Decolonize the Mic! (Or, don’t come for me unless I send for you.)
We already know how important it is to see people of color onscreen, onstage, and in print. But sometimes, the sound of our voices is more powerful than our mere image.
In many native traditions including my own, babies are considered one body with their mothers until the time they begin to speak their first words. Our voices (via language, sign, song, etc.) become direct expressions of our uniqueness as individuals.
Last weekend in Portland, the voices that spoke in response to the white supremacist activity in Charlottesville served to elevate and amplify whiteness, white analysis, white commentary. Maybe we need to understand why, but certainly we must find a way to break this pattern of adding insult to the injury of race-based trauma.
First let me tell you what happened.
On Saturday, the inaugural Pan-African Festival at Pioneer Square gave me life. Not only were Black leaders on the mic the entire time, but Black and Brown babies were also invited to join them on the stage. Right in the nucleus of the town square, centered, protected, and surrounded by the unconditional love of family and community. Just as it should be.
In contrast, on Sunday night I arrived with a group of mothers and children to an event at city hall. This gathering, branded a “Speakout,” was painful and difficult to say the least.
There we were, 3 mamas of color and our 5 babies, pushing and squeezing and fighting our way into the center. We sat on the concrete floor. One white woman offered to take our picture. Another white videographer approached and asked to film our crew. Not once did anyone invite or encourage us to take the mic ourselves— despite the “Amplify POC Voices” sign held up by a tragically oblivious white dude standing a few feet away from us.
With whiteness centered in a white-led and white-dominated space, this “Speakout” did nothing to question or disrupt the power, inevitability, and toxicity of white supremacy — the very phenomenon it purported to despise.
After a couple hours of listening to white person after white person, my friend’s sweet little three-year-old asked for the mic. A blessing straight from the gods of churros con chocolate caliente.
With permission from Fabiola, James’s mother, I carefully walked him up to the mic. I let the organizer know that James would be speaking next. And then little James took hold of that mic, and in the few seconds it took him to clearly and confidently state his name, I felt the tension in my muscles relax. The hot anger and tightness in my throat gave way to cool relief and long, slow breaths. I realized how tightly I had been holding on to the baby on my hip, and I let go enough to sway gently back and forth in awe of this child.
James did not speak for very long, and said only what 3-year-olds can say. But his voice coming through that loudspeaker was the exact medicine I needed to leave that space in peace. A straight blessing, and a message heard loud and clear:
We must turn down the volume on whiteness.
This is the part I’ll get some angry messages about. Pero ni modo, here it goes.
White supremacy invades my life on a daily basis in ways that are less bloody but as violent as what just took place in Charlottesville.
When white supremacy erupts, the last thing I want to do as a brown person is sit my a*s down and be lectured for hours (or minutes, or seconds) by white people. When white supremacy erupts, white “allies” have one job: to immediately fall back and provide the floor, the cover, the cool and quiet backdrop for people of color to respond. Or not to respond, if that’s what we choose, if that’s what we need.
When recordings of violence against people of color bleed profusely all over my timelines and news feeds for days on end, I do not give whiteness permission to enter my places of mourning. Because there are some things you just don’t do, some places you just don’t go, when you are not invited.
Every time white nationalism makes an appearance onto (white) mainstream consciousness, a deep ancestral pain is stoked in my heart. I don’t just mourn the loss of individual lives. I also mourn the perpetual loss of my peoples’ humanity under the gaze of whiteness. You see, we’ve been ringing the alarm on the monster that is white supremacy for generations, and there are still white people reacting with surprise at its existence, its deadliness, or both.
As far as I’m concerned, if they haven’t heard us, then they haven’t been paying attention. If they haven’t been paying attention, then they are complicit in upholding white supremacy — and sharing any space that centers them and their voices is not an option.
When white supremacy erupts, white “allies” have one job: immediately fall back and provide the floor, the cover, the cool and quiet backdrop for people of color to respond. Or not respond, if that’s what we choose.
The white-washing of public voices
I want to be clear: There is nothing inherently wrong with a white voice, or a white person, or white people. The problem of white-voice-overload occurs when children grow up inundated by the Anglo cadence. Colloquialisms from non-western cultures — our own modes of expression, idioms, humor, and style — are relegated to the private sphere, deemed at best too informal and at worst too dumb to be amplified.
