The Wall of Silence: I Didn't See or Hear Anything!!
Ain’t that the truth?
My mom was talking about the fact that she’s had things happen (e.g., offensive comments made to her by a White person) that she’s had to respond to (e.g., informing the person that they were not going to speak to her in a nasty manner), but when she’s said, “Well, x, y, and z were there and can tell you what happened,” x, y, and z (all White) would say they didn’t hear anything because they were distracted by something, were talking, reading a paper, on their phone, etc. But, they did, in fact, see and hear what transpired.
While some people don't have any problem lying to protect a coworker (based on racial solidarity and other factors), others will pretend they have nothing to contribute to the conversation because they don't know anything.
I’ve experienced this myself and I’m sure many of you have as well. The fact of the matter is that Black workers can’t count on White coworkers to tell the truth about what they know, when an incident has jumped off. It doesn’t even have to be race-related, on the surface. If a Black worker and White worker are involved in any level of dispute, it’s hard to get White coworkers, who’ve witnessed the interaction, to fess up to what they saw and heard. It can be hard to get Black workers to speak up, as well. But, generally, White workers are often more prone to helping build a wall of silence around someone who is out of line, has violated federally protected rights, etc. It’s called looking about for your own.
So, Black workers are often forced into a situation that is he said/she said, when there may be many witnesses who could shed some light on who is right or wrong in a situation.
What’s interesting is that when the Black worker is at fault, these same White coworkers are likely to be truthful and to speak up when asked—or they may volunteer information to help a White coworker or manager. It’s only when a White worker is at fault that we get the wall of silence. Everyone becomes an enabler.
The typical wall of silence is one of the reasons I keep stressing that targeted Black workers document all events at work and maintain hard copies and electronic copies of emails, memos, instructions, etc. If we are blamed for problems we didn’t cause, we can’t count on White coworkers supporting our contention that we were following the verbal instructions provided to the team. And, we can’t count on people of any race being truthful in an investigation. Many people decide that they will “mind their business,” when a really sensitive issue has hit the office.
Black workers need to expect that they will have the burden of proving their complaint/case on their own. We must document everything, including conversations and other face-to-face exchanges in the workplace. Here’s what we can do:
Always note the date and time of incidents and add the names of witnesses to the notation. If your witness has a relationship with your harasser, you want to make a note of that too. For instance, if one of the witnesses is lunch buddies with a person you are having a dispute with, then you want to document that in writing because it shows a potential motivation to lie.
If the witness participated in the interaction that took place, you want to make a note of that too. For instance, if the witness told your harasser they were out of line, to stop, to leave, etc. you want to make a note of that the same way you would note that they egged your harasser on by joining in on verbal attacks or physical intimidation. You need to focus on characterizing how everyone is involved in each incident. This might mean someone overheard events or participated in events on a minor or major scale.
The wall of silence can be broken, but Black workers have to do their part by showing that their complaints have merit and by keeping a list of who saw and heard the events that were taking place. That information can be passed on to an investigator or lawyer, who has a better chance of getting some form of cooperation out of the individuals involved.