By Austin Channing Brown |Feb 17, 2021
Excerpt from the article…
As someone who pursues racial justice as a speaker and writer, I am regularly faced with questions- immediate, emotional questions. Sometimes they are questions folks have been sitting on for a while – especially when the question is situational. …
I’ve come to fully realize that there is another question I receive without fail from nice white people in corporations, nonprofits, schools, and churches that I need to start addressing differently.
Here is the question: How can I overcome my fear of speaking up?
Of course, the question is not always framed this exact way. [See also: How can I start using my voice as an ally? What do I do in xyz situation? In what ways can I be an ally to my coworkers of color?] But regardless of how the specific words change, the premise of the question typically remains the same, which is: I am scared to speak up, and I need to know how to overcome my fear.
I am no longer accepting the premise of the question.
Dear Nice White People, it’s time for you to honestly answer the question, “What are you afraid of?” because there is a reason you are scared to speak up and it’s not some vague notion of inability.
Let me get you started.
You are afraid to speak up because you know there will be repercussions for doing so. How do you know this? Because you have been watching it happen. You are not afraid of a ghost in the closet or a monster under your bed. You are not a child afraid of some intangible, imaginary outcome. You are afraid of being on the receiving end of the oppression you have witnessed.
You are afraid they will talk about you, the way they currently talk about your Black, female co-worker.
You are afraid that you will no longer be invited to the secret white people meetings where decisions are being made.
You are afraid that you will fall out of the good graces of those with power.
You are afraid that you will be labeled “the problem,” the person who is “not a team player,” the one who is going to ruin a good time.
You are afraid of not being invited, of not being favored, of not being liked because there are benefits for being liked.
You are afraid of challenging the system, the supervisor, the policy, the conversation because you have participated in the destruction of others and now you are afraid that you, too, will be destroyed.
If you are afraid, then you know there is danger in speaking out. And if you know it’s dangerous, you have either been complicit or you have been a willing participant in allowing others to face that danger alone.
You see, Nice White People, you have believed your lie longer than anyone else. You have believed that you could maintain the status quo, reap the benefits thereof, and if you are nice to people of color perhaps they won’t notice. But we can see you. We can see you better than you can.
We can see how you always manage to fail up. We can see how you use niceness to make yourself feel better about the injustice(s) you’ve witnessed. We can see how you have taken positions, created positions, skipped over qualifications, and done all manner of systems changes to get what you want when what you want is whiteness. We have seen how you manage to find your voice when you are asked to praise the system or enforce the system or justify the system.
And your weaponizing of niceness is so complete that you get mad at us when we reject your niceness. You are mad when you apologize privately for something done publicly and your apology is rejected. You are mad when no one makes you feel better for confusing the only two people of color in your department for the fourth time. You are mad when no one wants to have coffee with you to discuss how your niceness sickens them. You are mad when you don’t get a pat on the back for your niceness. You are mad because we see your niceness for what it is- a desire to believe you are good, even as you uphold a system that oppresses.
And then I come to speak at your MLK celebration, and suddenly your niceness takes the form of shyness, frailness, an inability to know how to speak up, a feigned ignorance that allows you to believe that the reason you won’t speak up is that you don’t know how… when the core issue is that you don’t want to speak up because you know it will cost you.
If you really want to be in solidarity with Black people, it’s time to answer the question: What are you afraid of? Release all the bullshit answers about your own frailty, and get honest. Your hands are dirty. And they won’t ever be clean unless you start being honest about the dirt you’ve been involved in or witness to.
Your niceness serves only you.