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.