Leaving the Safety of Silence and Invisibility: A Personal Response


I am another white woman, born into middle class American privilege, seeking an authentic way to respond to George Floyd’s murder and the centuries-long tunnel of violence and oppression that his death has blown up into the spotlight.


This is not my first attempt at a response, but part of an ongoing, lifelong journey that I want to say out loud, on the platform that publicly defines me. If there is any one, least thing we can all do, right now, it is to leave our comfortable quiet behind.


I have no earth-shattering insight for how to best help. There is surely no single, best way. Power is found in all the individual ways we, as human beings, find to respond. All I know is that now is a time to be vocal. To speak up, speak out and speak truth about our place in this transformative time. We cannot help the race or circumstance into which we are born. What we do with it, however, is under our control.


This is my small, imperfect way of doing, by using the most public platform I have to state unequivocally that #blacklivesmatter. I offer a reflection where the professional meets the personal in an intersection of service, yes, but one still too wedded to the convenient stance that staying silent and invisible is necessary, when our voices would be better heard.


Without us, the world is a poorer, less connected place. Without us, the complexity, nuance and completeness of human expression remains confined to those who speak a single, shared language. Without us, the "other" remains separate, unknown, invisible. What we do is indispensable to the #fightagainstracism.

I’m in my 50s now. I grew up as a child of intellectual hippies, both products of an upperclass upbringing. My entire life I was aware I was privileged and that others were not. Credit my activist parents. Or being dragged all over the world by my mother in a post-divorce search for self that landed us in Nairobi, Kenya for several months when I was seven. We lived in an Indian boarding house and my brother and I were the lone tow-headed white kids in a world of black Africans, immersed in an Indian immigrant subculture. I spent the rest of my childhood in an unrelentingly white part of Oregon. These experiences and contrasts gave me a tiny heads up, at an early age, that my world was not the only world.


From that time on, I felt compelled to try to fix things. I struggled with my privilege. I came to understand the double-edged sword of American power and became ever more acutely aware of the insane privilege that comes from simply having been born white and middle class in the United States. As I lived and worked abroad. I tried to figure out how to leverage my unearned good fortune to share in a way that was relevant and respectful, not patronizing and patriarchal. I worked with women’s collectives, became immersed in the domestic violence movement, and witnessed the final days of Pinochet’s regime in Chile and the painful and imperfect, yet ultimately transcendent return to democracy.


I have often wondered, given everything, why I did not follow a more blatantly activist path into my full adulthood. Many of my friends and cousins did. Why am I not, to this day, one of those in the streets, with a bullhorn in my hand, laying my body and self down in pursuit of a fairer world? As a toddler I was thrust in front of rearing police horses in crowds protesting the Vietnam war. Shouldn’t I be doing the same thing now?


My tendency to a quieter way to address major social issues is likely a result of the one way I share, at least partially, a parallel reality to the pernicious racism woven throughout our culture. I am a woman. I am a trauma survivor. I have lived, through every single day of my five decades on this earth, all the ways women are taught to be silent, careful, muted, less than. I share the painful, death-by-a-thousand-pinpricks way that misogyny and abuse dim the full potential of all women. I have taught my daughter to "be safe" and "be smart" and raged that she and all in her generation still face a world little changed from the one I faced. Where is the progress? Where is the change?


In the end, it makes sense that my form of protest, or at least service, has come in a quieter form. I became an interpreter. I found professional and personal purpose in helping others find their voice through my ability to speak two languages. But I carry my privilege in all aspects of my work life. I am a white American woman in a profession made up of immigrants. I am often the only caucasian person in the room.


I can’t count the number of times I have been told, “but you are so blond, how can you speak Spanish?" Sure, on a very superficial level, the statement is funny. But the layers of meaning embedded in that simple statement go deep. The surprise of someone like me talking like them. The unspoken truth of the chasm that separates our daily realities. How, I, in the end, help to carry their voice, their reality in my work, but get to return to a world of safety and comfort mostly beyond their reach at day's end. Despite all the ways that I work to raise the profile of interpreting through InterpretAmerica and other projects, it is not enough. I remain in comfort and safety. I have the luxury of dipping in and out of those difficult spaces. So many do not.


We, as interpreters, are taught to mute our own voices in our work. We are meant to be clean vessels for other peoples’ thoughts, and to keep our own to ourselves. This mandate has bled into a much broader hesitancy to advocate for ourselves and the rights of those whose voices are quite literally silenced if we are not there. Most in my field are immigrants, people of different color and from diverse cultures. Racism and privilege play out in our field just as they do in our broader society, and so too does our reluctance to address the inequities in our own profession. In our effort to keep our communication boundaries clean, we hamstring our ability to leverage our expertise and knowledge of culture and race in ways that we should.


One of the most important accomplishments InterpretAmerica has achieved over the last ten years has been to reject that cone of silence. We can, and must, use our own voices to advocate for our work, for the people whose voices we help elevate, and for our relevance as professionals who come from all races and economic strata.


Without us, the world is a poorer, less connected place. Without us, the complexity, nuance and completeness of human expression remains confined to those who speak a single, shared language. Without us, the "other" remains separate, unknown, invisible. What we do is indispensable in the #fightagainstracism.


Which brings me to George Floyd and this moment in time when those of us who are white or wealthy or otherwise privileged are being challenged to examine our own complicity in aiding and abetting the appalling structures of racism and economic inequality that we benefit from daily, without consciously trying. Whatever we have already done, it is not enough. But what do we do from here?


The answer is all around us, all over the world. It lies in the protests. In the hundreds and thousands and millions of people posting resources, support and wisdom online. In the conversations we are having with ourselves and our loved ones. In the the learning. In the donating. In the opening of our hearts and minds to the “other” and finding ourselves in them. In the actions we take.


Each of us brings our unique gifts to the human family. Professionally, mine is in continuing to support all who need to express their ideas and realities across languages. Financially, it is in donating to those organizations who are having an impact in places I cannot physically go. Personally, it is to never stop rooting out my own biases and proactively working to lessen any of the ways my privilege hurts others.


It’s been a grueling year. But change is possible. From outrage can come progress. And fighting for continued progress matters. It is all that matters.


Katharine Allen

President, InterpretAmerica

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