A few weeks ago, my goddaughter gave me an update on her first year in college. As she began to tell me about her experiences, her voice dropped. All the excitement of the first week left her voice. She described all her teachers as cool, except her World History professor. He got a questionable, weird description. She explained some problematic statements the professor made about racial groups in his retelling of history. She gave me examples of how he used derogatory and socially unacceptable descriptors to describe specific racial groups. She explained how the black people in the class began to challenge and push back on his statements. She said they became deflated as most of their comments and statements were dismissed and explained away. I asked about the racial makeup of the class. I was a little shocked to hear that half the class was non-white. I continued to ask questions to see if she felt courageous or informed enough to challenge the professor. She simply stated, “No, I was afraid. I’m only a freshman.” She went on to say, “I knew he was wrong, but I didn’t have the language to challenge him.”
I knew that feeling all too well.
I asked if any other white students spoke up in defense and she replied, “No.” She went on to say that most held their heads down, barely making eye contact with the professor or the other students, looking just as confused as they were. She had hoped someone of another race would say anything to challenge the professor. She felt he would have responded differently to a white student. We looked at each other and had the same thought: it would have been awesome if someone white had spoken up as an advocate in that moment.
I share this story because in circumstances like this a person of color is hoping to find solidarity. We are looking for someone to come to our defense. We are looking for someone to be brave. A little solidarity goes a long way in these situations.
Why should we become advocates for one another? Why does it matter? In John 17:21 Jesus prays “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” It’s important that we see oneness separate from sameness. Oneness represents the great diversity in God’s kingdom. Oneness represents our willingness to see and love one another in spite of differences. To be one, we must learn how to see even if it makes us uncomfortable. To be one, we must learn to exercise our empathy muscle. Having an understanding of oneness helps us become advocates for others.
The only way we can become an advocate is to unmask our resistance, to sit with, be with and suffer with others. Instead, we avoid honest and hard conversations. We choose silence because once we acknowledge, ignorance can no longer serve as an excuse for inaction. The invisible becomes visible and opens a gateway for us to see oppression, atrocities and people unlike us, through realistic eyes. We choose silence because it is the way of comfort. It allows us to stay above the fray.
My goddaughter left her classroom feeling othered, unseen and unheard. It was a big dose of racial bias the first week of college by someone who should be a trusted adult. As the students of color gathered outside the door of the class, trying to make sense of what happened, the other students walked by not saying a word or acknowledging the pain some of the students felt. I’m sure they had no words because they had been groomed to stay away from these topics. Maybe they wanted to speak up, but couldn’t find the words similar to my goddaughter. The students of color mentioned feeling alone and vulnerable to this teachers’ ideologies. They felt they had no recourse against a tenured professor. They all wondered how they would survive a semester of racial prejudice, dehumanization and mental abuse. It made me wonder how many times someone may have needed my support and instead I remained silent. Our society grooms us to remain silent in the conversations on race. We are groomed to fear the difficult conversation despite the systemic impact of our silence.
An advocate is an active participant in learning and understanding the plight of others. Silence and inaction only serve to perpetuate the status quo, especially in the area of racial healing. If we are one, if we are connected, if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:26). We must learn to speak up in the face of injustice and not center our own well-being.
A friend of mine posted a supportive post about racial literacy and her personal journey toward racial healing this week for the first time. She took a big step from being on the sidelines and silent to becoming an advocate for change. She’s learning, educating and growing in the space of racial healing. She’s doing hard and difficult personal work. I knew her post would lift some, challenge some, and anger others. The truth of her post may cost her. I made sure a few friends knew about the post. We stood guard to help answer questions and comments in case she needed help. She didn’t ask for help or accolades. She only wanted to share her journey and how she had been blind to these issues in the past. We wanted to encourage her in her brave new voice. We wanted to share positive affirmations to overshadow the negativity this simple post could provoke, simply because she brought up race. This is what an advocate does, protects in the face of adversity. As Martin Luther King stated, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Think about the issues or people you have advocated for in the past. Ask yourself why you choose to be an advocate? Ask yourself how you can prepare personally to leave the comforts of silence. Self-examination takes honesty.
What if I had chosen silence over Be the Bridge? What if I said, “God this is too much of a burden to carry?” What if I allowed my fears to win? In our nation, we often choose the road we have always traveled. A journey of silence which has hindered growth and healing. Silence has allowed some to benefit and allowed the oppression of others. What if the students in my goddaughter’s class chose courage? Maybe they will in the future, only time will tell. This is why we’ve started Be the Bridge Youth and Be the Bridge College, to equip all students.
When my friend posted on her page, you could see her friends of color cheering her on. We felt seen and known by her. It’s a real feeling when someone decides to help you carry a cross. May we choose discomfort over comfort, advocacy over silence and the road that offers benefits, so all may flourish.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Martin Luther King Jr.
Latasha Morrison is a bridge builder, reconciler, and compelling voice in the fight for racial justice. In 2016 she founded Be the Bridge, a nonprofit organization that equips more than 1,000 subgroups across five countries to serve as ambassadors of racial reconciliation. Numerous organizations, including Facebook’s Community Leadership Program, Forbes, and Ebony, have recognized her as a leading social justice advocate. A native of North Carolina, Tasha earned degrees in human development and business leadership. Her first book, Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation, releases October 2019.