The Sound of Silence

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When does silence equal complicity?

Two recent incidents lead me to pose this question. I do not intend it to be rhetorical or merely a catchy introduction to a blog post. I need some advice, so that when I face a similar situation in the future I will be better prepared to respond.

1. I was volunteering at a local food pantry that serves hundreds of needy families in the community, when I overheard a racially-biased comment about an Asian-American client. The speaker presumably believed that she was out of earshot of anyone but her friend, who laughed appreciatively at her joke.

I whipped my head from side to side—in what I like to think of as my “Moses Moment”—to see if anyone else was present and heard the remark. And, like Moses, I “saw that there was no one.” (Exodus 2:12) Unlike Moses, I did not react by smiting the speaker. The two friends breezed past me toward the walk-in refrigerator. I was invisible.

I did nothing. I said nothing. I acted as if I’d heard nothing.

2. Less than a week later, still ashamed of my silence, I was standing at the cash register of a local family-owned business that I frequent when the cashier made a racially-biased comment, laughing at her own joke as she swiped my credit card.

This time I reacted more swiftly than Moses. Like Moses, I reacted with indignation and (verbal) violence; though I suspect that my sarcasm might have gone unnoticed by the cashier, who handed me the purchase along with a bland “have a nice day.” I am certain that mine was the inappropriate response, an impulsive unleashing of pent-up frustration and remorse at my having been a bystander during the previous incident.

Months later, I still feel guilty that I was complicit, through my silence and through my speech, in a crime.

I am nonplussed by the ease with which these women—who may be otherwise polite, generous and kind—spoke such ugly words. I am concerned that they included or ignored me because they saw me not as “other” and assumed me to be like-minded. I am troubled that my silence sealed this judgment as true.

I am also stymied about how to respond in the future, when my character will, no doubt, be tested again. The one thing I know for sure is that I will only be able to subdue my demons—frustration and remorse—if I am prepared for the confrontation.

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