Learning to Shut Up and Listen

How hard is it for relatively* privileged people to just shut up and listen when people talk about the way society shits on them? I’ll be honest: Really fucking hard. And yet there’s nothing actually easier.

B and I were talking about that yesterday while we were waiting for our gyros. I’d just read a great article about why white people shouldn’t wear dredlocks, and he was all offended by the notion that white folk can’t have any hairstyle they want. Why shouldn’t they?

That knee-jerk response comes so easily to those of us near the top of the privilege heap.

I’m just now getting started on figuring out this whole cultural appropriation thing. It wasn’t on my radar. I mean, I’m white. In this country, I’m able to be comfortably colorblind, because color doesn’t affect me. My upbringing told me that the world is my oyster, and I can basically have whatever I want – even if it’s deeply meaningful to someone else and not really meant for outsiders like me. I used to be one of those folks who thought that incorporating aspects of other cultures was honoring them. How could they be mad if I liked something important to them?! Can’t we all just be one big melting pot of humans, share all our shiny things, etc.? It’s only now that I’m coming to realize that impulse arises from a place of profound ignorance, and that, when it comes to Native Americans, or African Americans, or other groups who are not only in a minority but are generally treated like absolute shit by my white compatriots, I’d best shut up and listen to them when they tell me that something is cultural appropriation and we white folk really shouldn’t do that.

You know what? That’s hard. I love seeing elements from different cultures fused into something new. I don’t know where the lines are between art and erasure. I don’t know what’s okay and what’s not. I’m not comfortable with this world where everyone can’t just take what they want. But I understand there’s a problem, because I’ve heard people from various cultures say that there’s a problem. My next step isn’t to get all defensive and whine that we should all just get along. It’s to investigate, listen closely as they explain what’s wrong and why, and keep my mouth shut (well, aside from this post) while learning. Will I disagree at the end of all that? Possibly. But at least my disagreement will be informed rather than ignorant. And chances are, I won’t disagree at all, once I understand. I’ve only just begun to look into this, and I can already see that there’s a definite problem with white folks just taking whatever they want from folk they’ve been busy oppressing for centuries. There’s definitely a fire beneath all that smoke.

I explained a little about that to B, as best as I could, and he did what I’ve always admired him for. He didn’t dig in his heels and insist he was right and all those minorities were just over-sensitive. He asked me to send him the article so that he could learn. He is going to listen. He’ll start with this white girl who listened to her black friends and learned why she should cut off her beloved dreds. Then he and I will go directly to the people of color who are speaking out on these issues, and listen to them.

He said it sounded like a lot of work. And it is. Social justice involves quite a bit of work, but it’s worth it. We’ll work hard to understand what cultural appropriation is, how we can avoid it, and what the world will need to look like before we can have that wonderful mingling of cultures, if that will ever be possible. We’ll do the hard work that will incrementally improve the world. All of us doing that work together can get it done.

Image is a blue poster with the British crown on top. Caption says Keep calm and educate yourself.

Oftentimes, the dominant culture can be so sure it’s right, and feel so entitled to whatever it likes, that folks within it get very offended when they’re told no by those they’re dominating. I try to be better, but even I have those knee-jerk “what now?!” responses to a lot of things at first. But I’ve learned to clamp my jaws shut on that. I’ve learned to listen when someone tells me I’m stepping on their foot, and to get off their foot even when I don’t think I’m stomping on it all that hard. I’ve learned that an apology is better than an excuse.

I learned to do that from people who had to shout to get my attention. It wasn’t easy for them to break through the protective shell my being a skinny, white, middle-class, straight, able-bodied cis person had wrapped around me, but they did it. And that taught me that it’s a good idea to listen even when I’m feeling upset about being shouted at. I’ve learned that their anger comes from a place of deep frustration, that I may be the 10,000th uninformed bumbler they’ve had to deal with that day, and that it doesn’t cost me much to calm myself down and listen to their message. I’ve learned to listen despite my discomfort, rather than demand they adjust their tone, volume, and emotion to a level I can then comfortably ignore.

