When silence speaks volumes

‘I maintain that the internal oppressor – an aspect of the self that becomes the inner tyrant – is distinct from internalised oppression. The latter is the way in which we allow external beliefs and value systems to invalidate our authenticity and inhibit our personal agency.’
The Internal Oppressor and Black identity wounding by Dr Aileen Alleyne | (December 2004)

On Saturday 7th October 2023, the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) killed over 1,400 Israeli adults and children, and kidnapped hundreds of others, a horrendously violent attack on civilians which was swiftly, and rightly, condemned.

In the aftermath, we have witnessed state sanctioned violent retaliation resulting in the killing of over 5,000 Palestinians, more than 2,000 of them children, according to UNICEF.

Yet condemnation of the disproportionality of the Israeli government’s response against Palestinian civilians hasn’t been as swift among Western governments. This is despite the UN’s warning of a ‘risk of genocide’ against Palestinians.

What we are witnessing is the insidious act of erasure, in sections of the global press and on social media platforms, presenting an imbalanced view of the conflict, including disinformation. The attempted erasure of sympathy and humanity for Palestinians, conflation of the Palestinian people at large with Hamas as an organisation, and the positioning of solidarity with Palestinians as antisemitism.

Writing in the Diaspora Journal on 9th October, Hebh Jamal who has lost friends and family in the retaliatory strikes against Palestinians, says: ‘Despite what you might think, no Palestinians are not celebrating death. We do not look at the news and rejoice over the number of Israelis killed. Despite what you might think we are not well. We do not look at death and feel happiness.’

Similarly, the global community of Jewish people who stand with the Palestinian people are also marginalised in public forums, across the world, leading Jewish Voice for Peace to launch a petition calling for a ceasefire.

A conflict 75 years in the making, parallels are once again being drawn with the Black diasporic experience of racism and oppression. Many Palestinians have a historic connection to Black radicalism, civil rights and Black artists, including the prose and poetry of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou (who both visited Israel), to the recreation of the US Freedom Rides. These connections run deep and provide solace, guidance, hope and empowerment amid devastation, voicelessness and forcible removal from their homes.

Like an increasing number of ‘othered’ writers, artists, creatives, activists and allies, I feel compelled to reiterate this observation because since the 7th October, many of us have felt unable to speak. In some instances, feeling pressure to ‘voice’ before we are ready to. An Arab fashion designer told me that she was fending off calls to speak out as she wanted to centre, think and strategise.

In my case, it has taken nearly three weeks to process how I feel amid the bombardment of reactionary noise and sensationalised coverage. A Muslim writer confided that they ‘disassociated’ and ran to their ‘safe space’ because of pre-existing trauma from being abused after 9/11. I imagine we are caught in a private war of our own, the one between our inner tyrant and internalised oppressor, so eloquently described by psychodynamic psychotherapist Dr Aileen Alleyne in the opening quote.

Many of us are in a holding pattern, where we self-silence and feel that we cannot voice our truth, or question what is happening, out of fear of being attacked, harmed or ostracised. Or because we anticipate ‘loss’ – of our reputation, our employment, our safety, and even citizenship, which for Black and Brown people is a precarious reality in the ongoing ‘hostile environment’.

We are still recovering from the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The Windrush Scandal. Chris Kaba. The now traumatised 13 year old Black boy, rammed off his bike by firearms police from the Met while playing with a blue, plastic water pistol. In London. In 2023.

This week saw the sacking of two Met police officers for ‘gross misconduct’ over the unwarranted stop and search of Black athletes and couple Bianca Williams and Ricardo Dos Santos. Claiming falsely that they could smell cannabis in their Mercedes after being stopped, the disciplinary panel somehow ruled there was no evidence of racial profiling, despite the presence of all the standard racists tropes.

These are but a few of the growing indictments on an alarming list of state-linked, avoidable tragedies against the bodies of Black people. Where we are expected to stomach state representatives who gaslight and minimise devastating acts of racism, yet have the power to determine what is and isn’t racist.

As poet Raymond Antrobus asked at the finale event for the Words of Colour Conversations with Baldwin festival on 21st October 2023: ‘Who do we value and why? Who are we protecting with our silence?’ These questions are universal.

Why can we not openly share our distress at the growing number of Palestinian casualties alongside our distress at the Israeli casualties? Therein lies the complexity. We are hindered by continued racial stratification and the hierarchy of racism and language, products of white supremacy culture’s divide and rule ethos. A toxic ideology, kept alive in corridors of power, it constantly activates our internalised oppressor and reinforces our internalised oppression. It also unconsciously binds us to racist narratives that invalidate our worth, historic contributions and self esteem.

