By Laura Crain, Associate Director, Library
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am grateful to Dr. Moise St. Louis and the MLK Convocation Committee for extending an invitation to me to write a personal reflection about the cost of silence and the responsibility of the individual in the face of injustice and oppression. At the same time, this task did fill me with some measure of insecurity – will my words be eloquent, interesting or of consequence? I write these words with a sense of humility and with the understanding that any act or speech that disrupts hate or intolerance carries with it risks – social, financial, physical – risks that vary and are unique to each individual.
To start, I will tell you that I’m a white middle-class mom and wife. I work as a librarian at Saint Michael's. I live in Jericho in a house on 20 acres of woods. We have two dogs.
If you look a little closer, you’ll see that I have a wife, not a husband. My older son is Asian American and on the autism spectrum. My younger son is from Guatemala. They’re both adopted. My sons are a lot of things – teenagers, beautiful, capable, bright, kind, impossibly messy, stubborn, funny. We live in a really white community. My sons, my wife, and I are all homebodies – preferring the peace and privacy of our home and land and this space where we feel comfortable and safe. But it is also complicated for our children to navigate their lives in our community where they are not like their peers.
As a teenager and young adult, I didn’t think much about race, class, privilege, gender, disability. I grew up in a conservative household. My dad was an officer in the Marine Corps and my mom worked full-time as a homemaker. The lens that I saw the world through was one of entitlement: I walked through life, my community, jobs, school, stores with the expectation that I belonged and that I could occupy any space that I wanted to. I never thought about the privileges that made this possible (whiteness, education, able-bodiedness, class…). Why would I?
When I was in high school in Virginia in 1982, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was challenged in a nearby public school as an inappropriate classroom reading for its problematic treatment of race and its racist language. I wrote a letter to our local newspaper defending the book and its use in the curriculum. I was solely focused on the literary merits of the book, which I felt should take precedence over the feelings of those who objected to it. At the time, I could only understand the world through my perspective. Looking back on my teenage self, I can see that I missed an opportunity to listen – to understand the impact that the teaching of Huckleberry Finn was having on other students in our multiracial community. I didn’t consider the context in which the book was being taught. Were teachers prepared to engage in and manage difficult discussions about race and racism? Were complementary texts assigned that were written from other perspectives? By whom and why is this book considered a “great American novel”?
A number of events in my life pushed me to begin to listen and consider a wider range of perspectives. When I was in college, my beautiful older brother whom I adored became a quadriplegic after falling from a tree and crushing his spinal cord. That began a lifelong journey for me toward caring deeply about the lives and rights of people with disabilities. After his accident, when my brother came home after what seemed an eternity in hospitals and rehabs, there came a long learning curve of home health aides, Medicaid, an accessible van, a power wheelchair, and an eventual grudging acceptance. My brother David saw many of his friends disappear - unable to be in the presence of his now disabled body. His best friend stuck by him and he made new friends and forged a new life for himself. His greatest difficulties were the people and spaces that were closed off to him – restaurants and homes with stairs, sidewalks without curb cuts, people who were afraid to look at him or who did or said insensitive things. One time, when we were at a department store, my brother was sitting nearby while my mom and I shopped. A man walked by and dropped some quarters in the cup of water that rested on David’s wheelchair lapboard. Inexplicably, this happened again and again over the years: when some people see a disabled person, they want to give him money. You see what my brother wanted was acceptance, a friendly face, or just people who weren’t so damn uncomfortable around him. I loved my brother and grew closer to him through the simple and human acts of helping him with his daily living and through listening to and holding his pain. He died at the age of 45 from complications of quadriplegia.
While in college in conservative Virginia, I fell in love with a woman and became part of a hated minority. It was the 1980’s and I began to live part of my life underground – hiding my sexual orientation in public and becoming part of a clandestine LGBT community. We went to gay bars, gathered in private spaces off campus, hid ourselves from our classmates and parents, and generally felt both exhilarated by our newfound connections to each other and demoralized by our lives in the shadows.
At the time that I was coming out and learning about LGBT and feminist activism, the gay community was waking up to the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS. In 1987, gay activists from New York City created the Silence = Death logo which featured a pink triangle echoing the badges the Nazis used to mark homosexuals in the concentration camps. Silence = Death became a rallying cry against the perils of silence in the face of injustice.
Rallying cries such as these have always and continue to be powerful tools for organizing against injustice and we see their effectiveness in the civil rights messages of ¡Si, Se Puede! and Black Lives Matter, the heartbreaking message of Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe,” Maxine Water’s authoritative “Reclaiming my time,” Colin Kaepernick’s Take a Knee, and the viral #metoo movement which called out the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. These messages, the events that sparked them, and most importantly the stories of the human beings behind them, serve as catalysts for people to come together collectively to speak out against brutality, hate, and intolerance.