This whitewashing of curated voices begins at a young age and stays constant through adulthood. Some examples: Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. The principal over the loudspeaker in the classroom. The DJ on the radio station. The news anchor. The narrator of the Discovery channel, or the narrator of anything at all, really. The pastor. The sportscaster. The professor. Donald Trump.
You would think that in the worlds of activism and organizing, there would exist a basic understanding of the power dynamics in facilitation, emceeing, and public speaking. Unfortunately, very few spaces actually uphold the integrity of POC leadership. (One great example of getting it right even on short notice is the ‘What Now?’ convening, coming up again this November.)
It’s time to turn POC voices all the way up. It’s been time, actually.
Our voices are loud by necessity — and how can we be even louder? I don’t care what your white teachers told you: you don’t ever have to be quiet.
I’m speaking especially to my sisters of color here, my comadres who know the pain of being silenced in the streets and also silenced in our homes. Our voices are beautiful beyond description and the world needs to hear more of them everywhere we go. There is love and power in the ways we speak with each other, to each other, and for each other.
We take these colonizing languages and make healing music for ourselves and for our children. We have melodic accents, and a mishmash of slang carried over from our childhoods when all our ancestors crammed into a public classroom and tried to speak to each other. I love our musical inflections and lightning-fast tempos. I love the way our hands and our bodies find their way into our words.
So, please stay loud. You can use your silence powerfully and when you need to, but when you have something to say, please speak up always. (Just say a little prayer to Santa Erica Mena if you need more courage.)
When you’re at that next forum or event or rally, don’t ask permission to speak. Grab that mic. Take all the time you need to adjust it for your comfort. If it’s a handheld mic, hold it closely (“eat the mic” as the MCs say)— because that’s how close you need to get for the thing to do its job.
And what a glorious job it is: taking your precious voice, your own unique sound, and spreading it like blessings into the ears of hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe millions. And after you’ve said your piece, hand that mic over to another sister of color, please and thank you.
Deep breaths now.
With love and surround-sound,
For White Allies
- Assess and re-assess your role in spaces of “unity” and “healing” in response to racial violence. Why and for whom are you present? Do you take up space and time without consent or invitation?
- At community events, ask yourself: ‘W.A.I.T., why am I talking?’ Are you actively using your voice and your body in service to people of color? Did you cringe at the word “service?”
- Are you being paid to be there while any POC attendees are not? Are you amplifying the voices and leadership of people of color (not just holding up a sign that says so)?
- Have you done the work to search far and wide for a person of color who wants to take the mic or take any leadership role, and done everything in your power to eliminate or reduce the barriers in the way of them doing so?
- When was the last time you sat down and did the work of listening to a person of color speak for more than 5 minutes straight, or longer? Does the thought of being lectured by a person of color make you uncomfortable?
- Do you find yourself losing interest or respect for a speaker when that person has an accent, makes grammatical mistakes, or speaks colloquially?
- Do you ever consider waiting to be called upon before speaking? Or do you always assume that people of color want to hear what you are thinking and feeling at all times?
- What position of power or status are you ready to give up? What are you willing to lose? When Charlottesville comes to Portland, will you still be at the center, or will you put your life on the line to surround and protect us?
- What’s not needed are additional pathways and platforms for white people to talk publicly about racism, racist violence, or white supremacy. What’s needed is less talk, and more redistribution of power and wealth. (To clarify: I’m not saying that it’s okay for you to be silent — I’m saying that instead of speaking to a crowd of your like-minded peers just to demonstrate that you’re “not a racist,” take your voice and energy into the homes and private spaces where you know racism is alive and well. Those are places we can’t go — and where you can and must do the work of dismantling deep-seated biases against us.)
- Do you actively support, with your time and resources, organizations working to advance racial and economic justice in Oregon? If not, here are some of my favorites:
- The Mother PAC/Family Forward Action: building political power for mamas and our babies
- OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon: organizing for strong, healthy communities
- Momentum Alliance: of the youth, for the youth, and by the youth
Please give generously.