According to activist and writer Tema Okun, ‘while white supremacy culture affects us all, harms us all, and is toxic to us all, it does not affect, harm, and violate us in the same way. White supremacy targets and violates BIPOC people and communities with the intent to destroy them directly; white supremacy targets and violates white people with a persistent invitation to collude that will inevitably destroy their humanity.’

White supremacy, of which white privilege is but a part, fuels and sustains the hierarchy of racism as part of a pecking order where Black and First Nation/Indigenous Peoples are frequently (and globally) positioned at the bottom of the ladder of societal value and acceptance.

A clear illustration of this took place two weeks ago in Australia on the current affairs show Q+A when James Stevens, Liberal Member for Sturt, praised ‘European colonisation’ as an ‘overwhelmingly good thing for the great society we live in’. A society that recently rejected the referendum to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

Seated next to Stevens was award-winning Aboriginal Australian actor Natasha Wanganeen who expressed her disgust at the language and said: ‘…any politicians that sit here and ask me to be Australian, I don’t want to be that. I am a Narungga, Nyoongar Ngarrindjeri and Kaurna woman’. We can see that Stevens’ Australian utopia is Wanganeen’s living hell.

Is it any wonder there is a fear of reprisals when dangerous assertions such as Stevens are made at our expense – right in front of us? On Friday 20 October 2023, The Guardian reported that Israeli Arabs and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were being targeted with ‘arrest, sacking and dismissal over social media posts expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza’.

Since the 7th October, antisemitic hate crimes in London are up 1350% while Islamophobic offences in London were up 140%. On 25th October, a poll of 6,752 people of African descent in 13 European countries reported discrimination in every walk of life, including the abuse of children. It is a lose-lose situation with ramifications beyond the Israeli and Palestinian borders.

As we wake up to this daily onslaught of death and tragedy, we have to contend with its local impact and resonance for us. In response, we need to inform, influence and inspire our communities to speak their truth, show love and hold tight to their agency as we take action from a place of reflection, knowledge and racial justice.

It’s hard to sit in a place of love when feeling enraged and outraged, and when there is so much polarity and boundary breaches. Brazilian lawyer Monique Rodrigues do Prado agrees as she has spent the past five years developing love as a tool of emancipation, especially for Black communities.

Rodrigues do Prado sees love as ‘a political, active, daily, guiding and ethical action, capable of overcoming the imagery, aesthetics and language barriers that the patriarchal, colonial, imperial and capitalist model has, unfortunately, affected our experiences’.

British-Ghanaian journalist, writer and radio host Esther Armah goes even further. Drawing on her experiences in Britain and America, and from attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, she created Emotional Justice – A roadmap for racial healing.

Born out of the legacy of untreated trauma from oppressive systems, steeped in ‘deadly fictions, white superiority and Black inferiority’ that wounds us all, Armah argues that we all need to unlearn the language of whiteness. She describes it as ‘a worldview that centres white people, particularly, white men, no matter the deadly costs and consequence to all women and all Black and Brown people’.

As part of the dismantling of oppressive thinking and actions, she says we need to learn the ‘love languages’ of Emotional Justice which takes you on a journey to places filled with discomfort, challenge and avoidance. It requires ‘speaking up’ and ‘wrestling with our own fears of repercussions or punishment’.

This is our current reality. And we need to support each other through it, not blame and shame. We need to resist the language of the internal (and external) oppressor which only diminishes self and invalidates our voices and lived experience. Let us lead as best as we can, in whatever way we can, as part of a collective running on compassion.

Silence doesn’t always mean collusion. Bearing witness can be a struggle, as James Baldwin revealed about the civil rights era . Our contribution isn’t always a public act. It can manifest through impactful conversations behind closed doors, with friends, families, colleagues and allies who then feel inspired to speak out. Through making donations and volunteering, which may not be publicised on social media. Or in a phased way, starting small, before finding full expression through a personalised form of activism. All while we wrestle with our own hidden, visible and triggered traumas from state-stamped racial oppression.

In the end, courage and choice have to be the guiding lights to authentically un-silence ourselves to speak our truth. As Maya Angelou said: ‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.’

Joy Francis is executive director, Words of Colour

Photo credit: Kalea Morgan