The Part about Black Lives Mattering Where White People Shut Up and Listen

Listen up, fellow white people.

If we care about racism—and if we’re humanists, we bloody well better—there’s something we need to do. It’s enormously important. If any other action we take is going to be useful, we need to take this one. And sometimes, it can be really freaking difficult.

We need to shut up and listen. “Black lives matter” means—among many other things—that black voices matter. So white people need to listen to those black voices. In person and online, with friends and colleagues and friends-of-friends and in-laws and strangers, wherever there are conversations about racism, white people need to listen.

And listening means not talking. It doesn’t mean jumping in with arguments about topics we know little about. It doesn’t mean waiting patiently until the other person has stopped talking, so we can say whatever we were going to say anyway. It doesn’t mean making the conversation all about us and our hurt feelings over being told we said something racist. It doesn’t mean constantly changing the subject away from racism and towards something we’re more comfortable with—like how black people are being mean to us, or how we’d be more likely to listen if they spoke more pleasantly. It doesn’t mean telling black people how to run their movement or telling black people how to talk to white people—especially when that advice is almost always “tone it down,” and “don’t make us feel bad.”

Listening means just that—listening. It means letting the other person have the floor. It means letting the other person decide the topic and set the tone. It means that whatever talking we do is peripheral, done in service of understanding and amplifying. And sometimes—much of the time—it means shutting our mouths, and opening our minds.

*****

humanist cover july-august 2015 do black lives matter to humanism
Thus begins my latest “Fierce Humanism” column for The Humanist, The Part about Black Lives Mattering Where White People Shut Up and Listen. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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The Part about Black Lives Mattering Where White People Shut Up and Listen
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4 thoughts on “The Part about Black Lives Mattering Where White People Shut Up and Listen

  1. 1

    Greta,
    First off I am a big fan of yours and used your essay on anger in trying to motivate our local transitions group after viewing the film series ‘Years of Living Dangerously’. However, I/we take issue at the latest Humanist issue on ‘Do Black Lives Matter’. I have written the publication to express my thoughts on the subject (attached).
    Don’t tell me I am inherently racist simply because I am white. It is disingenuous, alienating, debilitating, and counterproductive. It keeps me from treating blacks (or other tribal members) as equals because I am letting guilt drive a wedge between us. The corollary is that blacks, or members of other tribes, may see me or other whites as racists and go around with their defenses up or even see us as inferior because of our inherent bigotry of which they see themselves, as the minority, as immune. Does that make sense? This piece gives me the impression that all whites (yourself included) should continually flagellate ourselves because we are racists. Humanism should show we share a world driven by natural forces and it behooves us to peacefully coexist. Coexisting through sharing and trying to understand one another.
    Jack Pedigo
    The Humanist July, 2015
    [email protected]

    Do Black Lives Matter

    We were disappointed in the topic of your last issue. The central theme, to me, was one, not of racism in general, but of a specific form of racism. My partner, Iranian born, and I refuse to go to any holocaust museums simply because we feel the lesson that should have been learned by humanity has been hijacked by one tribe who continually practices wound licking and uses history as justification for its ill treatment of other tribes. Racism is not just a Black & White issue but rather white, black, red, yellow, rainbow, gray and all color tones. Biases are endemic across all spectrums and no particular group is immune (Iranians look down on Arabs). This last issue seemed to focus on only one and we feel this is disingenuous to the cause. Science has shown there is no such thing as race. There is such a thing as tribes and tribalism is the root of most discrimination worldwide.
    Jack Pedigo
    Parvin Baharloo
    (street address redacted – GC)

  2. 2

    Don’t tell me I am inherently racist simply because I am white.

    Jack Pedigo & Parvin Baharloo @ #1: I did not say you were inherently racist simply because you are white. But if you can’t accept the degree to which all people — white people especially — have absorbed racist ideas unconsciously, and perpetuate them unintentionally, this conversation isn’t going to go very far. This phenomenon has been very well documented. It is not a controversial idea — or it shouldn’t be. Unconscious racism is real. Humanists and rationalists should not be in the business of ignoring reality. We are not going to overcome racism by pretending it doesn’t exist. We are only going to overcome racism by acknowledging it, recognizing it, and working to push back against it — in others, and in ourselves.

    It keeps me from treating blacks (or other tribal members) as equals because I am letting guilt drive a wedge between us.

