak about topics that people are eager to hear about, like saying yes to your dreams. Other times, I speak about issues that folks don't want to talk about, but they need to talk about, such as racial justice. Even with speaking being my actual job description and my natural tendency towards, shall we say, loquaciousness (read: I've got a big mouth), there are moments when I'm torn about whether or not to speak up.

This conversation brought up one of those moments. An old school friend, who is white, posted something on social media with Black people in it that had me doing a full-body cringe. 😖

Knowing them, I was 99% certain that the intent was not to cause harm. However, as I often communicate in my Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training, no matter what someone's intention is, it doesn't mean that they didn't cause harm. That harm still needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

Despite DEI being part of my work, I was torn about whether or not to address the issue. I was of two minds because:

  • I wasn't sure what the conversation's outcome would be and how much time, effort, and attention addressing this issue would take. The time factor was a biggie because I was tired and didn't have the capacity for many more things.

  • As someone who has marginalized identities (Black, woman, immigrant), I contend with the realities of racism, patriarchy, and Afrophobia daily. While these things are social constructs, they have a very real impact on my opportunities, safety, and lived experiences generally (hence, the tired I mentioned above). I am very clear that unless it is labor that I have chosen to do with clear boundaries, it is not my responsibility to educate people about racism. racial equity work is labor, and it has an emotional and psychological impact, one which people of color should not exclusively carry the burden of addressing.

  • This person is someone who I think is very cool. If we were in the same town, I would love to meet up for a drink and a trip down memory lane. But, they are not a bosom buddy or a member of my community who I have chosen to build a relationship with or to intentionally invest in. For those folks, the community I told you about a couple of weeks ago, there would be no question. I would have spoken up post haste because we have given each other permission to point out when things aren't quite right, raise one another's awareness, and hold one another accountable.

Artist: Shae

All of these things left me torn about whether or not to engage. I took some time to think about it, and after creating a boundary in my mind about how much time and energy I was willing to invest if this conversation became a “thing,” I decided to speak up. I spoke up for a few reasons:

  • The first is that while I have marginalized identities, I also carry certain privileges that those featured in the post don't. In addressing the issue with my old classmate, the power dynamic was equal, and I had the opportunity to make a difference.

  • I also thought, “what would I want someone to do for me if something I posted was offensive?” (And please note that just because we don't like something or disagree doesn't make it offensive. Offensive, to paraphrase, is when we spread falsehoods or undermine people's dignity and humanity.) If I offended, I would want to privately and kindly be called in by someone, so I could learn and do better next time.

Sidebar: when we offend people, they do not owe us their grace. Too often, I've seen people respond to feedback with tone policing, “you should have said it like this,” “if you approached me nicely,” “why are you so angry,” etc. But, in the words of Steve Biko, “You can't kick a man and then tell him how to respond to the kick.”

Taking this into account, I decided to reach out and share why the post was disturbing to me. They responded, acknowledging my concern and explaining why they posted it—not as an excuse but as context to someone who has known them for many years. They then deleted the post, and we were all left to scroll happily ever after. 😌

After having such a straightforward and respectful engagement, I wondered why I had to have so much conversation with myself beforehand. I realized it's because when we think about calling people in, we tend to think about the worst possible outcomes, we think of the conversations when people become defensive and the dramas that become worldwide social media sensations.

But this experience reminded me that thousands of quiet conversations most likely happen each day, in which we each learn, grow, and develop. In building communities, whether they be the tight-knit ones of our ride or dies or loose networks of connection, sometimes we've got to be willing to take a chance and to have the conversation.

With each conversation, depending on our identities and positionality, the calculus of whether, how, and when to raise an issue will be different. My view is that those of us who have more privilege and who come from dominant communities, and who most directly benefit from the oppression of others, have a particular obligation to speak up and to do so often. While this particular conversation was related to race, there are plenty of other discussions to be had about gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, class, and all of the other ways we differ.

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