I’ve learned a lot from watching what’s happened in other battles for equality. I’ve seen what happens when men argue that a sexist thing is not sexist, when straight people argue that a homophobic thing isn’t homophobic, when cis women argue that a transphobic thing isn’t transphobic, when white people argue that a racist thing is not racist. I’ve seen them lose about every battle, because the thing actually was what the women, or queer people, or transgender people, or people of color were saying it was all along. It doesn’t take a great amount of genius to realize that if people from particular cultures are saying that something people outside of those cultures is doing is appropriation, chances are it’s appropriation and we should really stop appropriating stuff right now.

(This is your open invitation to share great articles on cultural appropriation here in the comments.)

I’m still learning how to unpack my invisible backpack of privilege. I know I’ve made countless mistakes. I know I’ll make them in the future. But shutting up and listening rather than continuing to speak from a place of ignorance surely does help avoid hurting people.

Image is a black box with the words "You could just say nothing. #elonslaw. Nothing is in red, all other lettering is in white. In a white bar across the bottom is the hashtag #twibnation
This is always an option. Click image for original.

*Relative to other people. The best thing that intersectional feminism taught me is that getting shat on in one dimension doesn’t mean you’re not capable of being the shitter in others.

Learning to Shut Up and Listen
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10 thoughts on “Learning to Shut Up and Listen

  1. 1

    I don’t know, but I think that we all rate bad things on a scale based on the worst things that have already happened to us. Black folks who have faced centuries of oppression in America are asked to forgive further oppression, and usually do, because white folks can’t handle their guilt and black folks are blamed even when they’re victims.

    Or pick on poor Richard Dawkins, who decided the terrorists had won because he was forced to give up a $10 jar of honey, when he’s worth somewhere between 10 and 100 million dollars. For a fairly smart person born into a rich family, who had servants waiting on him his entire life, the minor inconvenience of a security check at an airport was probably in the top 20 worst things to happen to him. We judge things based on our experiences, and Dawkins has rarely had a seriously negative thing happen to him.

    We all do that, because none of us us the single worst off person ever. The trick is to appreciate our privilege so we don’t become spoiled, and learn to empathize and help people who don’t share our mostly unearned advantages.

  2. Pen

    I understand there’s a problem, because I’ve heard people from various cultures say that there’s a problem.

    One of the problems is that there’s a broad range of opinions on this and many other topics coming from all people – ultimately, you have to choose who to listen to. Beyond that, questions of cultural appropriation, transmission and blending are as complicated as geology and there is a lot more going on here than you might think at first glance. For example, it is true, as you say, that the question of dreads as cultural property is related to a perceived situation of separation in society. The problem is that as well as marking those differences, it’s effectively re-enforcing them. (it’s also, incidentally, a very culturally specific thing to associate dreads with black culture). You expressed the view that only when you have a truly equal society can you have a fusion of cultures. It’s also very possible that the separation of races and cultures is one of the main things that stands in the way of your obtaining an equal society.

    At any rate, Native American cultural property can be an entirely different matter – it’s often property in the same sense that specific tartan patterns or heraldry devices in Europe belong to certain families, or particular badges and uniforms indicate certain ranks. At one point, I did a considerable amount of research on dreamcatchers and their use. It’s true that a few people wonder if it’s cultural appropriation, but probably not – unless Native Americans choose to follow the same path of marking their separation through anything culturally associated with them. Traditionally, dreamcatchers weren’t a form of cultural property, just a piece of ordinary technology (magical technology) which, in so far as it works, is available to anyone.