    Are you saying that listening to what black people and other people of color say about race and racism, and acknowledging the reality of racism — including your own unconscious, unintentional racism — paralyzes you with guilt and keeps you from treating black people as equals?

    This piece gives me the impression that all whites (yourself included) should continually flagellate ourselves because we are racists.

    Please point to the part of the piece where I said, or even implied, that all whites should continually flagellate ourselves because we are racists. What I said was that in conversations about race and racism, white people need to listen to black people and other people of color, and acknowledge when we screw up. If you hear “Listen, and acknowledge when you’ve screwed up” as “Constantly flagellate yourself” — you’ve got problems. (One of which is that you’d rather argue with a straw man than engage with what’s actually being said.)

    Science has shown there is no such thing as race.

    No. Science has shown that — physically and biologically — there’s no such thing as race, or that it’s not biologically important. Science has also shown us that the social construct of race is very real indeed. And it’s shown us that racism — including unconscious, unintentional racism that people will hotly deny — is very real indeed.

    Racism is not just a Black & White issue but rather white, black, red, yellow, rainbow, gray and all color tones. Biases are endemic across all spectrums and no particular group is immune (Iranians look down on Arabs). This last issue seemed to focus on only one and we feel this is disingenuous to the cause.

    I’ll respond to this by quoting Arthur Chu: Do people who change #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter run thru a cancer fundraiser going “THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO”

    And yes, biases are endemic across all spectrums. But racism isn’t just bias or mistrust of people who look different. Racism is a systematic, institutional set of structures with which one race oppresses and marginalizes another. Again — this is very well documented. If you deny it, you’re denying reality.

    My partner, Iranian born, and I refuse to go to any holocaust museums simply because we feel the lesson that should have been learned by humanity has been hijacked by one tribe who continually practices wound licking…

    If you seriously think that Jewish documentation of the Holocaust means “one tribe continually licking their wounds and hijacking the lesson that should have been learned,” I have nothing more to say to you. That is disgusting. Apologize, or get out of my blog and out of my life.

  3. 3

    Greta Christina,
    First off, after reading and rereading your piece and having my partner read it (she only could read half) the big impression we got is one of anger. My comments did not reflect what you said but what I felt. Anger and frustration is infections. Unfortunately, that infection showed up in my blog and anger can inhibit communication. Whereas I caught the jest of your article the manner it was presented is what I found upsetting. We saw generalizing and finger pointing and that erected a wall. I totally support the fact of unintentional behavior. We are of the animal species and more of our actions are driven by instinct than we care to admit. I also believe there are degrees of racism and with an advancing awareness of this issue one can learn one has done things that were wrong. It’s called evolution and, to me, life is about evolving. In your piece I see a disconnect. “For white folks…” “Again: we are brought up with the unconscious, unexamined expectati0on that our experiences are the ones that matter.” How do you know how we are all brought up and does this just apply to “white folk” or is it across the spectrum for all folk?
    ______________________________

    Jack Pedigo & Parvin Baharloo @ #1: I did not say you were inherently racist simply because you are white. But if you can’t accept the degree to which all people — white people especially — have absorbed racist ideas unconsciously, and perpetuate them unintentionally, this conversation isn’t going to go very far. This phenomenon has been very well documented. It is not a controversial idea — or it shouldn’t be. Unconscious racism is real. Humanists and rationalists should not be in the business of ignoring reality. We are not going to overcome racism by pretending it doesn’t exist. We are only going to overcome racism by acknowledging it, recognizing it, and working to push back against it — in others, and in ourselves.

    It keeps me from treating blacks (or other tribal members) as equals because I am letting guilt drive a wedge between us.

    Your constant comments about “white” people, not some or most white people, leads one to believe you are generalizing all white people. You did say “…we have racist ideas-all of us every single one…” this coupled with the constant mention of whites tells me “all people – white people especially” have unconscious racist ideas, perpetuate them and ignore the reality of racism. This is generalizing and generalization is a big part of the problem. Do any of us ever rise above inherent racism or are we condemned to always be guilty? Do some have a much higher level of inherent bigotry than others? Should Christopher Driscoll not write because he is white and needs to shut up and listen; should the large number of white protesters not get involved because they do not know of true discrimination; how about those whites that have given their lives in the cause of civil rights? If one hears one is a racist simply because of their skin, guilt is often the result (Whites need to shut up and listen tells me I am wrong and have nothing to say). I believe this is not a way to handle a situation if one wants improvement. Communication between people is always fraught with differences of interpretation, what one means and what the other gets (this blog is a prime example). That is why some of us try to discuss things in a rational, open manner as it should be.

