Talking About It: The Price of Silence

By Katherine Leggett

One way to reinforce oppression is to remain silent. It is a defensive move that functions to politely keep those in power powerful, and those without power powerless.  

I grew up in the 80s in a small, Midwestern town and never told anyone that both my parents were gay. Finally, when I was 20 years old, I started talking about it. The experience of being silent as a kid fuels my drive as a parent now, to disrupt silence, especially when it comes to talking about race with my kids.

My experience being silenced

When I was growing up my observations about my family were confusing and internalized. My mom visibly looked different than other moms, with short hair, no makeup, no heels. She was “with” her life partner, but there were no words for this. Friend? Neighbor? We just called her by her name, “Margot.”

My conversations with my mom in times of sadness or stress were around “being normal.” “Why can’t we be normal?” I would ask. She responded by saying she wished we could be normal too. She was “closeted,” which was the word used for silencing the LGBTQ community.

What were the consequences of being silent for me? The unresolved issues festered and the outcome was that I did not know how to talk about the most important aspect of my life—my family. Intimacy, intelligence and honesty were delayed. As I got older, I always had the feeling I was behind my peers: intellectually, culturally, emotionally. For years I felt I had catching up to do.

Talking about race

Now, as a parent of two young kids ages 4 and 6, actively talking about issues is very important to me. Thankfully, talking about families with “two mommies” or “two grandpas” is easy these days. When it comes to race, there is work to do.

I realize that as a White family living in a very White neighborhood, it’s up to me to bring up conversations about race. We borrow a lot of books from the library, and books are a natural starting point. In the book “Black, White, Just Right!” by Marguerite Davol, the story includes a Black mom and a White dad. I said, “Oh we just a met a family like that,” and continued on with the story. Later that night, as my daughter was falling asleep, she said, “Mom, that was my favorite book—the one about the Black mom and the White dad.”

In author Saadia Faruqi’s books, her character Yasmin wears a hijab. At first this seemed new for my kids, but I helped them remember that we see a lot of women wearing hijabs when we’re at the library. They remembered and agreed.

Sometimes it’s less obvious. For example, the other day we were looking at the book “Where’s Waldo.” I said, “Oh, it’s hard to find Waldo here. I see a lot of White people, but just a few Black people.” My daughter agreed and said, “There are a lot of White people here.” “It’s like our neighborhood,” I responded.

These are small examples, and it’s just the beginning for my family to talk about race. As my kids get older, our conversations will be much more complex and difficult. We will address our country’s racist history and the continued legacy of White privilege and the thriving culture of White supremacy in which we live. For now, I begin by verbalizing what we see, so my daughters learn to see the differences and have the vocabulary to communicate how they feel. The work I am doing now is building the foundation for necessary and continuous conversations about race in the future. I refuse to be silent anymore.

Katherine Leggett is a documentary filmmaker and busy Seattle mom. Find her at www.filmmissives.com.