“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”~Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986
As a woman of color navigating all the ways this past year has brought my racial pain and trauma to the surface, there are words I need to hear from the people in my life:
“I see you.”
“I’m here for you.”
“I’ve got your back.”
For those of you who are leaders, I need to hear the same from the leadership of the organizations and institutions I’m part of:
“We see you.”
“We’re here for you.”
“We’ve got your back.”
Why is this so important? Because, as Elie Wiesel states, “Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.” For me personally, when the people in my life or the organizations I’m part of offer silence in response to racial pain, what I hear is NOT compassion or empathy. What I hear is:
They do not see me.
They are not here for me.
They do not have my back.
My journal is a place where I feel freedom to express all the things I’m too timid or scared to say out loud. Over the past year, I’ve written in my journal, “I wish they would try. But in order to try, they’d first have to care. And I don’t know anymore if I believe they care.”
So if you care, please don’t believe the lie that silence is the best option. At the least, it can be hurtful (or even feel like betrayal) to those who are hurting. At most, it can embolden those who have deep racism in their hearts and desire to harm racial minorities. Say something!
I know that some of you are reading this and thinking, “I’ve wanted to say something to my friends (or the people I lead) who’ve been hurting during this season, but I haven’t been able to find the words.” I get that. It can be scary to want to say something but to also be afraid of saying the wrong thing. If coming up with the “right” words has felt like an overwhelming and impossible task for you, or if you read the three sentences I shared earlier and thought, “That’s what I’ve been trying to say but I didn’t know how!”—you’re welcome to use them! It doesn’t have to be word-for-word exactly what I wrote. There are so many ways you can express these messages! The important thing is to express them and mean them!
Let’s take a closer look at these three sentences:
“I see you.”
This is the bare minimum. This shouldn’t be controversial. Yet, unfortunately, I know that for some, it is. If you love someone, these words should be easy. The other two sentences are dependent on this one. “I see you” can sound like:
- “I’m listening.”
- “I see your pain. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
- “I see the image of God in you.”
- “I see your uniqueness. I see your beautiful personality, your giftings, what you bring into a room, the ways you make me better.”
Note: In addition to silence, there are many ways to convey, “I don’t see you.” Some of those ways include arguing instead of listening, gaslighting, defensiveness or making it about yourself when people are sharing their stories of pain with you.
“I’m here for you.”
This one takes a little bit of time, effort, and compassion. This looks like sitting with someone’s pain—even if it’s uncomfortable. “I’m here for you” can sound like:
- “If you need to cry or vent, I’m here.“
- “Can I give you a hug?”…when it’s safe to do so.
- “Can I bring you coffee or a meal?”
“I’ve got your back.”
This one takes some courage. You might get some pushback from those who haven’t taken the time to examine their negative racial biases. But know this: The dignity and worth of BIPOC are worth it! In addition to using your voice to speak up, “I’ve got your back” can sound like:
- “I want to be your ally.”
- “I want to grow in this area so I can do better.”
- “I want to protect you. I will come to your defense if someone tries to harm you.” (These words need to be backed up by action if the opportunity arises!)
- “Can I sit with you at church?” Or, “Can I come with you when you go to [insert place where they may need an ally to help them feel safe]?”
- “I want to give action to my words. I don’t just want to say things need to be better; I want to do concrete things to help bring change.”
- “We need your voice! I’m going to amplify your voice any way I can!”
- If you’re in a position of leadership: “How can we do better?” and “How can we come alongside you?”
One more thing: If you can’t mean these words, please don’t say them. I don’t mean that as a slam. It takes repentance and work over time to be able to say each of these things. It’s also a progression: You can’t have someone’s back when you’ve never been (or aren’t at least willing to be) there for them. And you can’t be there for them if you don’t see them (which includes seeing their pain). So if these are words you’ve never said to someone experiencing racial pain or trauma, start by prayerfully examining yourself and asking God, “Since words are the overflow of the heart, what in my heart (and mind) needs to change so I can say these words?” If you can say, “I can see you,” but you don’t think you can honestly say, “I’m here for you,” or “I’ve got your back,” bring that to God and be honest about why you feel that way. And then let God shine a light on everything in your heart that wants to hide. Will it be easy? No. But will it be worth it? Yes!
This is where healing begins.