Fellow white people: Shut up and listen

I’ve felt compelled to say something about what’s happening in this country right now, but I’ve been hesitant to do so; With everything I say, I can imagine the retort, everything I think feels as if it’s already been said; everything rolling around my head sounds trite, or obvious, or useless. I’ve felt stuck for something smart, insightful, or even helpful to say about this awful week since George Floyd was killed.

But it struck me last night that, as a white man in America, it’s really not important what I think or say or argue. My theories – and I’ve long been interested in this subject, it seems to me to be the essential American dilemma – don’t matter.

I’ve had black friends, black lovers, black teachers. I’ve read mind-blowing books about race in America. I’ve served as a diversity coordinator at my old workplace. I’ve wrestled with this demon of a problem. I like to think I know something of what I’m talking about. But I am a white man, and this issue is fundamentally not experiential. I’ve seen it right in front of me, but it wasn’t aimed at me. I didn’t really feel it.

So it’s time for me, and for everyone like me, to just shut up and listen.

White men are an enormous group, we cover the spectrum, from those who instituted and execute unjust laws of an unjust system, to those who’ve literally died trying to change it. White men have been on all sides of this issue.

And, being men, I would be willing to bet that, whatever side we’re on, ACLU or KKK, we’ve got an opinion about it. (And no, I’m not going to shut up until the end of this blog post. I will claim my prerogative for that long.)

But now it’s time for us to give our opinions, and everybody else, a rest. It’s time to listen. I say this because I’ve seen so many white men, good, well-meaning white men, who tell black people what they should think, or feel, or do about their situation. These are white men who mean well, but end up defending the status quo, even as they challenge it. These are good white men, but they need to shut up. Just for awhile.

Women know these well-meaning men. They are the men who abhor violence against women, but question her when a woman says a guy said or did something inappropriate. They are well-meaning men who reflexively defend the man, challenging the woman’s perceptions, or even her experience, not to mention her ideas about it. And they would be shocked to see that they are doing this.

White women do the same thing, of course – particularly when it regards race. But at least white women know what it’s like to have a man dismiss her experience, question her perceptions of a situation he hasn’t experienced, and will never experience. And black women know that a black man surely will do it, too.

So I extend my advice to white women, too: You know what it’s like to have a man not hear what you’re saying, having him reflexively question your version of events. When a black woman tells you what a white man said to her, or what a white woman said to her – because there is little difference between what white women believe about black people, and what white men do – do you not try to soften the situation, defuse the tension, question her version of events?

If you are good at this, if you get it, and need no more educating, more advice:

Shut up. Just for a bit.

My dear fellow white man and woman: You say you’re not a racist, and I believe you. You say you don’t enjoy any privilege at all, you’ve earned everything you’ve got, and I know you have worked hard. You wonder why we can’t all get along. You worry that anything you say is going to be used against you, twisted somehow, to make you feel bad.

I get it. But this isn’t about you. It isn’t about you feeling good. It’s about you being good enough to listen without trying to change the story into something that feels better to you. (It’s also not about changing it into something that feels worse, either; this isn’t about your righteous indignation. It’s not about you at all.)

I know a lot of white people, and on balance, they’re good people. Very few are overtly racist. But they are largely kinda clueless. (Gay men and women know this, too, but that’s another blog post.) The responses of these basically good people are borne largely of simple ignorance; more often, I think, they simple don’t want to think ill of other people, they want to believe that other people, of any race, aren’t as mean and ignorant and self-absorbed as one has to be to do or just say such cruel things to other people. They want to feel proud of their fellow human beings, perhaps especially of those of their own race. This is normal.

But there is obviously a problem, it’s in our streets every day now, as it has been for 400 years. And that problem is not black people. Black people have their problems, black people screw up like everyone else, and some of them are mean and ignorant, too.

But black people didn’t cause this problem. This problem was caused by, and is perpetuated by, white people. Even white people who think we’re not part of the problem. Even white people who are quite sure this whole race thing has nothing to do with us.

And yet: White people are the problem, white people perpetuate the problem, white people benefit from the problem, and white people, by and large, can get away with ignoring the problem. But the only way the problem is going to change is when white people own that problem, face that problem, and try to understand that problem.

And it’s not going to be easy. But just because white people, as a mass, as a power, have made this problem a daily problem for black people doesn’t mean it’s not our problem. And it’s going to take a lot of work, and attention, and money and love. Mostly, love. And understanding.

And here’s a good way to start: Shut up. Ask a black woman, or a black man, what their experience has been. And then shut up. Don’t engage in a dialog in which you ask them if they are sure that that’s what that other white woman meant; don’t question if they’re sure it wasn’t some other reason they treated you that way. Don’t try to make them feel better.

And please don’t try to get them to make you feel better. Again: Not about you.

Don’t talk at all. Just listen. And don’t be surprised if this black person tells you everything is ok. Black people have been telling white people what they want to hear for 400 years. It has been, in some cases, a matter of life or death. Surely, you can see that now. George Floyd’s neck is hardly the first to go under the boot of white America.

Keep asking. Keep listening. If you’re lucky, your black friend will eventually feel safe enough with you to tell you the truth. And when she or he tells you the truth, don’t tell them they’re wrong. Don’t tell them they must be mistaken. Don’t tell them how bad it makes you feel. It’s not about you.

What they will tell you will shock you and horrify you and sadden you and embarrass you. You will feel ashamed for the members of your race. You will wonder that you live in the same country (news alert: you don’t). You will want what they’re saying not to be true. You will have heard things that, if you’ve a heart and soul and a decent brain, you will not be able to un-hear.

You will have taken a first step. Ask more people. Listen to them. At least give them that. It’s not so hard, is it? Maybe it is; think of it as an act of generosity, an act of love, an act of kindness, an act of humility. (If you can’t go that far, think of it as an act of self-preservation.)

Being kind, being generous, being loving, being humble: these can be hard for all of us, black or white, male or female. But they make a difference, and bit by bit, step by step, perhaps there will be more understanding. Perhaps it will make a difference. Progress is possible. Progress has happened. Progress is continuing to happen. Racism is being exposed, on all levels. That’s the first step.

It’s painful. We white folk have to expose ourselves to racism until it hurts. It will hurt anyone with empathy, anyone with an open heart. But it will never hurt us a quarter as much as it hurts our black fellows, and it’s a hurt we can manage, a hurt we can endure, a pain that will make us better people, and our country a better country.

Maybe we can shoulder just a little bit of that burden of pain that our black countrymen and women carry every day. Maybe that’s a preposterous suggestion; after all, it really isn’t about us.

Except it is: It’s about all of us. It’s just that sometimes, the best thing some of us can do is shut up and listen to things we don’t want to hear. Perhaps that’s how we balance things out a bit.

I don’t know. I’m just a white guy, so I just had to say something. But now I’m going to go back to listening.

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David Watts Barton

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