    Are you saying that listening to what black people and other people of color say about race and racism, and acknowledging the reality of racism — including your own unconscious, unintentional racism — paralyzes you with guilt and keeps you from treating black people as equals?

    No, it does not paralyze me but it may cause some to feel uncomfortable. Again, YOU are assuming any unconscious racism I may have keeps me from treating others as equals. Also, I do not read or listen to someone because of their tribe. I am concerned with a message not the messenger. But, for argument sake, if I did what then? Civil rights has been a big concern for many people, white included, for a long time. I saw this piece as a denial of the fact.

    This piece gives me the impression that all whites (yourself included) should continually flagellate ourselves because we are racists.

    Please point to the part of the piece where I said, or even implied, that all whites should continually flagellate ourselves because we are racists. What I said was that in conversations about race and racism, white people need to listen to black people and other people of color, and acknowledge when we screw up. If you hear “Listen, and acknowledge when you’ve screwed up” as “Constantly flagellate yourself” — you’ve got problems. (One of which is that you’d rather argue with a straw man than engage with what’s actually being said.)

    I said what I felt I was to believe not only from your piece but the others. The writings were supposed to elicit emotions and then the writers are surprised when it does. Not just your piece but the others as well almost had religious overtones on our combined guilt in being racist. I heard Dr. Anthony Pinn talk at the LA FFRF conference and learned a lot of troubling things that Blacks have to deal with. Because I am unaware of them does not mean I am capable of committing them. Again, the tone of the writings gave me to believe I am a sinner and need to atone for my sins. One cannot be held responsible for the actions of others and it is divisive to say otherwise! Also, other than shut-up and listen I saw no suggestions for actions. We are not all sitting on our butts and doing nothing. There is a huge movement in this country to change things and things are changing albeit slowly. Culture is always slow to evolve.

    Science has shown there is no such thing as race.

    No. Science has shown that — physically and biologically — there’s no such thing as race, or that it’s not biologically important. Science has also shown us that the social construct of race is very real indeed. And it’s shown us that racism — including unconscious, unintentional racism that people will hotly deny — is very real indeed.

    It’s called culture and cosmetics. As long as some people think there is such a thing as race and people are genetically different than this will be a factor in their discrimination. This is the same line as thinking as believing a person’s sexual orientation is a choice. I and many others welcome the shattering of this idea and are aware of the reality. Slowly the rest of the world may catch up. There are some that will never get it but we can’t help that.

    Racism is not just a Black & White issue but rather white, black, red, yellow, rainbow, gray and all color tones. Biases are endemic across all spectrums and no particular group is immune (Iranians look down on Arabs). This last issue seemed to focus on only one and we feel this is disingenuous to the cause.

    I’ll respond to this by quoting Arthur Chu: Do people who change #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter run thru a cancer fundraiser going “THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO”

    Your point has been made and I understand it. However, I don’t see it as appropriate in this case. Should we put all our funding in curing cancer (what form of cancer: breast, lung, ovarian, prostrate, leukemia) yet ignore all the other debilitating diseases (put all our eggs in one basket)? What about heart disease, Parkinson’s, Diabetes, Kidney disease and a plethora of other major chronic ailments? We need to work on all and not focus on one at a time. Right now we have a police force that has shown itself to be profiling and killing based on skin color. We have churches being burned because of white anger; this is wrong and needs to be dealt with in a forceful manner but not to an extent of ignoring other, ongoing, instances of racism. They are all intertwined.

    And yes, biases are endemic across all spectrums. But racism isn’t just bias or mistrust of people who look different. Racism is a systematic, institutional set of structures with which one race oppresses and marginalizes another. Again — this is very well documented. If you deny it, you’re denying reality.

    I never said I deny the existence of racism. My step-son is gay and both my partner and I know of the feelings of some others (including my own daughter) toward this group. My partner is Persian. She once had her car window smashed and notes left on her car saying they should leave and her kids killed (during the hostage crisis). She is not only white but Aryan so maybe this shouldn’t count. Because we have had a taste of it (myself included) we try to understand what others feel. As a nation we are trying to overcome the institutionalized racism but in doing so we are confronted with a lot of bad realities. It is a long, hard slow road.

