In 6th grade, my social studies teacher, Mr. Carter, asked everyone in class to stand. He then said, “If you’re black, please sit back down.” Half the room sat. “If you’re a woman, please sit down.” More sat. “If you’re Jewish, please sit down.” Eventually I and two others were the only students left standing. We were all white, protestant males.
What came next has been permanently seared into my brain. It was 1988, I was 12 years old, and for the first time in my life, someone challenged me to confront the privileges that had been afforded to me by the nature of my race, sex and religion.
As a shy kid, I was already scared to be standing for any reason, but to be singled out on the topic of privilege was mortifying. Now, before I go any further, I want to be clear: Mr. Carter was a wonderful, compassionate teacher who I hold as one of best educators I ever had. And while it was indeed a very uncomfortable moment, I knew even then that being uncomfortable was the point – that addressing privilege requires an uncomfortable examination of our own place within societal norms. The fact that Mr. Carter was able to pull this conversation off without villainizing the three of us only speaks to his talent as an educator.
After we sat, he began facilitating a conversation on the subject. And I remember listening with great interest, but I also remember not participating in that conversation. As the face of privilege, I didn’t feel like it was my place to join in. And that’s why, although Mr. Carter’s message made a major impact on me, there was also a subtler, perhaps unintentional message that I also learned:
I learned to be quiet.
And that might sound like a good thing! After all, being quiet is often synonymous with listening, and listening is essential. We must listen so that the voices of the oppressed can be heard. We listen instead of getting offended the moment someone challenges us since true change can only arise from discomfort.
The problem is that that there is a very fine line between listening and not participating.
I have become an expert at listening. In fact, I’m such a good listener that I almost never say a word!
Over the past couple of years, I’ve become increasingly aware of my silence, and I’ve come to realize that silence itself is a form of privilege. It is a privilege to be able to read my preferred media, have my opinions, donate my money, all from the comfort of my own home. It’s a privilege to be able to process tough ideas without the pressure of immediate response. It is a privilege to be able to turn off the computer when I need a break and shut out the inconvenient world.
And while in recent years I have become more politically active in my personal life, I still feel a natural inclination to steer away from sharing those views as a representative of Señor Wooly. My parents taught me from a very young age – don’t talk about politics, religion or money in public, and it’s hard to fight against the tides of that upbringing.
However, I’m wrong to stay silent. It’s a privilege to be able to reserve certain spaces as “non-political”. It’s comfortable to find Facebook groups that ban politics. It’s comfortable to avoid challenging topics with friends and family. And yes, it’s comfortable when businesses just focus on the thing they do instead of getting involved in topics that “don’t concern them”.
But black people in this country are not afforded that same privilege of compartmentalization, so why should we get it?
I guess what I’m saying is that it’s time for me to join the conversation. I can’t always promise that I’ll have the perfect words, I can’t promise that I won’t alienate some of you. All I can say is that I’ll do my best to be present, I’ll do my best listen, but most importantly, I promise to participate.
And on that note of participation, I want everyone to be 100% clear where we as a company stand:
- We at Señor Wooly fully support Black Lives Matter.
- We at Señor Wooly fully support the protesters.
- We at Señor Wooly fully support any police department that sees this moment as an opportunity to listen, learn, and begin making steps towards reform.
- We at Señor Wooly fully support politicians who seek to open lines of communication, examine white privilege, and demand legislative change.
- We at Señor Wooly are vehemently opposed to any politicians that seek to demonize, divide, and stoke the flames of hatred.
You’ll hear from more from us in the coming days about specific actions that we are taking. For now, though, I simply wanted to start with a statement of support, and to share my desire to truly begin communicating.
I hope you’ll join us.