As a new­ly mint­ed author — a few months ago I pub­lished a mem­oir, and recent­ly I began writ­ing for tele­vi­sion — I find words tremen­dous­ly important.

The advent of social media has made them even more impor­tant. With mul­ti­ple venues for peo­ple to speak” — to friends, fam­i­ly, and strangers alike — peo­ple are doing just that. Some share their every thought with seem­ing­ly no fil­ter. Oth­ers care­ful­ly curate their words along with their fil­tered pho­tographs, want­i­ng to com­mu­ni­cate a ver­sion of their life and thoughts in a deeply delib­er­ate way.

All of this has only made me pay atten­tion to lan­guage even more.

I am rou­tine­ly stunned by the shock­ing, insen­si­tive, and vio­lent lan­guage that is casu­al­ly thrown around. The per­son­al attacks sug­gest­ing that peo­ple should either die or kill them­selves sim­ply because they shared an opin­ion or exist in a form that anoth­er finds dis­taste­ful. Peo­ple sound off into the void of the inter­net, rarely con­sid­er­ing that real peo­ple with real feel­ings are tak­ing in their words. They speak as if those oth­er peo­ple do not exist. As a bira­cial Jew­ish woman, I know from a very per­son­al place how painful it is when peo­ple choose to speak about me as if I don’t exist. And this abuse of lan­guage is now quite com­mon in our society.

Peo­ple sound off into the void of the inter­net, rarely con­sid­er­ing that real peo­ple with real feel­ings are tak­ing in their words. They speak as if those oth­er peo­ple do not exist.

But in the wake of the protest move­ment born out of the out­rage over the mur­der of George Floyd a few weeks ago, per­haps more than ever, what we say — or don’t say — matters.

To me the world has felt loud with lan­guage for quite some time, and the vol­ume has only increased with the advent of the protests. I cer­tain­ly con­sid­er that to be a good thing. Peo­ple have tak­en to the streets by the thou­sands shout­ing, BLACK LIVES MAT­TER!” NO JUS­TICE, NO PEACE!” HANDS UP. DON’T SHOOT.” It is a demand to be heard. And it is powerful.

But to me, it is the silence … the absence of words that is equal­ly pow­er­ful in this sem­i­nal moment in Amer­i­ca. And equal­ly loud.

There are times when silence is a pos­i­tive thing. On #black­outtues­day, busi­ness­es and indi­vid­u­als were encour­aged to be silent on their social media to give space for black and brown voic­es that are often lost in the ocean of posts on a nor­mal” day to rise.

There are moments of silence being offered as a sign of mourn­ing and respect for those black men and women who we have lost to police bru­tal­i­ty. We are see­ing video after video of peo­ple kneel­ing in silence for eight min­utes and forty-six sec­onds in trib­ute to George Floyd. And that long silence is a pal­pa­ble way to con­sid­er what it must have felt like for him as he lay on the ground beg­ging for his life and his mother.

But then there is the oth­er kind of silence. Born out of apa­thy. Dis­com­fort. Inac­tion. And that silence has been scream­ing at me, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes from those who have recent­ly tak­en to call­ing them­selves anti-racist. Claim­ing to be allies” and sup­port­ers of black and brown people.

But then there is the oth­er kind of silence. Born out of apa­thy. Dis­com­fort. Inaction.

It is com­ing from every­where. From peo­ple I once con­sid­ered friends. From orga­ni­za­tions call­ing them­selves pro­gres­sive.” From clergy.

And that silence has dev­as­tat­ed me.

Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. is per­haps one of the most quot­ed peo­ple on social media. His daugh­ter Ber­nice King recent­ly shared his state­ment that there is a point in time when silence is a betrayal.”

For me, now is that moment.

When I have called out this silence on my social media, some of the respons­es have been equal­ly dev­as­tat­ing, espe­cial­ly those from peo­ple who write that they sim­ply don’t con­sid­er it to be their issue. That is the ulti­mate betray­al because it says that we — as black peo­ple — are still not all seen as being deserv­ing of equal rights and justice.

But a great many peo­ple are silent because they don’t know what to say. Because they are afraid of say­ing the wrong thing and receiv­ing ret­ri­bu­tion for it. And because the con­ver­sa­tion is, for them, an uncom­fort­able one. Some­times silence just feels … easier.

I under­stand choos­ing silence from that place all too well. It took me near­ly fifty years to claim my voice and speak open­ly and hon­est­ly about the pain of grow­ing up bira­cial and Jew­ish in a soci­ety that still sad­ly clings to the mis­con­cep­tions that Jews are white and black peo­ple are either Chris­t­ian or Muslim.

But even­tu­al­ly, my own silence felt like a betray­al. I was betray­ing myself by not speak­ing up. I was betray­ing the chil­dren who have come after me, beau­ti­ful­ly mul­tira­cial and Jew­ish, who need to know that their voic­es deserve to be heard — and that they, like me, deserve to be hon­ored for our iden­ti­ty, not chal­lenged because of it. In the face of a world that was try­ing to tell me what my sto­ry should be, what my iden­ti­ty must be … how could I con­tin­ue to say noth­ing and ever expect for there to be change?

And when I did decide to speak, the fear remained. What would I say? Where would I find the words? And what if I didn’t say the right thing?

I was betray­ing the chil­dren who have come after me, beau­ti­ful­ly mul­tira­cial and Jew­ish, who need to know that their voic­es deserve to be heard — and that they, like me, deserve to be hon­ored for our iden­ti­ty, not chal­lenged because of it.

Today, after see­ing a nine-minute video of a man being slow­ly choked to death by a police offi­cer, I believe that each of us must con­sid­er what it means to remain silent.

There are many peo­ple who have reached out to me to say that they just don’t know what to say or what to do. I tell them that if you can­not find the words, lift up some­one else’s words. I offer that I find that when I let myself sit qui­et­ly, the words that I need come. Like a gift. But there is always a way to speak when we want to.

In the end, the choice to be silent is ours, as is the choice to speak. And right now, I am lis­ten­ing intent­ly to every word said … and to every word not said. I believe that the scream cur­rent­ly being heard around the world, demand­ing equal jus­tice for all, is a result of the many cen­turies of silence that pre­ced­ed it. And, I hope that the peo­ple who are still stay­ing silent in this moment will ask them­selves why.

Mar­ra Gad was born in New York and raised in Chica­go. She is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Urbana-Cham­paign and holds an advanced degree in mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry from Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty. Gad cur­rent­ly lives in Los Ange­les, where she is an inde­pen­dent film and tele­vi­sion producer.