The pandemic and the events triggered by the death of George Floyd dominate the global news agenda. The majority of us are still asked to stay at home, keep our distance, and remain safe. The assumption is that if we leave the experts to do their stuff, a vaccine or a cure will appear to save us. Meanwhile, the implications of the killing of George Floyd have shocked and shaken the world. As with the virus, I watched, and I felt horrified. But unlike with the virus, I stayed silent.
Then I read a message from a friend and classmate from MIT. It was a challenging post in our private WhatsApp classmates-group. He was dismayed that, while we routinely discussed current affairs in this group – from COVID-19 to passing trivia – we had all been silent on Floyd’s death and the ensuing unrest across the US. Did we not think it mattered?
At first, I was offended. I felt it was unfair to assume our silence meant we didn’t care. Of course, we all deplored what had happened, and of course, we cared about racial injustice. Then I thought again. I remembered what Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel had said:
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
And I realized that to my friend, our silence sounded all too much like toleration of racism. Not only didn’t I have any right to feel offended. If anything, I should feel ashamed.
My own Jewish background means I am very aware of the horrors of racism, culturally, historically, and on a personal level. I painfully know what can happen when one group is victimized, and how easy – albeit unfathomable – it is for others to stand by. But how aware am I really? The German pastor Martin Niemöller famously reflected on his initial role during the Nazi regime:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Now, I’m not suggesting 21st century America is anything like Nazi Germany. But I do wonder if a similar human blind spot has come into play. When things do not directly affect us – or people like us – we simply tend to stand by or even look the other way. The difference today is that our failure to speak out doesn’t stem from the fear of consequences. If anything, perhaps it feels too easy. It costs nothing to indulge in ‘virtue signaling’ in our bubbles on social media. But what does that achieve? Can’t we just take it for granted that all decent people abhor racism?
Until my friend’s WhatsApp post, I might have said yes, of course! But then, I began to reflect. And I began to understand that from the perspective of disadvantaged or victimized communities, the silence of the majority is brutally chilling. However much we might protest when challenged, we might as well not care. Challenging racism – any form of racism – simply cannot be left to the victims of racism. The uncomfortable truth is that being silent means being complicit. If we find ourselves at a loss for words, it is all the more important to find words and articulate them – especially for those in positions of privilege.
Especially those of us with access to resources, education, and influence have a responsibility to use them in pursuit of a fairer, better society. Because throughout history, it has never been the victims who changed their situation all by themselves. We all need to show up, stand up, speak up. I need to show up, stand up, speak up.
This is a challenge for me because I can’t claim to have the solution to ending racism in the USA or anywhere else. In my professional life, I think of myself as an enabler, someone who helps make things happen, get things done. So when I speak up, I like to be able to point to solutions. It is with humility that I show up and take a stand on an issue on which I have nothing ground-breaking, or significant to say. And that kind of humility does not come easily to me! But what I’ve understood is that I have to do it anyway. We all do.
Three simple, yet powerful questions
The pandemic is unfair. But it has mostly united the world. It has unearthed the best in so many who have made sacrifices, taken calculated risks, or given so generously. Most importantly, it bears no inherent intent. But racism is very different. It has always lurked within society, often passively, until it is given the oxygen to breathe and multiply. It is a disease with no cure except suffocation by the majority with an uncompromising sense to see it as an intolerable evil.
So let us not take a “COVID approach” to racism and wait for someone else to come up with a solution. Racism is not going to be cured by clever experts. It cannot be fought by science. Change will only come if we all take ownership, hold each other accountable, and shout from the rooftops.
An essential pillar of my value system comes from the ancient scholar Hillel the Elder and sums it all up in three short questions:
“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
But when I am just for myself, then what am “I”?
And if not now, when?”
If I see myself as someone who wants to be part of making the world a better place, I have a responsibility to show up, to stand up. to speak up. Even if I don’t have clear-cut solutions, I am determined to help find them. And as for when, the answer is, of course, “now”!
Time to wake up
Before I could show up, stand up, and speak up, well … I had to wake up. So I am grateful to my friend for providing that much-needed wake-up call on WhatsApp. A real friend is one who tells you what you don’t want to hear. So I was wrong to feel offended, and wrong to have remained silent. I’m fortunate to have friends like him, who make me recognize my blind spots and see the world through the eyes of others. Maybe that is the beginning of a solution, after all.