If Speaking Up Feels Awkward, You’re Doing It Right

We have to unlearn the habit of staying silent about racism

It started out as a choice between two words: “murder” and “death.”

As thousands marched across the country to protest the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, I had been wondering how to be a better anti-racist ally, and a more supportive ally to black people. But when an opportunity to do so arose during my work as a journalist, I wasn’t prepared for how awkward it would feel.

In an article that I submitted to my editor last week, I used the word “murder” to describe the way George Floyd was killed. But when my draft was published, I saw that “murder” had been changed to “death”: “The death of a black man named George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis has sparked outrage and protests…”

I didn’t know what to think. Or, at first, what to do.

Asking why the change was made would be, undoubtedly, awkward. This was an editor I liked and respected. I worried about suggesting that I was questioning their judgement, potentially damaging a relationship I valued. I didn’t want to make a colleague I admired feel bad. And it would be a hassle: It would take time on an already busy day to explain my concerns in a Slack message, and then engage in the conversation.

There was an easy, and tempting, way to avoid all those horrible feelings: Simply stay silent. Most readers would probably just brush over the words without noticing. And the edited version wasn’t incorrect: George Floyd did die.

But I also knew that understanding his death to be a murder, and not just a death, was the crux of the debate dividing the nation. I wanted to be on the right side of it.

So I sought the advice of people who know better. I asked the members of our company Slack channel dedicated to people of color. That was awkward too — I was afraid of coming across as an Asian American person trying to spotlight their own attempt at wokeness.

Everyone encouraged me to speak up. One black colleague told me that “words hold different weight for different people.” Another told me that the difference between those words was an “important distinction” and that this could be an important “teaching moment.”

Reading my colleagues’ advice was a teaching moment for me, too. I knew I had to ask my editor about the change. Finding the right words to say it was an uncomfortable process — almost as uncomfortable as the silence in which I waited for my editor to respond.

But the response was full of openness and grace. They explained that a legal counsel had once told them that “murder” suggested premeditation, while “death” did not. But they also said that there were many rules they were “unlearning,” and this was an important one. They gladly gave me the choice to use either word. We chose to go with “murder.”

In the days following this exchange, I worked out my feelings through amateur watercolor illustrations, which are published on this Instagram post.

The whole thing was incredibly uncomfortable, even if it worked out fine. But as I’m starting to realize, discomfort is a feeling that we must all get used to.

Consider the opposite: Comfort is a feeling of ease, of freedom from distress. We feel comfortable around things that are familiar to us. For me, staying silent would have been familiar and comfortable. Very often, I’ve felt that engaging in conversations about anti-black racism was too awkward, too uncomfortable, or simply not my issue to take on.

Now, at this embarrassingly late stage in my life, I am realizing that injustice is everyone’s problem — and that my own petty and personal fears about an awkward situation pale in comparison.

Speaking out against racism will be uncomfortable for many people. That’s because it will probably involve doing something that’s unfamiliar or unpracticed, whether it’s having an awkward conversation, expressing an unpopular opinion, or admitting when you don’t know something and humbling yourself to ask the people who do.

When it’s uncomfortable, that’s how you know you’re doing something right.

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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