Black people across the country have taken to the streets and to their social media feeds to plead through protest that “black lives matter” and “enough is enough.” But amidst all the noise and all the hashtags, many say there is nothing quite as deafening as “white silence.”
Because for all the people who have flooded social media with George Floyd’s name, Ahmaud Arbery’s image and countless heartbreaking personal anecdotes of racism in action, there are just as many – and possibly even more – who have borne witness to the pain in black communities and chosen to say nothing.
“It’s incredibly hurtful,” said Broadway star Jelani Alladin. “And you’re telling me that you have no hesitation posting a selfie of yourself… or what you’re eating for dinner, and yet you’re telling me that you’re afraid to say something because you might hurt other people’s feelings? Or you don’t know what to say? Or you don’t have an audience to reach? Were you thinking those things when you posted the other photos? I don’t think you were.”
Social media silence is nuanced. There are people whose feeds have simply gone dark. There are people who, as Alladin notes, have continued posting selfies and pictures of their food as if nothing is wrong. And, as fitness influencer Trammell Logan tells CBS News, it can even be hurtful when white people post messages about #blacklivesmatter side-by-side with more frivolous content.
“In your natural state of being distraught or sadness, if something extremely personal happens to you, I can’t see how you can be in that state and post about it or be about it and then five minutes later like post a cocktail mix, or like you dancing. Our emotions don’t necessarily work like that,” Logan said.
Catherine Moran Ayeni, an attorney in Texas, told CBS News that for her, worse than total silence is when people respond to a “black lives matter” post with the comment “all lives matter.”
“It’s a very painful kind of silence because it removes our voice,” she said. “It doesn’t allow us to express our very specific pain… No one would ever go to a breast cancer walk and criticize them for talking about breast cancer. You wouldn’t walk up to someone who has experience as a breast cancer survivor or someone who’s lost someone from breast cancer, and say, ‘How dare you talk about breast cancer? Why not talk about colon cancer? How dare you exclude other cancers?'”
Rachel Lindsay, who famously broke barriers as the first black Bachelorette, said she is taking note of which white friends and public figures have gone silent. And she believes that, in the digital age, it is the duty of public figures to speak out.
“I’m not saying that you have to speak out and have this, you know, this whole spiel about black lives matter,” she told CBS News. “I’m not even necessarily saying that I need you to post. But at the bare minimum, a friend would reach out to another friend. ‘How are you doing during this time? I’ll admit that I’ve been silent. I’ll admit that I’ve ignored some of the issues that you face as a black person. But I want you to know that I’m your friend and I see you and I hear you.’ I am paying attention to friends that aren’t doing that.”
Ayeni is the mother of a 10-month-old son and she says experiencing recent events through that lens has been viscerally painful.
“I look at my son and I see Tamir Rice. I look at my son and I see Trayvon Martin. I look at my son and I see countless etc etc etc etc boys who were out living, existing, who are treated as a threat… I can tell my child not to wear a hoodie all I want. I can put him in the best schools. I can ensure that he is respectful. And sometimes, it doesn’t matter. And that’s very difficult as a mother to swallow, to understand that I can’t protect him under certain circumstances from people who don’t consider us human…”
“And so, when I see people choosing, because they have the privilege to choose, to ignore our pain and our fear and the fact that it feels like half the time we are screaming into a void, and that people are not listening because it makes them uncomfortable,” she added. “When I see that, I want to show them a picture of my happy child and say George Floyd was that child. Tamir Rice was that child. Breonna Taylor was that child. That is someone’s child. And so the very least you can do is acknowledge the pain. The very least you can do is hear us.”
The phenomenon of white silence has existed for centuries – long before social media – but the rise of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has only served to make its presence more palpable.
“White silence is incredibly powerful,” said Savala Trepczynski, executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley. “It’s not neutral. It acts like a weapon. It’s not even silent. It speaks volumes, right? And the people of color who are around a silent white person, they hear the silence. And they feel it. And they feel what it means, which is: I don’t have your back. Or I don’t care enough to get uncomfortable to speak out. Or you know, despite the fact that black and brown people have been acting up and protesting on our own behalf for centuries, I still don’t quite get it enough to say something.”
Many in both the white and black communities agree that what drives the silence is fear.
“What drives the silence is the term that Robin DiAngelo coined, which is ‘white fragility,'” said Michelle Saahene, who runs an organization called “From Privilege to Progress,” which is focused on desegregating the conversation around race.
“And that’s being scared of what your followers are going to say. That’s being scared of you maybe saying the wrong thing and hurting the black and brown community. I know personally that I’ve had friends that didn’t want to post on social media because they’re scared of what some racist people will say. And to say that means you are more worried about what racist people are saying than about doing the right thing…. That is a form of complicity.”
Ayeni said fear is natural, especially for white people who are surrounded by friends and family members who might not necessarily agree. The first step is “acknowledging that you don’t know.”
“Acknowledge that you don’t know what to say,” she explained. “Acknowledge that you have questions and that you’re seeing people in pain. The worst thing that you can do is ignore the pain because you’re perpetuating it at that point. When you see someone on fire and you look the other way because it makes you uncomfortable, you are complicit in that person being on fire and that fire spreading.”
What’s more, Saahene points out that most Americans’ social media feeds are not integrated, which means that the stories the black community is posting will not necessarily reach white audiences until white people start posting about them too. She was the woman behind the viral video of two black men being arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks in 2018. That video, she says, went viral after a white woman – now her business partner – shared it.
“The reason the Starbucks video went viral was because a white woman had shared it, and her social media was very white. She didn’t have that many friends of color. So, all these white people were seeing this video of racial discrimination that they normally wouldn’t otherwise see… So many people that live segregated lives, but still go to Starbucks, started saying, ‘I can’t believe this is actually going on. I can’t believe this is happening.’ And people of color were asking, ‘Where have you been? You know, it’s in our timelines every single day.'”
Now, more than ever, black and brown communities are urging white social media users to take action and do it publicly.
“I would say find the action that fuels you,” Alladin told CBS News. “If that means, there’s a protest today at 3 o’clock. I’m going. In Times Square. If that means getting up and protesting. If that means donating. If that means speaking in your own words on your Instagram, your Twitter, your Facebook, your outlet, your ways of mass communication, then do it. Stop hesitating. Stop thinking that you’ll get it wrong. There is no getting it wrong. There’s just doing it.”