I cannot deny—will not deny—that I walk around this world with a certain cachet of privilege. I have done nothing to earn this privilege, I have not worked for it. It’s something given to me based on my appearance alone, because I’m a cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, white male of a certain height and a certain build. Too often, this privilege (call it white privilege; that’s what it is) is never mentioned, never spoken of by those of us to whom it has been gifted. And when (or if) we do try to call attention to it, we are shouted down in the loudest voices. Those who want to keep privilege intact tell us we’re wrong, that it doesn’t exist. Which is just another way of saying shhhh! People will hear you and learn our secret, will try to change things.
In part, the power of white privilege, or its staying power at least, resides in the silence. To not talk about it, to shut ears and eyes and deny its existence which we continue to see play out again and again, only gives it space to fester and grow. It only hardens the resolve of those who deny its existence. And it’s not just race. We encounter silence in our everyday lives in the same way we talk or don’t talk about sex, gender, and class.
In his new essay collection, Things I Have Withheld, Kei Miller probes these silent places: what it means to be silent, to break that silence; what it means to risk one’s words and, in turn, the truth. Using his experience as a Black, Jamaican, queer man, he digs into the silence through letters to James Baldwin, Carnival, conversations with white writers, family secrets, and the experience of discrimination of the body and the histories and stories the body can tell.
Miller borrowed the title of the collection from the poet Dionne Brand. After speaking to a white audience, Brand, a Black woman, wrote in reflection “…there are some things / that I will say to you / and some things that I won’t. And quite possibly / the most important things / will be the ones that I withhold.” Pair this with Miller’s poem that appears in the front of the author’s note: “Consider, for a moment, / the silence — / this terrible white / space; / all the things / we never say, / and why?” These are both instructive without being didactic. I would venture to say that they aren’t intended for the readers at all, despite the implied imperative. Rather, they feel like kinds of notes-to-self.
Walter Benjamin wrote “[…] the concept of an “ideal” receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art, since all it posits is the existence and nature of man as such….No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.” Miller didn’t write these essays for us, for a certain, idealized, reader. These essays are Miller writing for and to himself, asking himself the questions he wants to try and answer, speaking into a void that he wants to understand and fill.
Some of the most powerful and moving moments in this powerful and moving collection is Miller performing a kind of literary ventriloquism in which thoughts and ideas and feelings are expressed without always being said. The subjects in “Mr. Brown, Mrs. White, and Ms. Black” never really speak, rather, they think. Miller gives voice to their interiority, as it were. This kind of silence, the thinking in lieu of speaking, is all the louder for what goes unsaid—although other thoughts are implied. “Ethnicity is what is in your actual DNA, your genes, your ancestry….Race, on the other hand, is how society constructs you—and it does not matter whether they see you wrongly or not,” Miller writes, or rather, Mr. Brown thinks.
Much of the work in Things That I Have Withheld examines risks—risks in speaking, risks in remaining silent. What do we lose when we don’t use our voice, what do we lose when we do. The essay “The White Women and the Language Of Bees” was first written for and then pulled from the Jamaican literary magazine Pree. The essay examines the authority of white women writers to speak for Jamaica and the Caribbean, with Miller asking, “How many years and decades must pass before we can belong to a place and to its words? How much time before we can write it?” In the essay, Miller discusses four women writers from the region, he discusses their books, he discusses their interaction with the literary community (their responses to critics and other writers), he discusses the personal interactions he has with these white women. There was a sharp blowback.
Detractors took issue with focusing on white women and not white men. One of the writers identified in the essay told The Guardian: “Writing about race, sure, write about whiteness too, sure, but why make this all about white women? Will Kei Miller write a follow up essay called, White Men and the Language of Wasps? I think not.” I understand that no one likes to be implicated, to have a finger pointed at them. I also know that I will never understand what it is like to be either party. But, in situations like these, there always seems to be a What about them!? response. And if Miller’s essay were about white men, then there’s little doubt they would have their own What about… retort. It never ends. When we are asked to confront ourselves, to examine certain choices we make, it’s little wonder why we are unable to have the necessary conversations—especially in this country where white men and women of certain class continue their apocryphal cries of persecution.
Detractors also wanted to take Miller to task for publishing “private” conversations. But anyone who has ever written any kind of personal essay knows that this is not something taken lightly (and from what I have read, there was no outcry that any of Miller’s recounting was untrue or misrepresented). Are these writers upset because Miller in some way betrayed them, or are they upset because Miller spoke, used his voice to call attention to something he felt was worth breaking their perceived ethical boundaries. Whether they mean to or not, they are, in effect, telling Miller to shut up, keep silent. They are implying that what Miller has to say is not important—or rather that his voice is not as important as their own. What power and privilege one must have, or feel they have, to tell another that their voice is not to be used.
“And always, the most important things are the things we cannot say.” Maybe Miller’s withholding, his silence, is stronger—sends a stronger message—than his speaking (maybe). Maybe his silence will allow for the party that refuses to listen anyway, that wants to restrict his voice, maybe it will cause them to sit with and wallow in their (in our) own ignorance.
Perhaps Miller is in ways responding to Hanna Arendt when she wrote: “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.” What I mean is that he is asking himself—asking us—what do we say and why do we say it? Miller is indeed using words to disclose realities: to verbalize how he sees the world as a Black man, as a queer man.
One of the questions Miller asks has been stuck in my head: “How does one unlearn privilege, especially the kind that is given to you daily and without question, so it does not seem like privilege at all but simply the everyday-ness of life?” I was talking to a friend, a Black woman. We were discussing Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series. I had just watched the second installment, “Lover’s Rock.” She asked if I had gone on to watch other episodes. I said I hadn’t. “I can only watch so much racism and injustice before I get too angry and feel hopeless,” I said. She playfully rolled her eyes at me, “Uh huh. Okay.” What I heard her say inside the silence, without her having to say a single word, was: Oh, you have a hard time watching it? Racism in movies is tough for you? Trying living it. Try living it every single day.
Things I Have Withheld
By Kei Miller
Published September 15, 2021
Brock Kingsley is a writer and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere.