The “Negative Peace” of Whyt Silence

It’s been 20+ years since I attended or organized poetry slams in the summer before going off to get my MFA, after which I never wrote slam poetry again. It’s also possible that I never wrote slam poetry to begin with. I was full of piss and vinegar, but I wrote very quiet poems, and I think partially I was just experimenting with reading them loudly. Nonetheless, when I started writing this poem prior to the Georgia election, and then kept writing it after white supremacists attacked the Capitol, it became clear that this was not a poem that wanted to be soft and shrinking.

So, this MLK Day, as our Beloved Community meets over Zoom instead of in the streets to march in pride and conviction, I’ve decided to lean into my discomfort to share a poem in a style I’m not terribly comfortable with, and in a format that I’m also uncomfortable with. But dammit, if MLK teaches white people anything, it’s that they can put their petty discomfort aside in the name of justice.

As the Trump years are coming to a close, the trauma lingers. Naming things has a way of helping me process, and for me, naming the violence of Whyt Silence over the last four years is critical. Like so many people, I’ve wrestled with abandonment as various family members fell into different conspiracy rabbit holes clearly meant to brainwash people with white supremacist propoganda. 

But I’ve also wrestled with the violence of inaction and Whyt Silence. I’ve had seemingly fellow progressive peers suggest that my attending marches and protests is either dangerous or ineffective, as though one wouldn’t just choose to put their body in the street because they are following their conscience. Not only is that that patronizing, it misplaces the danger. The truly dangerous thing is not using privilege to create more peace and justice in a community. Whyt Silence make BIPOC folks even more vulnerable.

In the end, I’ve found solace from the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who I feel certain would have called out Whyt Silence as an example of “negative peace.” It’s fitting that King began his Letter From Birmingham Jail talking about the disappointment in the white moderate. I might not have known firsthand precisely the frustration with this demographic until witnessing firsthand the incredible din of Whyt Silence during the Trump years. Emphasis below is mine:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. ~ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. / Letter From Birmingham Jail

The working title for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was “Normalcy—Never Again.” Such a fitting sentiment that reminds us that we have an obligation to push against the status quo and the forces that dictate what “normal” is, which of course is nourished by Whyt Silence.

This is why I must speak.

Listen to the Sound of Whyt Silence

Performative allyship is dead, but Whyt

Silence has never said: I. Can’t. Breathe.

Whyt Silence insists that all silence is golden,

Makes peace with oppression, looks away,

Sees violence over there—guns

In the air, fists punching soft flesh, breaking

Glass at the Capitol—not here,

Coddled in suburbia, tucked

Into bed with tender lips

Pressed to the forehead.

Whyt Silence never hums, whispers, or sings

Which side are you on?

Which side are you on?

Little black squares got lost in a big black

Hole, while Whyt Silence Instagrammed

Whyt Soul journeys, laughed

At garden parties, sucked

Down bougie cocktails, took

Self-care selfies. Oh look, Whyt

Silence has bangs now.

Whyt Silence fertilizes soil

Where fascist flowers grow,

Wears the pink hat of privilege, saves

Justice for another day, says: my whyteness

Is so busy, my whyteness is having a bad

Mental health day, a bad hair day, or, it’s Tuesday, Shyt

Silence never speaks out on Tuesdays.

Whyt Silence does not think too much

About why the First Amendment comes first

Because it fears words

More than it fears injustice, wags

Ableist fingers at those who speak,

Says, it’s useless, you’re foolish, while organizing

Litter pickups in affluent, white neighborhoods

On MLK Day. The betrayal of Whyt Silence ensures

That only whyt history is passed through DNA,

Pressed into history books, certifying

The freedoms of whyt children. Whyt

Silence begets, whyt innocence, begets

Whyt violence, ricocheting in classrooms

And city halls, always speaking

First in committees. Whyt Silence turns

Away from its own diagnosis

While professing to heal the world.

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