Work Samples

Silence is complicity, parents must speak up


Parents must have many difficult conversations with their children - sex, drugs, divorce. Lately, many talks have had to center around the topics of racism, violence and bigotry against religion and sexual orientation.

On June 13, the first day of school after the Orlando massacre, my daughter and I spent the car ride to school talking about what to do if she heard anyone discussing the tragedy.

“I know,” she said. “Say 'It's sad' then don't talk about it.”

Don't create or add to any drama. Don't argue. It has always been my mantra, but not this time.

“Actually,” I responded, “do talk about it. It's important to talk about it and if you hear someone say anything bad about people who are Muslim or gay, you tell them that is wrong. Hating people for their religion or race or because they are gay is wrong. Saying bad things about them is not OK. You can say that. You should say that.”

We have come to a point in history where to stand by and nod or avoid the conversation to avoid confrontation is to be complicit - complicit in the racism, divisiveness, religious bigotry and hatred that has not only become more common in our society but has been accepted at what is supposed to be the highest levels of our national discourse.

Elyse Rose-O'Reilly of Waldwick has noticed a rise in the blatantly bigoted comments made around her - and, in many cases, is surprised at the people making those comments.

“You start to see this latent racism that you don't know people have,” said Rose-O'Reilly, who is white and married to a black man.

“When you're not talking politics, they love you to death, they'll do anything for you, it's never been a problem,” she said. “Something like this [presidential campaign] comes up and you start to see the way they look at the world and the way they think. It's a real 'they' and 'us' kind of thing. It's a real division.”

Keeping the peace at the cost of suppressing your conscience is not OK. Not anymore, if it ever was.

“Yes, I think silence does suggest a complicity in what is unacceptable behavior,” said Joseph Chuman, head of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County and a human rights professor at Columbia University. “I think parents have a parental obligation to intervene.”

The intervention doesn't have to be an immediate confrontation, Chuman said. Parents can have the conversation with the child but not necessarily confront the person in the moment.

“You have to be able to sense the temperature of the room,” he said. “If you think it's going to end in a fistfight or name calling, it's probably not a good idea. You don't want to model that type of behavior. In most cases, it would be better to discuss this afterward in private.”

At a family party, Rose-O'Reilly got into a political argument with a cousin. Her 20-year-old daughter Shayna O'Reilly got up and walked away. It wasn't worth it to her, O'Reilly said. She knew what the outcome would be. In hindsight, her mother said she wished she had walked away too. But a moment after admitting that, she talked about how important it is not to be silent, too.

“Do they need to know that's hurtful to us?” said Rose-O'Reilly. “Yeah, they need to know that.”

For many of us, there have been so many years of sitting quietly so not to ruin a party or friendship or set off a drama-filled fight with extended family. Just walk away, we tell ourselves. But increasing guilt comes with those decisions.

Fight ignorance with education, ugly words with unifying ones.
That's what I need to teach my daughter. It's not easy advice to follow, though. Even the most passionate and most personally affected struggle with when to speak up.

“What to do about it is the big question?” said Rose-O'Reilly. “What are you going to do if you're in somebody else's home and nobody else says anything? Are you going answer and cause a disturbance? What are you going to do, willing to do at that point? I guess each situation is unique to what's appropriate.”

Just having the conversation is important, according to Samantha Plotino Emery, mission-based coordinator at the YWCA Bergen County where the mission is “eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.”

“One of the things we believe very strongly is that to avoid talking about racism and discrimination does strengthen and perpetuate the prejudices we ultimately want to reject,” said Samantha Plotino Emery, mission-based coordinator. “We believe that by starting those conversations and continuing those conversations will lead us in the right direction.”

For Chuman, it must be done “in an artful way” with a child. As a humanist, he doesn't believe in degrading another person and says parents must consider the child's relationship with that person.

“What you might do is to say, 'Aunt So-and-so said something about black people - or Latinos or Jews - and that is not our point of view. We think this is not a good way to talk about people.' … At the level of the child, explain behavior is wrong and mistaken while not writing off Aunt Maggie or Uncle Bob entirely.”

The goal, he said, is to condemn the behavior not the person.

“We're all racist in a certain sense, right? And we all can be guilty of saying inappropriate things about people,” he said.

We all must have our limits as well.

I remember being at a party with friends when I was a teenager. One man told a racist joke with a violent “punchline.” Most in the room laughed. My mother didn't but she didn't say it was wrong either. I wondered why. I felt sick and sad. But soon after, we left the party and we never saw those people again.

“A parent has a duty to act, letting it pass does suggest a type of complicity that doesn't model well,” said Chuman. “Having raised six kids, you never know what behavior is going to have a lasting impact.”

Shayna O'Reilly knows the lingering effects of an off-hand comment. She still remembers her 5th grade teacher saying she didn't consider the biracial Shayna to be black. O'Reilly didn't know the remark was racist - as she puts it, at the time she still thought racism was something in the country's history, a relic of slavery and the Civil War. Now, she sees that the teacher was saying O'Reilly didn't fit the woman's stereotype of a black person. Then, she simply couldn't understand why her teacher seemed to be dismissing that part of her heritage.

In another incident, this one in high school, O'Reilly was hurt and stunned when she was the only one in her class who raised her hand when asked if any race has an advantage over another. As she voiced her shock - did they not believe white people had some advantages? - a white classmate told her, “It's harder for us to get into college.”

It was the middle of class and there was no real way to respond or have any debate without causing a disruption. Now a student at the University of Pennsylvania, she believes it's important to counter these comments when possible.

“If it's something that really disrespects someone's race, sexuality, gender, religion, it's important to address it in that moment in a respectful, constructive way,” she said. “It's important not only to make that person aware of the depth of the meaning of the comment and what that says, but to demonstrate that it's OK to speak up.”

We have a responsibility not only to our children but to each other. Rose-O'Reilly can recall many times when she was not only bothered by a comment but the lack of response from those around her.

“In the End,” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

I sometimes wonder: Would I have boarded busses with the Freedom Riders or hidden Jews escaping the Nazis? I honestly don't know. I can't be sure I'd have had the courage of my convictions, that fear wouldn't have won.

But those were not my moments in history, this is. There is no line of police officers with dogs or Nazi soldiers to face, but there is a right and a wrong way to confront the current climate and that decision matters.

As a parent and a person, silence is no longer an option.