Self-censorship, speaking up and showing empathy: Reflections on a tragic week

Why is it sometimes difficult to speak, and harder still to listen? An introspective look at Black Lives Matter after Sterling, Castile and Dallas.


People are being killed more quickly than we can react. Tugged from one tragedy to the next, it’s difficult to contextualize and reflect.

But we’re trying, even if it reads like whiplash. My friends have been vocal on social media. Politics and prayer. Anger and anguish. Hopelessness and hope.

It’s not just the news junkies, the political commentators, or the trolls. People who use Facebook primarily for relationships, photo albums, and cat videos are entering the fray. Speaking out is stretching out.

I respect the heck out of them.

I love to teach about the First Amendment, but we self-censor way more than the government ever will. We worry what others will think. Speaking out is stretching out our neck to get guillotined by our friends, family, faith body, coworkers, or prospective employers. Maybe by people we don’t even know. And so we stay silent.

[Related: Hate speech, social media and the marketplace of ideas]

We carefully curate our digital presence. For many of us, stepping into controversy isn’t part of the life we want to portray. That message we want to get off our chests is held down by social pressures, both external and of our own creation.

I’m talking about this today in the context of one perspective on one issue, but the principle is transferable.

My “niche” is the media aspect of these events.

For me, it goes back to Ferguson. The protests were raised to public consciousness by Twitter and Vine. Police and protester interactions made for a public relations nightmare. Plenty of ways to sidestep systemic racism.

This week, it was Dallas. Breaking news media-watch. My sweet spot. And so, I tried to walk a line of reporting on the reporting. I did note community relations efforts by police, and also that authorities of a 2nd Amendment stronghold quickly and incorrectly transformed a black man open-carrying into a suspect. But it was mostly about Brian Williams.

Days before Dallas, it was Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Two more black men fatally shot by police. Castile particularly, based on what we know at the time, seemed to pose no immediate threat to the officer. My take? “Boy, Facebook Live is something else!”

For me, this is where the pressure on my chest is strongest.

I don’t want to seem as if I am anti-police. It’s more than “support the troops.” It’s personal. My family deeply values our military and civil protectors, and counts numerous servicemen in our ranks. My brother-in-law is a newly minted police officer. He risks his life to protect his community. I can’t fathom being in that role, and it makes me immensely thankful for him and officers like him. I would never want that appreciation and respect to be misconstrued by those that I love.

I don’t want noticing racial disparities to equate to hating our police. As many have stated in recent days, it shouldn’t. It sure wasn’t happening at the Dallas protests, in large part because of Dallas PD’s excellent training and public communication post-Ferguson.

I also don’t want to assimilate this story into some whiteness narrative. I look around and see what I perceive as well-meaning white people stepping on landmine after landmine as they attempt to participate in race-based dialogue. That whole “I don’t see race; all lives matter” argument? Robin DiAngelo would say it stems from the invisibility of whiteness as an identity, because we don’t recognize the social institutions built around us in our own image. That we’re just beginning to understand and empathize with generations of experiences for people of color. That part of those social institutions is a strong pull to shut up and stay out of this.

This is a pull that affects multiple perspectives. The same false dichotomy of police or protesters silences support for law enforcement out of fear of being painted a racist.

The Twitter hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite was criticized by some who believed it was just another example of white privilege hijacking a narrative, but I thought it was an excellent recognition of that privilege by those who are privy to it. In conjunction with #AliveWhileBlack, it provided anecdote after anecdote of racial bias in encounters with law enforcement.

That was a paragraph from a blog post I wrote in 2014, after Eric Garner was killed by a chokehold from a plainclothes officer. A man shot and killed two NYPD officers a few weeks after a grand jury chose not to indict the officer who killed Garner. The situation exploded into police and conservative politicians vs. Black Lives Matter and liberal politicians. It was ugly and infuriating and failed to advance the cause of anything other than anger. (For what it’s worth, the reaction post-Dallas, has seemed far more communal and relationship-building… an anecdote.)

I wrote the whole thing. Proofread it. Read it again. My chest tightened. “This might not go over well.”

