Cowardice

This is a message I received after blocking someone on multiple platforms who told me I “failed to grasp the concept of humour” with regard to the current #CancelColbert debacle.

I want to discuss the concept of cowardice, especially with respect to speaking out against social injustices. In the mindset of the person who sent me this message, they believe that blocking them as much as I possibly can is a form of cowardice; they believe that protecting myself from their harmful commentary about my beliefs and their misuse of my past to abuse me is cowardice. It is not. It is an available defense mechanism that allows me to stay sane rather than allow people to verbally abuse me; it is the online version of intentionally avoiding the person who aims to constantly attack you, to ignore the person who does not care about your personal well-being.

But what is cowardly is to not speak up because you’re afraid of how you will be perceived by people in your social circles because you don’t want to lose the places you were comfortable in, especially when you have the privilege to do so. What is cowardly is standing on the sidelines, watching other people fight against the injustices you disagree with but never doing something, anything, to participate and show your support. That is cowardice, and that is the kind of cowardice that I have been making efforts to grow out of.

I grew up in a place where they taught me so much negativity about people of colour that I have had to unlearn as I grow older. My immediate family rarely exhibited any negative feelings toward people of colour, but there were members of my extended family who did. I was always taught that these people were “set in their ways” and that I should “just keep quiet” because there was “nothing that could change them.” So I stayed quiet and behaved; I did as they told me to because I didn’t know what else I could do.

I remember the first and only time I used the n-word; I was a young child and a person in my community routinely referred to their black tenants using such terminology. I didn’t know what it was; I didn’t know what it meant and why it was so horrible, especially for white people to say. I heard white people saying it all the time, and combining it with adjectives that I knew were negative. But I wanted to know, so I asked what it was. And I received an education that, at that time, was one of the worst educations I could possibly receive; I was only told to never use it in the presence of black people because “they wouldn’t understand.” But they would, did, and still do. They always will, but white people are constantly undervaluing their presence, their intelligence, and their experiences.

The same thing has happened with regards to other people of colour, and it never seemed to matter who they were; it only mattered that they weren’t white enough or couldn’t pass for white. Even having white-passing Cherokee relatives in my lineage, many constantly devalued their own people in so many ways and took on the traditions, cultures, and mindsets of the groups they married into. I didn’t understand any of this as a child, but I understand it a little better now; I understand why they did this and why they turned their backs on their culture and people, and I understand why they didn’t pass it on and became something else. It is because I understand what influenced their behaviour better that I know why they raised me primarily with German traditions. It is also why I will hesitate to identify as anything other than white, no matter what my background is; those are the primary experiences that I have.

The person who called me a coward knew me many years ago; he told me that I “didn’t seem to have a problem” when our friends were throwing around racist jokes. But I did. I was just a coward because I was too scared to speak out against them; I was scared to be ostracised from my social circle, and I didn’t know what else to do besides tolerate it. I was living with one of the members of that group, one of the people who was guilty of participating in using racial slurs, commentary and jokes; I was scared to speak out against his views because I didn’t know what the consequences would be. And I was young and had a lot of things to learn about life.

I was a coward because I was living in an area where the KKK had the audacity to try to get a permit to put their crosses up in a public space during Christmas, and this fight was something that continued even after the city created ordinances denying everyone except the city to create displays or hold events. I was terrified of the environment there because I had no idea what would happen if I stopped standing on the sidelines and actually spoke out against the injustices that I saw and knew existed. But most of all, I was selfish because I was thinking only of myself and my own comfort.

For me, that is what being a coward is. I have the privilege to speak out against racism, especially as a white person. But I didn’t because I was scared of what it would do to my social standing. I was selfish. I was scared that I would lose my friends, and I was right; I did lose people who I thought were my friends and who felt that they couldn’t be around someone who didn’t laugh at their racist or sexist jokes, and I’m fine with that.

Because standing on the sidelines is absurd. Because I’d rather use my voice for what I believe in. And because I’d rather be part of a community where discussion can take place and, when I or someone else screws up, we can call them out for their mistakes.

But if protecting myself from abuse being hurled at me because I’m not afraid to speak up about why I disagree with someone, even if that individual purports to be my friend, makes me a coward? Then I’m fine with that. I’d rather be that kind of coward any day than what I had been in my past.

“I know provoking isn’t productive,” he told me after I explained that it would do nothing to help his case, “and I don’t want to. Sometimes I get frustrated and do it on impulse. I try not to.”

But that isn’t the case. Just prior, he’d openly told me that the whole reason he’d said provoking things is so that I would yell at him; it was apparently the only way that he could confirm any feelings I had because they seem to be so non-existent.

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“I just said it to piss you off,” he told me as I was seething with anger at him. “And obviously it worked.”

Perhaps it was his age, I started thinking. Perhaps being 24, he’s too immature to know you shouldn’t incite your partner. But no, age is never a good indicator of maturity; I should know better than anyone how much I hate when people make that connection. He’s immature because he’s inexperienced and unwilling to learn; he’s immature because he doesn’t want to listen to someone else’s feelings or understand their dreams. He’s immature because things that don’t [...] Continue Reading…

I started realising today that a lot is going to be changing in my life, which means that I actually need to start working out what it is that I want to do. I’ve got half a year left with university, and I still haven’t made any decisions about where I want to go, what I plan to do or how I plan to do it. It’s no big deal, right?

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