“Wear Out the Silence” Urges White People to Start Conversations About Race


“Our communities are being destroyed by racial tension, and we’re too polite to talk about it,” Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, said in a recent company speech defending the Movement For Black Lives. “It’s not pleasant to discuss,” he added. “But we have to start communicating.”

Speeches like Stephenson’s need to become the norm for white people. They don’t have to take place on a formal stage, either; they should take place on “stages” of various scales, from casual encounters at the supermarket to serious conversations at the dinner table. In fact, encouraging such conversation is the whole point of the recently launched “Wear Out the Silence” campaign.

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Leaders of the Movement For Black Lives have been calling upon white people to “break white silence” for some time. Far too often, white people are taught (directly or indirectly) to avoid and fear conversations about race. “Wear Out the Silence,” as its name implies, asks white people to wear Black Lives Matter tee shirts every Friday in order to bring meaningful conversations about race, racism and racial identity deeper into our daily lives.

Maya Nichols, a fourteen-year-old who helped launch the campaign, believes wearing a tee shirt is an especially powerful form of communication. “A bumper sticker is stuck on a car, a lawn sign planted in a yard, but a tee shirt is worn by a living, thinking and talking human being who can engage in conversation with other human beings,” she wrote on the “Wear Out the Silence” blog.

Her words reiterate the fact that the tee shirt is simply meant to be the first step of ending white silence—a way to begin conversations. That’s why the “Wear Out the Silence” website also offers conversation suggestions for encounters like:

  • Don’t all lives matter?
  • I don’t see color.
  • I don’t feel comfortable talking to my kids about race.

One way to start a conversation around “Black Lives Matter,” for example, is to explain that it’s a statement of inclusion, not exclusion. (This approach relates to other tenants of “Wear Out the Silence,” which include listening, avoiding blame and shame, and approaching the project with abundance.)

More specifically, one could say: “When I say Black Lives Matter, I am saying black lives matter, too. No one is questioning whether white lives or police lives matter. But in a society where black people are shot with impunity by police; in which black children disproportionately attend under-resourced schools and are targeted by the school to prison pipeline; in which black people are harmed every day by the systemic inequities within our society, we have to say Black Lives Matter, until they do.”

Wearing the Black Lives Matter tee shirt regularly can serve as a segue for engaging in these important conversations, in addition to being a show of solidarity and support. The point of the “Wear Out the Silence” campaign is to make white people hold themselves accountable and continuously engage in conversations, even if it feels uncomfortable.

In fact, the more you engage in these conversations, the more comfortable you will feel with them.

We at SURJ would love to have you participate in “Wear Out the Silence,” and would love to hear your experiences as you engage in regular conversations about racial justice. “Wear Out the Silence” shirts are union-made in Berkeley, California by Alliance Graphics. All profits will go to support black-led organizing. You can post photos and your experiences on the “Wear Out the Silence” Facebook page and engage on Twitter using the hashtag #wearoutthesilence.

Can ending white silence begin with a tee shirt? We hope so. It’s a simple first step, and a great reminder that every encounter is an opportunity.  

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