Over the years, a lot has changed for the better for queer and other marginalized communities. But there is much that hasn’t changed and much that is getting worse for people of color, transgender people, people with disabilities, and immigrants, to name a few. These days, in my Virginia hometown, some of my now middle-aged white schoolmates are clinging to their confederate statues and flags as though their lives depended on it. Not unlike how I clung to my Huckleberry Finn, unwilling to consider the real and painful experiences of members of my community. The reasons that are given to justify holding on to these monuments of slavery and Jim Crow are “heritage” or “way of life.” Yes, removing these symbols of oppression from the public sphere does mean letting go of a way of life, letting go of a mindset, embracing change.
I know some students at Saint Michael's who care deeply about human rights and speak out against oppression. Their embrace of social justice has come through their lived experiences and I believe this generation is more in touch with the perils and uncertainties of living in this country at this time. I know also students whose path toward justice and human rights is a slower, tentative process filled with missteps. Fortunately, for many there is eventual growth. It was that way for me and still is a process. I owe a great deal of gratitude to the Saint Michael’s Center for Multicultural Affairs: its expansive programming and excellent speakers have helped to open my mind and heart. And gratitude toward formative writers such as Audre Lorde, Isabel Wilkerson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, John Elder Robison, Roxane Gay and many others. Becoming more culturally responsive is and continues to be a life-long personal journey.
Being a mother has had a profound effect on this journey toward responsiveness. My older son is autistic. He is 18 and a great big bear of a man with a huge and generous heart. It has been a long and bumpy journey for my wife and I to come to understand our son’s neurodiversity, to listen to his desires and his sadness, to be responsive to his needs, and ultimately to affirm his autism. You may not know this, but in the autistic self-advocacy movement, autism moms can have a bad rep. Autism moms sometimes write blogs and memoirs that overshare and violate their autistic children’s privacy. And autism moms sometimes experiment with unproven therapies (some of them harmful) to try to get their children to be less autistic. And then there are people who have some wildly insensitive beliefs about autism. Just recently, autism came up in a conversation and an acquaintance launched immediately into talking about Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza. Someone hears “autism” and that’s the first thing that comes to mind. That is not ok with me. Not too long ago a friend told me her friend’s son was cured of autism when he started a gluten-free diet. In these moments, and though it is uncomfortable for me, I am not silent. The lives of people on the autism spectrum will be improved when we accept autism, and work instead towards advocating for what a person with autism wants and needs to be more independent and happy.
My younger son was born in Guatemala and came to live with us in Vermont when he was 10 months old. He navigates his world competently as a brown-skinned 16 year old in a white town with a brother on the autism spectrum and two white moms. At the same time, I know that he feels uncomfortable at times, he tries to blend in, he’s cool and quiet. All his closest friends are white. Whether of necessity, self-preservation, or simply being part of the global Generation Z, in his short life he has already come to care deeply about social justice. I admire his courage and I worry about him. A few months ago I was stopped by police for speeding. My son was in the car with me. The officer was polite and told me to slow down and didn’t give me a ticket. In the car as we drove away, my son and I talked about my white privilege and economic privilege. I am profoundly sad that he will need to exercise caution and thoughtfulness in ways his white friends will not need to.
For me personally, one of the most important lessons I have learned is to talk less and listen more. Love comes when I open my heart and listen. Listen and stop. Stop being defensive, stop justifying my actions, stop minimizing the feelings of those who are targeted, stop rationalizing other people’s poor behavior, just stop. It doesn’t matter why I did or said something offensive. It matters that I did it, and that I apologize for it and that I learn from it. It matters that I acknowledge and validate the pain and the suffering of others who experience injustice.
Not everyone needs to be a community organizer or activist to make their voice heard, to do something concrete and tangible to disrupt injustice, to be inclusive and welcoming. We can fight oppression by volunteering, donating money if we are able, voting, and talking honestly and openly with our family members, our co-workers, our neighbors, and our politicians. But there is an important point to be made here about responsibility and privilege. I understand that given my privileges there are contexts in which taking action on issues of diversity or speaking up in the presence of bigotry may be less of a risk for me than for someone else. And therefore, I am responsible. It was not without risk that members of the Saint Michael's men’s basketball team took a knee before a game last November. It was not without risk that student leaders of the Center for Multicultural Affairs organized a demonstration in response to hate in December of 2016 and organized a community-wide action to Take a Knee last semester. In these times, it is imperative that we administrators, staff, and faculty step up and show our support. Right now, the lives and health of vulnerable people are in critical danger. The costs of silence are grave.