This piece was originally published in The Humanist.
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,” “be easier to deal with,” 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.
White people in the U.S. are brought up to expect a lot — often without realizing it, often without even realizing that these expectations exist and that people who aren’t white expect very different things. (If you’re in doubt about this, go read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh — or, for a funnier version of the same idea, Product Review: The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege from L.L. Bean by Joyce Miller.) And one of the things we expect most is an audience. We expect to have the floor. We expect that when we talk, people will listen. We expect that our ideas will be taken seriously; that any disagreement will be respectful and deferential; that we’ll be treated as authoritative, even when we’re talking out of our asses.
We expect that our voices will matter.
But you know what? In this national conversation about racism, our voices don’t matter so much. They’re not completely trivial — for one thing, we should be talking with other white people when they’re being racist — but they’re peripheral. They’re not what’s really important.
And maybe more to the point: This national conversation about racism? It’s about black people. It’s about black lives, black experiences. It’s not about us — except in the ways that we affect black people, and other people of color.
For white folks, this is a huge reversal. Again: We are brought up with the unconscious, unexamined expectation that our experiences are the ones that matter — and the lives of black people and other people of color only matter when they affect us. For a quick and dirty demonstration, look at popular culture. Look at how often black actors play supporting roles, while white actors get the lead. Look at how often entire casts are overwhelmingly white, with just a handful (at best) of black actors or other actors of color. Look at how white characters across films and stories are varied and multi-dimensional, while black ones largely fall into a handful of tropes. Look at the absurdly common trope of the Magical Negro (seriously, look it up), swooping in with their uncanny wisdom to fix the white hero’s life. The message gets hammered in again and again: White lives matter, and black lives don’t, except when they affect white lives.
Well, guess what? In this national conversation about racism, white voices are not the ones that matter. It’s not just that we aren’t the experts. It’s not just that black people and other people of color know way more about racism than we do. It’s that this conversation is not about us. We are the supporting cast this time — and we need to listen to the leads.
Here are a few specific ways to listen.
We can follow black writers and activists on social media.
When people on social media link to writing by black writers — we can read it. We can click on the actual article, and not just read the headline. We can read the whole piece, not just the first paragraph. If we haven’t read the whole piece, we can hold off on coming to conclusions and shooting our mouths off.
When a unfamiliar concept comes up in a conversation about race — we can Google it.
We can accept that we have racist ideas — all of us, every single one — and not react with “I’m not a racist, how dare you say that!” when someone points one of them out.
If a black person says something about race that we don’t agree with — instead of arguing, we can ask. Instead of jumping in with “That’s wrong, WRONG WRONG WRONG, I don’t know about that or understand it so it can’t be right,” we can ask: “I’m not familiar with that idea or fact — can you please explain it, or point me to a resource that explains it?”
If a black person says something about race that we don’t agree with, we can ask — but we can also not expect them to educate us on demand. We can understand how exhausting and demoralizing it can be to do Racism 101, a dozen times a day, every day, for a lifetime. We can acknowledge that doing Racism 101 is not an obligation, and when black people decide to do it with us, they’re doing us a favor. We can ask — and accept if the answer is, “I am not in the mood, here’s a nice Racism 101 resource” — or even, “I am not in the mood, do your own damn Googling.” We can understand that our desire to be educated, on demand, at the very moment we want it, by the exact person we want it from, does not take priority over black people’s desire to talk about what they want, when they want, with whom they want. Again — we can understand that this is not about us.
If we’re talking about racism, we can share and quote black voices.
If we’re protesting in the streets, and reporters try to talk with us, we can say, “This isn’t about me. This is about black lives. Talk with them.”
If we’re criticized in a conversation about racism, we can listen to the content, and let go of the tone it was said in. We can recognize that the conversation is not about us, and that our hurt feelings over being told “You said something racist” are not as important as, you know, racism.
If we’re criticized in a conversation about racism, we can think about the content, before we respond to it. Instead of reacting immediately, we can stop talking, think, look things up, talk with other people, think some more, and let ourselves cool off, before we respond.
If we’re criticized in a conversation about racism, we can consider whether we need to respond at all, with anything other than, “Sorry,” or even, “I’m not sure I agree, but I’m listening, let me think about that.” We can remember that our opinions are not the most important thing.
We can quit responding to critiques of racism with “Lighten up,” “You’re being too sensitive,” or “That’s so PC.” That is literally saying to black people, “The things that matter to you don’t matter to me. They shouldn’t matter to anyone. They don’t matter to anyone — they only matter to black people, and black people don’t count.” (Also, as humanists and rationalists, we should note that as debate points, “Lighten up,” “You’re being too sensitive,” and “That’s so PC” are entirely lacking in content. All they say is “That isn’t important and I’m going to dismiss it” — while dodging the actual point.)
And whenever this is uncomfortable or painful or upsetting, we can remember — did I mention this already? — that this is not about us. We can remember that as upsetting as these conversations might be for us, racism is a thousand times worse. We can remember that white people have been the protagonists, the center of attention, for centuries — and we can let these conversations be about, you know, the people they’re actually about.
I get that this can be hard. We all think of ourselves as the center of our own universes, and we all want things to be about us. And humanists especially love to talk. We love dialogue, debate, the free and open examination and questioning of ideas. I love those things, too. But if we care about racism — and if we’re humanists, we bloody well better — we need to care about justice, human rights, ethics, and compassion, more than we care about the sound of our own voices.
And in this national conversation about racism, that means shutting up and listening.