“I’m on the job market. What if I’m seen as too outspoken? More trouble than I’m worth?”

Real. Imagined. It made no difference. I never published that post. I self-censored.

Two years later, I again want to say something. Like Sarah did. While I was consternating over this latest attempt to express myself, her voice was coming out of the silence:


I told her about my topic and asked if I could share. “Sure!” she replied moments later. “Go right ahead. No worries.” Sarah just launched a new blog, The Fugitive Pen. Check it out.

Inspired by these newfound outspoken voices, I kept writing. Because I keep seeing what happens to a black man at a traffic stop, black teens at a pool party, a black kid at a park, and it doesn’t match my own experiences. People who reach very different conclusions start from this same incongruence.

I’ve been stopped by police about a dozen times (not counting the one time I was definitely speeding). I was a white teenager living in a predominately black neighborhood that had its fair share of drug activity. Profiling? Sure, but don’t dare make a false equivalence with the type that ends with me lying prostrate on the pavement. I never once felt intimidated or unsafe speaking with those officers. And I reached into my back pocket for my ID every time, with no reason to think I could be putting my life in danger. I can only assume, based on our interactions, the police didn’t feel threatened by my movements either.

At the risk of #CrimingWhileWhite, let me continue. I also took my beat-up car with a license plate from that rough neighborhood’s county over to the suburbs, where I was pulled over for a broken tag light. It aggravated me, but I never once feared that stop could turn into anything more than a warning to get the light fixed. I rolled down the window, the officer saw me inside, and I was on my way in about a minute with my warning, no further questions asked.

Here’s the divergence. I refuse to believe the disparate interactions with law enforcement that black parents prepare their children for are myth. Just because my experiences are different doesn’t mean the experiences of others are wrong. And just because my experiences are different doesn’t mean I should perceive the expressions of others as an attack, while tossing empathy out the window.

Here’s how David Hederman, the pastor at my previous church in Jackson, Miss., conveyed it on Sunday, paraphrased:


It echoed the conclusion of the Dallas Morning News’ first front-page editorial since the September 11 terrorist attacks. Conservative columnist Matt Lewis acknowledged something similar in what he titled “A confession.” The mass communication elements I typically write about still matter; video and social streaming are at the heart of Lewis’ perspective change, and they’re what continue this conversation.

I want to continue the national conversation about racial stereotypes; it makes them harder to hide. About police-community relations, because I believe more communication between the public and their local police will produce both a more welcoming citizenry and better policing (timely example: the peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Memphis Sunday night, which is resulting in a town hall forum today). I want police to be better equipped with rapid, reliable “less-lethal” means of subduing potentially dangerous suspects at close range. (I’m ill-informed here, but from limited reading, it seems most service weaponry in this category is unreliable, slow, and one-shot – not the type of thing an officer’s going to turn to when perceiving an imminent threat.) And it seems like all of this can be done without hating one side or another side or anyone at all.

I asked Hederman if he was nervous about addressing the shootings. In a text, he said he thought about the time he’d have to convey his point, the racial composition of the congregation – which is largely white – and how to avoid other pre-scheduled elements of the service distracting from the message or appearing “tone deaf.”

“I was nervous it would seem dramatic and staged rather than genuine,” he wrote.

Hederman was glad to see the Facebook post – that someone listening had come away with exactly the point he intended to communicate.

“God used [Eubanks’] post to encourage me, because on Sundays like yesterday, you don’t ever walk off the stage thinking ‘I crushed that.’”

“No worries,” Sarah said.

I always have a moment of trepidation before I press “publish.” Did I express myself clearly? Will it be received well? Did I offend someone close to me? It’s why I’d never survive in a world of hot takes. The palms are a little sweatier than normal this time around, and reflecting on why that is the case has been a learning experience.

But even if Sarah, David, myself, or the others who spoke didn’t say it perfectly, we want to listen, we didn’t self-censor, and our silence cannot be mistaken for apathy.

Never fear! Just as cute animals have returned to your Facebook feed (though perhaps in the form of Pokemon), the blog will be back to a media-centric perspective next time.

Cover photo courtesy Dallas Police Department.

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