“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” – Gandhi
That’s what we tell ourselves. We say that what matters is what we do, and maybe what we teach our children to do. We talk about taking responsibility for what we put out into the world, reminding ourselves that our efforts to do good matter as much as the efforts of those who would do harm.
But I think we are only half right – and that half right, sometimes, is simply not enough.
My sophomore year in high school, I had a big problem with bullies. There was a “We Hate Britt” club formed, made up of people I had once considered friends and people whom I had never even talked to. Groups of angry teenage girls would show up at my house and bang on my door, insisting that I come outside so that they could circle around me and hurl insults at me. It was, as anyone who has ever been bullied can attest to, absolutely awful.
My first instinct was to make myself as invisible as possible. I tried desperately to avoid doing anything that would catch their attention for fear of inciting another attack. “Just ignore it and it will go away,” people told me.
I tried to ignore it, and it didn’t go away.
When disappearing didn’t work, I tried to fight back. I “stood up for myself” the best I knew how as a sharp-tongued kid. I responded to their verbal insults with verbal daggers of my own. I fought to prove I wasn’t a victim.
I stood up for myself, and it didn’t go away.
My feeble attempts to fight back were as futile as the flopping of a hooked fish that lies at the feet of mighty fisherman. The harder I fought, the more obvious it became that I was powerless to face them on my own. They laughed at my ridiculous attempts to match them, my obvious insignificance only fueling their sense of superiority and entitlement.
Throughout all of this, people stood beside me. Quietly. They pulled me aside in the hall and slipped me carefully folded notes that explained how “stupid” they thought their friends were behaving. They apologized for what I was going through and expressed their deep hope that it would all go away sooner rather than later. They smiled at me when no one was looking, and quietly resolved not to get involved.
They resolved to be the change they wanted to see, and still, it didn’t go away.
And then a group of older, more popular, well respected girls decided to stand beside me. They didn’t have to hurl verbal insults or resort to “stooping” to anyone else’s level. They were better than that. Stronger than that. Stronger than I could have ever been on my own.
They simply stood beside me, calmly, and said “Enough. No more.”
And finally, change happened.
I read a blog post recently about the racism that still exists in the world today and I was reminded of how many times I have stood by, quietly, while someone else stood up for themselves. Kelly, a self-described light-skinned, black woman, talked about the horrendous comments she’s been privy to because she could “pass” as a white woman. She quoted some of the words and phrases that I, as a white woman, have heard hundreds of times in my own life when I was in the company of other white people, people who assumed that I was in on the Secret Code Of The Fortunate Majority.
Things that I have heard… and often ignored.
Because I am not a racist. Because I would never say such hateful things or pass on racism to my children. Because I am leading by example and being the change I want to see in the world… and surely, that is enough. Except, as Kelly reminded me, it’s not. It’s not enough because when I sit at family functions or with friends I’ve known since childhood, and I hear people who are otherwise very good people make ignorant, racist remarks, my silence is interpreted as acceptance. Validation. A quiet seal of approval that this is just the way things are.
And just like that, I have become part of the problem – regardless of the otherwise “good example” I set in my own life.
And the sad truth is, I have more power to stop racism than Kelly does, simply because I will never find myself a victim of it. When she speaks out, her voice is tainted to those who need to hear her most. She touches me, surely. But it is not my heart that needs to be softened or my mind that needs to be changed. The truth is that in order for some people to hear Kelly’s voice, they need to hear mine as well.
It is not enough for me to simply walk the high road in silence, while Kelly continues to struggle to have her story be heard.
By all means, let’s be the change in our own lives first. But then… but then…
Slavery did not end because owned men and women stood up for themselves. Slavery ended because free people stood beside owned people and said, “Enough. No more.”
The Civil Rights Movement did not succeed simply because African-Americans finally stood up for themselves. It gained traction and power when nine powerful, affluent, un-oppressed white men used their power and privilege and position to say, “Enough. No more.”
It is not enough to quietly be the change in our own lives and hope that our dignified silence will drown out the deafening noise of racists and bullies and bigots and extremists.
It’s not enough to be quietly supportive of your homosexual friends, while saying nothing when your straight friends make homophobic jokes.
It’s not enough to quietly cast a vote representing your carefully thought out conservative ideals, while saying nothing when extremists in your party incite violence in your name.
It’s not enough to treat your own wife and daughters and sisters with dignity and respect, while saying nothing about the violent fights you overhear from your neighbor’s house.
It’s not enough, sometimes, for people to stand up for themselves. Sometimes, people who stand up for themselves need good, strong, decent people to voluntarily choose to stand up beside them.
Change happens when voices who already possess power and respect dare to speak out. Change happens when people who are safe and untouchable lend their credibility and protection to those who are not.
Change happens when we become the change we want to see in the world, and then say to the rest of the world “Enough. No more.”
Kelly, I am so sorry for all the times I have had the opportunity to stand up for you and chose to let you fight alone, instead. I promise to lend you my voice, even when you’re not around to hear it be used, whenever you may need it. I promise to spread the word. “Enough. No more. This door not open.“