By Jenny Beatrice, St. Louis Province Communications Director
As a friend was telling me about her routine work woes, the conversation took a turn when she attributed the problems to the race of her employees. Shocked by her comment, I was speechless. I hoped that the look on my face spoke to my disapproval, but I knew deep down it wasn’t enough. How could I have stayed silent?
Months later, at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s congregational chapter meeting, we recited a prayer that brought me back to that haunting moment: “When human dignity is not honored, may I speak out … When rights are not respected, may I speak out … When I am most afraid to speak out, may I speak out nonetheless.”
At that same meeting, the sisters called us to “bold conversation and prophetic action” to work toward dismantling systems of oppression. And I realized my silence was more than just a slip-up — it was part of perpetuating injustice.
In her book So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo says, “There is a good chance that you, regardless of race, have tried to have these conversations in the past. There is also a good chance that they have not gone well. So ‘not well’ that perhaps you have been afraid to ever have these conversations again. If that
is you, you are not alone.”
A relative uses a racial slur at Thanksgiving dinner. A co-worker emails you an offensive joke. A neighbor makes comments about the Black family that moved on the block. Knowing these uncomfortable situations will arise, we can better participate in “bold conversations” by being ready to respond.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s guide, “Speak Up,” recommends having a response in mind before an incident happens. “Open-ended questions are often a good response: ‘Why did you say that?’ ‘How did you develop that belief?’”
Describe the behavior, and don’t label the person. You can say, “You’re classifying an entire ethnicity in a derogatory way. Is that what I hear you saying?” Avoid labeling and name-calling (from “Speak Up”).
Oluo says, “If you hear someone at the water cooler say, ‘Black people are always late,’ you can definitely say, ‘Hey, that’s racist,’ but you can also add, ‘and it contributes to false beliefs about Black workers that keep them from even being interviewed for jobs …’”
You cannot control another person, but you can draw a line. You can say, “I don’t want you to use that language when I’m around.” Then follow through on your limits (from “Speak Up”).
Oluo says, “You must get used to being uncomfortable and get used to this not being about our feelings if you plan to help and not hinder people of color in the efforts for racial justice.”
Even when we say “all the right things,” we must remember that change happens slowly. Most people take small steps and don’t change their belief systems overnight. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of speaking out. Oluo says that you may not get very far at that moment, “But it gives people something to think about. These conversations, even if they feel fruitless at first, can plant a seed to greater understanding.”
So when human dignity is not honored, when rights are not respected, when we are most afraid … may we speak out.
This article appeared in the 2020 issue of Carondelet Magazine. Find downloadable versions of this and every issue on the Carondelet Magazine page.