by Lynn Travnikova
“SILENCE = VIOLENCE”
It has been scrawled in black letters on cardboard placards around the country. You can even buy a mask bearing it. Under this slogan, a new generation understood that inaction is an action which aligns you with the status quo. It understood how oppression is perpetuated not by the person who most loudly announces their support for it, but by bystanders who, avoiding conflict, quietly allow that person to carry on. Martin Luther King Jr. called them the “white moderate, more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”; Desmond Tutu would say they are those who, in their neutrality, “have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
But the catchiness of slogans comes at the cost of nuance. Now that it has been established that the evil is silence, clamour has taken its place: people are posting relentlessly on social media; lawn signs proclaim that “Hate has no home here”; the man I bought a window fan from this summer, Jeremy, texted me later (once the reality of my skin colour and therefore what must be done had sunk in), just to let me know that he and his family believe that black lives matter. The TV is on at full volume, but it’s only producing static.
Jeremy’s text included a request for me to let him know what he and his family could do as allies. I suggested he look into the reality of the police for black people, and support its defunding. Amidst my long response pertaining to the police, I added a single line emphasising the importance of continual education past the current moment of excitement. His response: “We will continue to educate ourselves and our kids.” Disregarding everything else, he had honed in on the vaguest part of my recommendation and centred his continual allyship around it.
What makes the nebulous task of educating oneself more enticing than exposing oneself to new information about the police? After all, an institution whose origins can be traced back to slave patrols surely warrants some investigation during a national conversation about modern day legacies of enslavement and racism. Even overlooking the racial aspect, where is our curiosity about whether an institution which annually kills between 900 and 1,100 people in the US is absolutely necessary? An institution which is the sixth leading cause of death for all men in the US between the ages of 25 and 29? Where is our curiosity?
Perhaps it is stuffed deep down inside us, somewhere it can’t cause trouble. Stuffed deep down because if we free it, our curiosity might just lead us to concede that the entire institution of the police warrants reconsideration. Over there, a glaring question awaits us: How do we keep the peace without the police? We have peeled away a layer of society which felt essential, and find ourselves exposed to the void where undeniable necessity once was.
How do we keep the peace? The funny thing is that police didn’t really keep the peace in the first place, but their presence allowed us to evade the question.
How do we create a peace worth keeping? There exists no concrete answer, no DIY book on how we do this. Jeremy cannot sit his kids down and explain the game plan when he hasn’t quite figured out how to play yet.
It would be messy. And we prefer our current mess, the one we are familiar with, to delving into unknown territories. But new possibilities await us in those places beyond the horizon, the places we create as we dare — if we dare — to approach them. There, unhinged from our subjective notions of what must be, we can stretch ourselves to envision what might be. What could be. Can be. There is a discomfort to this lack of solid ground which one could choose to not engage, but this muddy discomfort, this lack of something to grasp onto and believe, intuitively, to be the answer, is where radical visions of what is possible spring from. It is only through our courage that those visions might take root. As they emerge and grow, they will transform us as individuals.
Activist and academic Angela Davis once said, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Years after first hearing this, I think I am finally close to knowing what she means. We are not acting as though radical transformation is possible when we read enough books that we can academicise our social justice discourse and spit out relevant statistics at the drop of a hat. Simply reinforcing our conceptualisations of things like race and economics, as critical as these things are, embeds their binaries further in our minds. It is a worthwhile reminder that despite how much these concepts make up reality, they are not real. Blackness or whiteness are not real. Neither are capitalism or communism. To exploit or be exploited. Order or chaos. Privilege or scarcity. Even less real than these concepts is the idea that we are caught between them. Binaried thinking is to act as though transformation were possible, but only superficially. It is to take liberation and cage it.
Acting as though radical transformation were possible is to discard these moss-covered ideas and step into the generative discomfort of pure imagination. It is not enough to dip our toes into it while safely within reach of the ancient walls which have surrounded us thus far; we must wade into the notion that we don’t know what other realities exist, but we do know they’re waiting for us to arrive. Just to embrace this, to act as though truly radical transformation were possible, is to take part in its becoming. It is activism.
My mind strays to Jeremy every now and then. I wonder how his children are enjoying their extracurricular education. How (perhaps more realistically, if) it is changing them. Will they become different people for having learned early on that black lives have worth? That they have white privilege, wealth privilege, Western privilege, maybe male, heterosexual, cis privilege? Who will they go on to become for it all?
Sometimes, I briefly consider texting him, checking in. What would I even say? This person asked for my advice, and now I feel a tinge of responsibility for the outcome of it all, as largely neglected as my response was. Hey Jeremy, perhaps I’d write. Hope you and your family have been well and healthy. The fan was a lifesaver this summer, thanks again for it! By the way, about your kids — did you remember to teach them imagination?