    My partner, Iranian born, and I refuse to go to any holocaust museums simply because we feel the lesson that should have been learned by humanity has been hijacked by one tribe who continually practices wound licking…

    If you seriously think that Jewish documentation of the Holocaust means “one tribe continually licking their wounds and hijacking the lesson that should have been learned,” I have nothing more to say to you. That is disgusting. Apologize, or get out of my blog and out of my life.

    I will apologize for my use of phraseology. Unfortunately, we used the same tactic of victimization (911) to invade another country that was not part of this terrorist deed. And where has that gotten us? It is not the documentation of the holocaust that bothers me but rather the constant reminders of what was done to one people by another. Yes documentation and persecution of the perpetrators is important. Yes it did happen and yes it was terrible and should not happen again (but it does).Tell me, does being a victim today allow one to victimize others tomorrow? Why do we not stand up more forcibly to the taking of Palestinian land and the razing of Palestinian homes? What has Israel done to further the cause of world peace and harmony? What kind of examples have they sent showing they learned the lesson of genocide? Why did we have the atrocities in the Balkans (this is the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica) and the ongoing ones in Africa and the Middle East? We committed atrocities to our indigenous people and we now admit it and try to atone for it. The Germans realize their terrible guilt and are trying to atone for this in showing to the world they have changed (which many in the world still fail to see – once guilty always guilty). Genocide is a global phenomenon and we need desperately to learn and deal with this issue. I have many Jewish acquaintances who are horrified at the way Israel treats some other groups and have distanced themselves from the country. Abuse is not an excuse for abusing others. The holocaust was an abuse; it should be used as a lesson not an excuse. As per your words Netanyahu is white and maybe should shut up and listen to Obama, a Black! What is disgusting is the victims of the holocaust stomping on other’s lives all in the name of creating their homeland. The winning side of the First World War forced their anger on the Germans in the treaty of Versailles 1919. That set up the conditions for the Second World War and most of the present political situations today. Fortunately, we got the message at the end of the war and created the Marshall plan. That has brought about the conditions and peace in Europe today. We need less anger and more dialogue and positive deeds across the board.
    I admit I rushed off my blog to quickly and didn’t take proper time to think things through, and I apologize for many misconceptions. However, this was not meant to be so long and drawn out. At this point I no longer care about this discussion. It is getting us nowhere. Again, I will not accept the premise that I or many others should accept guilt because of others actions. Just because we are white does not make us guilty as being black makes one guilty in the eyes of racists.
    I am attaching a recent article from our regional paper. Part of it is apropos to this discussion. This is what we need more of: inspirational reporting.

    http://www.seattletimes.com/pacific-nw-magazine/our-flag-used-as-a-symbol-of-pride-and-protest-tells-a-lot-about-who-we-are/

    I need to add a footnote: We live in an archipelago in the NW which is comprised of some 14,000 people living on some 2 dozen islands. We have a small police force and no race issues. Unfortunately, the community is predominately white, Latino with a few Asians and maybe a couple of Blacks. It is not understood why this is but I take it as a part of geography. Any missteps by the local police are heavily criticized and they are held accountable. We do have poverty, some homelessness and domestic violence issues of which my partner and I are involved. Our main involvement is within the community especially the environment. We see the state of the environment as the most important issue for many life forms, including our own, and even touches on matters of race. We do what we can but for me this blog is done. Even though it has been enlightening for me I have spent far too much time thinking on it.
    Jack Pedigo
    Lopez Island, WA

  4. 4

    I don’t understand how such a simple idea is so hard to grasp for so many people. The number 1 (and really only) rule there is to being an ally is simple: shut the fuck up and listen. If you are incapable of doing that, then you are incapable of being an ally.

    Jack Lopez?

    Hello! Fellow white person here. Do you understand what it means to be an ally?

    I have some questions for you:

    Please tell me… if all lives matter, why are cops only murdering unarmed black people? If all lives matter, then is it only historically (and currently) black churches being shot down and burned down? If all lives matter, why is it mostly black people being incarcerated for drugs more white people use and sell? If all lives matter, why is it mostly black people who get forced into the “poorer” sections of communities? If all lives matter, then the fuck is there a clear and obvious war against black people?

    Because all lives do not fucking matter, not when we live in a White Supremacy. The phrase “all lives matter” is an abject lie, because society has done a damn good job of ensuring that black lives do not matter… and that, Jack, is why the Black Lives Matter movement exists in the first place.

    But don’t take my word for it. How’s about you… I don’t know… listen to black people?

    Or do you not actually care about being a good ally?

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