As writers, we’re supposed to come up with the right words for moments like these. As Paul Valéry described it, “In each terrible period of human history, there has always been one man sitting in a corner, writing very carefully and threading pearls.” But this is no time for words.
I’m afraid that this moment, along with George Floyd, will be forgotten. We are currently at a confluence of catastrophes with more horrible disasters looming nearby. There will be something else to cause fear and outrage. Something else to dominate cable news and social media.
But ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. Systemic racism didn’t go away when our attention was placed on the pandemic. In fact, COVID-19 hit the African American community and other communities of color hard. Nor has COVID-19 gone away when our attention is placed on systemic racism and police brutality. Don’t be surprised to see infection and death rates spike. This year’s barrage of disasters has exposed every flaw in our system, every delusion we’ve held about our exceptionalism, and every exploitation that has sustained our comfort and privilege.
Words are not enough in this situation.
We first need to listen. By we, I especially mean us as white people. We like to think we somehow understand others’ pain because we once read Maya Angelou. But we don’t. We don’t because we are afraid to. If we saw ourselves as others see us, we wouldn’t be able to handle it. We won’t seem as good-hearted, well-meaning, and colorblind as we imagine ourselves. We don’t realize how much of our comfortable middle-class lives are built on the suffering of others. We don’t realize how much of our opportunities are made possible from the obstacles placed in others’ way.
To listen, it takes courage. It takes a willingness to question everything you’ve ever believed about yourself and your world. It calls on us to humble ourselves and open our hearts. Mostly, it requires us to shut up and let other people speak for themselves.
Too many people have suffered to let this moment pass. And the consequences of ignoring this problem are too great. If we dismiss the problem with more empty promises of dialogue and reform, it will happen again as it always has. Next time, it will be too devastating for anyone to ignore.
This is no time for words. It’s a time for listening. It’s a time for action. It’s a time to get over ourselves and make positive changes for all. Then, we will know the right words to use.