Why Silence Is Not Violence

Hillsdale College’s Frederick Douglass statue, crafted by sculptor Bruce Wolf. Breana Noble | Collegian Archives

by Christopher Paslay

Those of us who choose not to forward the polarizing identity politics at the heart of modern anti-racism should not be told our “silence is violence.”  On the contrary: our everyday actions speak louder than any trendy anti-racist words.

Modern anti-racism, an approach that uses polarizing identity politics to bring so-called social justice, is replete with catchy mantras that help drum home its message and accompanying agenda.  One such phrase is White Silence Is Violence, or more simply Silence Is Violence, a slogan that guilts and/or strong-arms people into espousing the ideologies of modern anti-racism.

As Ibram X. Kendi teaches in his book, How To Be An Antiracist — often viewed as the bible of modern anti-racism — you are either an anti-racist fighting for racial equality, or you are a racist perpetuating white supremacy.  There is no neutrality in the struggle.  According to Robin DiAngelo, whose white fragility theory has become one of the most influential ideas about racism in America, white silence perpetuates white supremacy, and maintains the racial hierarchy. 

But what is meant by “silence”?  When it comes to anti-racism, so-called “silence” is not only failing to speak out against racial injustice, but of also failing to become actively involved with the identity politics at the core of anti-racist ideology.  In other words, you can be a well-meaning educator who stands for equity, equality, and diversity — and set an example by modeling just and fair actions in your classroom — but if you don’t commit to actively pushing anti-racist slogans and agendas, you are still categorized as “silent.”

Recently, Hillsdale College was accused of such “silence.”  Ironically, Hillsdale was founded in 1844 by Free Will Baptists who were abolitionists and feminists, and the college immediately began admitting blacks and women.  Because of Hillsdale’s abolitionist reputation, Frederick Douglass spoke there, as did Edward Everett, who shared the stage with Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.  When the Civil War began, Hillsdale sent a higher percentage of students to the Union Army than any other college in Michigan.  Sixty students gave their lives in the fight against slavery.  A full history of Hillsdale can be found here

Still, in the beginning of June, several dozen Hillsdale students signed an open letter to Hillsdale College that went viral on social media — a letter that accused the college of participating in, or at the very least not preventing, racism.  Why?  Because Hillsdale did not publicly promote the Black Lives Matter movement and advertise the reforms its activists proposed. According to the letter, this “silence” was evidence that the college had “abandoned its founding principles” and consented to “white supremacy” and the “tyranny of our militarized police force.”

In other words, Hillsdale College has been fighting for racial equality and social justice for over 175 years by its actions, not by simply mouthing political slogans or trendy phrases.  And thankfully, Hillsdale didn’t bow to political pressure or get bullied into espousing a modern anti-racist ideology, but took a stand and held firm to its values and principles.  In an official statement titled, “On the College and Silence: A letter from Hillsdale College,” the leaders of the college explained that they didn’t need to publicly pay homage to any modern anti-racist cause, because Hillsdale’s actions were its testament to their fight for equality and justice: 

Amidst the events of recent weeks, a number of alumni and others have taken up formal and public means to insist that Hillsdale College issue statements concerning these events. The College is charged with negligence — or worse.

It is not the practice of the College to respond to petitions or other instruments meant to gain an object by pressure. The College operates by reasoned deliberation, study, and thought. The following observations, however, may be helpful and pertinent.

The College is pressed to speak. It is told that saying what it always has said is insufficient. Instead, it must decry racism and the mistreatment of Black Americans in particular. This, however, is precisely what the College has always said. . . .

The College founding is a statement — as is each reiteration and reminder of its meaning and necessity. The curriculum is a statement, especially in its faithful presentation of the College’s founding mission. Teaching is a statement, especially as it takes up — with vigor — the evils we are alleged to ignore, evils like murder, brutality, injustice, destruction of person or property, and passionate irrationality. Teaching these same things across all the land is a statement, or a thousand statements. Organizing our practical affairs so that we can maintain principles of equity and justice — though the cost is high and sympathy is short — is a statement. Dispensing unparalleled financial help to students who cannot afford even a moderate tuition, is a statement. Helping private and public schools across the country lift their primary and secondary students out of a sea of disadvantages with excellent instruction, curricula, and the civic principles of freedom and equality — without any recompense to the College — is a statement. Postgraduate programs with the express aim of advancing the ideas of human dignity, justice, equality, and the citizen as the source of the government’s power, these are all statements. And all of these statements are acts, deeds that speak, undertaken and perpetuated now, every day, all the time. Everything the College does, though its work is not that of an activist or agitator, is for the moral and intellectual uplift of all. 

(The full statement can be found here, and it’s very worth reading.)

The courage displayed by Hillsdale’s leaders is the kind we need in America as a whole, especially in our public school system.  Just as students have multiple learning styles, educators have multiple teaching styles, and fight for racial equality and justice in their own ways.  Most teachers do so through their actions — by modeling fair and just behavior and strengthening core values such as love, honesty, friendship, respect, and tolerance — and by teaching critical thinking skills. 

Those of us who choose not to forward the polarizing identity politics at the heart of modern anti-racism should not be told our “silence is violence.”  On the contrary: our everyday actions speak louder than any trendy anti-racist words. 

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