Zianah Griffin

February 3, 2020

What would happen if I speak up?

I often wonder this when I’m walking through a neighborhood with other people and I hear a demeaning comment about Latino workers. When a rap song comes on and someone drops the N-word. Or someone just drops the N-word. When people impersonate different cultures with belittling accents. When someone pulls their eyes back to mock Asian features. Or when I’m walking down the hallway, walking into class, walking by and they don’t realize I can hear them, or when I’m right next to them and they very well know it. 

What would happen if I speak up? Would they feel ashamed? It would definitely kill the mood. Would they be defensive, deflective, or justify themselves as harmless? Would they discredit me because my skin color obliges me to say something? Will they feel like they have to act in a different way around me moving forward?

These thoughts cross my mind in a flurry and are gone as quickly as they came. The fear of saying something pitted in my throat overcomes me. The voice in my head tells me it’s pointless, you will only cause discomfort and you won’t actually change their behavior. And, of course, there is no one else around to back me up.

For years, I have been a bystander to the dominant culture of whiteness that deeply affects students of color. Our community practices a terrifying form of whiteness that allows privilege to be carried out, inequity to be ignored and ignorance to be pardoned on the basis of greater believed ideologies. In my experience, these ideologies, which embody progressivism and equality, act as a comfortable blanket that allows people to ignore their privilege. It has even allowed kids to be overtly racist under the inalienable truth that they are not racist. 

That is why they have the courage to make degrading remarks about people of color when I am present. And that is why I don’t have the courage to say anything back. Correction: didn’t.

As a young person of color, I have had to accept that most people are a product of the culture they have grown up in. And that is why it is also important to note that most people don’t have malintent. Often times, people say things without even recognizing their racial undertones. Regularly, if I ask someone what they mean by a certain phrase, they won’t even have a clear answer. 

And it is this realization that has driven me to speak up. The realization that a lot of students are unaware of the culture they are contributing to. That when you are swimming in your culture, it can make you blind to its effect on others. The realization that my voice along with many others, might just pop the bubble, or a bubble. And that interrupting a dominant culture, which marginalizes almost half of the people in our country, starts with everyday action. 

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