  3. 3

    Very, very hard, apparently. I see it as they are the experts, if women tell me something or someone is sexist then I’ll believe them before seeing any evidence even. Why wouldn’t I believe an expert on a subject? Likelihood they are wrong or lying is very small. Same with PoC, trans people etc. None of these groups gain by saying X is -ist, they only ever lose out by being painted as “over sensitive”, or out for a “witch hunt”. The more prominent and privileged the person accused is the less likely the claim is to be false, Dawkins etc. Cross him and you could get multi-year harassment campaigns from his fans, not done lightly. The narratives used to deflect from these accusations are nearly always rotten to the core too, they repeat themselves over and over. It was a joke, I didn’t mean that, why are you so sensitive, witch hunt!!! Anything to avoid acknowledging what was said and done hurt marginalised people.

    I mean it could happen, the majority of cis/trans women, PoC, etc say something done or said is -ist and they are wrong. It just seems vanishingly unlikely to me.

  4. 4

    Here’s a great discussion that Imani Gandy hosted from a few years ago.

    I think cultural appropriation is obviously wrong if: 1.) a person is adopting something that would be used as a racist stereotype if they weren’t White, 2.) if PoC are telling them, hey this is OUR thing and we don’t appreciate you hijacking it. But beyond that it gets very tricky to know where lines are drawn.

    I play jazz for a (very meager) living, and I’m well aware of it’s Black roots though I’m no expert in the history. If lots of people were telling me that I was somehow crowding out Black voices, I would take that pretty seriously and consider trying to play a different style. But that opinion/concern is exceedingly rare nowadays so I don’t worry about it too much. I see much more of that concern about White R&B/rap/hip-hop artists (Iggy Azalea, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift etc.)

  5. Pen

    And if Jazz were to be black only, it would kind of put a damper on all those mixed bands, wouldn’t it. Not to mention the mixed audiences.

    De facto, hip-hop has also flown the coop. I’ve done gym classes with middle-aged French women singing along to words they very fortunately don’t understand, attended a wedding in Mumbai where the younger male cousins performed hip-hop, learned that that’s where Indonesians learn their English, and most regrettably of all (irony), the boys at my daughter’s very mixed school are allowed (or encouraged) to give their presentations to the public in rap form (regardless of race, obviously). It’s the inevitable result of dissemination and influence on an international scale.

  6. 6

    Dawkins has rarely had a seriously negative thing happen to him

    That’s not true!!! He was criticized on a … (hushed whisper) blog.

    The incident with the honey is more understandable; security goons are supposed to be security goons. But people who are doing thinky stuff – they have no reason to criticize Dawkins.

  7. 7

    Cultural appropriation is difficult to grasp because the borders are very fuzzy.
    There are clear cut examples like black hairstyles, Indian headdresses and bindis.
    And then it gets difficult. Are designs inspired by traditional motifs appropriation? I’m afraid I’m in deep shit then. I’ve been in love with colourful flower designs ever since my gran brought me an embroidered blouse from Hungary as a child.
    Other criteria I have heard are “wanting the thing, but not the people” and “follow the money”.
    But that doesn’t make things any less complicated. For example, many people in Germany will love their Döner Kebap, bought from the local restaurant run by a Turkish-origin family and still harbour resentiments against Turkish origin people. And i love it as well, but my attitude is different, but it#s not something you can see when I buy my Döner

  8. 9

    > “…there’s a problem, because I’ve heard people from various cultures say that there’s a problem.”

    Ok, but what do you do if 50% of “them” say it’s inappropriate to adopt X from their culture and 50% of “them” encourage you to participate in their culture? Is it a majority rules thing? If an oppressed minority adopts X to represent their culture does that mean it’s locked away from the rest of the world forever? If someone says I’m stepping on their toes but I look down and see that I’m standing 3 feet away, am I being culturally insensitive if I argue the point? I want to be culturally conscious and respectful but the rules are so ambiguous that I’m guaranteed to fail.

  9. 10

    Well writ Dana.

    I know there is so much I don’t know. So much I haven’t experienced luckily for me and so unfairly for them. Listening with respect. Trying to understand and learn and grow and be better for it. Thankyou – you and them and one day maybe, but not today, this won’t be necessary. Will try to work towards that day.

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