From allies to partners: how white people can be better listeners

I’ve heard and read several stories about what white people need to do right now. Many of those stories talked about the need for white people to listen. That is absolutely true, but there are two points that need to be added: how to listen, and what to do after whites listen. I must say that I have heard for years that white people will only listen to other white people and they need to have their own conversations. While I do believe that white people need to do more amongst each other to further the work to end racism, we must ask what would happen if people like Dr. King believed he couldn’t speak to white people? With that, I am going to share my thoughts on how white people need to listen and what to do after they do so.

Les Brown once said to me that we have two ears and one mouth and that we should use them in proportion. So the first step in listening is to truly commit to not responding to every point brought up by black people who are speaking up about racism. For example, when I conduct my trainings on black boys in our educational system, I’ve been told by white educators that the issue isn’t race, it’s class. It’s not race, it’s gender. It’s not race, it’s this or that. Are you someone who is quick to say you want to listen but then shoot down the arguments made by the person you claim to be listening to? There is a difference between listening to what you want to hear and what the person speaking has to and often needs to say.

So rather than listen to correct, listen to respect. Rather than listen to analyze, listen to empathize. Rather than listen to teach, listen to learn. After you listen, acknowledge the words shared with you and acknowledge what you didn’t know. You don’t lose anything by being honest. I’ve had multiple conversations with white people in the last few days who have said things like “I really didn’t understand until I saw that video of George Floyd being killed” or “I really thought we had turned a corner once Obama was elected” or “I don’t know what to do as a white person right now.” Many of us in the black community get frustrated by these comments but I have also heard these and similar comments from black people who also thought these days were behind us. We have to take people for what they know when they know it but then it’s time for action.

The next step after listening is not take the patronizing mentality of “I’ll be your ally.” There is a certain level of arrogance that has started to develop with this term “ally.” We don’t need allies. We need partners. Allies help out and go home. Partners work together for a common good. Allies go to the sporting venue to cheer on their team and go home after the win (or loss). Partners are on the court as a player on the team and fight together for a common cause, win or lose. Where do you fit in the stadium of effective listening?

Once you believe you have become an effective listener, it’s now time for action. Action takes many forms but the first form is educating yourself. What’s on your bookshelf? Who is on your podcast favorites? What documentaries are you watching? Reading lists such as these are great ways to get started. Dr. King said that the two most dangerous things in this world are sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. You don’t know what you don’t know. You have to get out and learn so that you can engage from an informed position. That way after you start to listen, you can simultaneously engage in the work needed to challenge racism, systemically and individually. Systemic work looks at ways you can challenge racism wherever it presents itself in society. Individual work looks at conversations you should be having with your neighbors, co-workers, and especially family members who espouse racist ideas.

I saw a sign during the protest that said “White silence equals police violence” and several spins on that. Whether you agree with that or not, it is indeed true that silence equals compliance. By not becoming an engaged listener, educating yourself, and speaking up when you witness ignorance or injustice, you are part of the problem. There is no middle ground. As you can see, this country is in an all hands-on deck approach. Where do you stand? How will you stand? We are working with or without you but I believe that success is better together. Dr. King said that he would rather see a good sermon than hear one. The world is waiting to see your sermon. Let’s go!

Senator Barack Obama’s Blackness

Much has been written about the 19 candidates for President of the United States. From questions such as Rudi Giuliani's family values to Senator Hillary Clinton's changing speech patterns depending on which region of the country she visits, this presidential election promises to run the gamut of critiques and personal attacks that will easily trump the 2004 election. Though some critiques are indeed silly, the question of whether Senator Barack Obama is "black enough" to appeal to black voters is by far the most absurd.

The beauty about black figures breaking new ground such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Obama's rise to Senator (not achieved by a black man since the Reconstruction era) is that one really begins to see just how far America has come as it relates to race relations. But this is an issue that has exposed black opinions of themselves more than whites' opinions of blacks. Some in black America have stated that Obama is not "black enough" because his late mother was white. These are probably the same analysts who list Bob Marley as one of their favorite artists because of his message of black pride and liberation. These critics conveniently miss the fact that Bob Marley had a white father.

Other critics hold that Obama is not "black enough" because his father is not African-American but Kenyan-born. They conveniently forget that leaders like the late Marcus Garvey were not American but identified with the international black plight, which included black America. Furthermore, following this logic of Obama's African parentage would also exclude me from the African American community because my parents are Congolese though I, like Obama, am American born. Gee, I guess I am suffering from a serious identity crisis. The police also seem to not notice that I am not African American when I am pulled over. Maybe I should wear a sign saying "Don't profile me, my parents are Congolese!" Yeah.

The real issue that ills black America is that we actually stereotype ourselves more than we are stereotyped by others. We have about 20 different skin-tones from "high yella" to"dark chocolate" each carrying a corresponding place on our racial hierarchy. We have about 10 descriptions of hair from "nappy" to "good hair", which also denote a certain level or superiority or inferiority depending on where the strand lands. For the most part, White America sees us as the extremes, just light and dark-skinned.

Despite these cosmetic differences, the largest stereotype occurs when dealing with politics. If Obama was as vocal on issues of race as the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, there would be no discussion of his blackness because it would be easy to typecast him. Though unquestionably vocal about injustice of all kinds, Obama obviously has a different affect in his methodology. Couple this with his Ivy-league education and mixed parentage, and we have what Senator Joseph Biden and Rush Limbaugh would collectively call the"articulate magic negro." These are their words.

What we in America need to do is revisit this issue of race. We must realize that every black in America has a unique experience. We are democrat and republican, hetero and homosexual, rich and poor, college and street educated and there is enough room in America for all of us. We in black America must realize that our experiences are unique yet similar enough to at least dialogue about identity without asserting a claim to blackness and denying it to others. If neither police (Ã la Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, & Sean Bell) nor taxi drivers differentiate who is black versus the other, we can indeed at least have an honest discussion about blackness for at the end of the day, Senator Barack Obama is as African American as apple pie.

Why I’m voting for Senator Barack Obama

There are several reasons why I am voting for Senator Barack Obama. I could go into the whole thing of being "inspired," how he "represents change," and how he "speaks to me." I will get to those things later. Somehow, according to my wife, the media focuses on all of these attributes without mentioning the fact that he actually has positions on relevant issues so I will start there. It is necessary to begin with the issues because Senator Obama is more than just a suit with a Harvard degree.

I am not going to go into the issue of his anti-war stance because that has been hammered into the ground. The first issue I will look at is prison reform. Senator Obama helped implement legislation in Illinois that calls for videotaped interrogations. As someone who has been active in reforming the prison industrial complex, this is of extreme importance. Too many lives have been lost to extreme incarceration sentences, life imprisonment, or even death row for crimes not committed. It is also important to note that under Bill Clinton's "3 Strikes and You're Out" legislation, which I gathered research for as an intern with the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office in high school, over a million Black youth went into the criminal justice system with little to no reform attempts made.

The second issue of importance is the economy and health insurance. As Senator Obama clearly put it: "If you work in this country, you should not be poor." His idea to put forth tax cuts for the middle class is indeed necessary. I also agree with his need to extend the Family and Medical Leave Act. So many of us in the country are one paycheck or one medical injury away from financial ruin and expanding this act and others could help fix that. I also believe in his affordable and portable healthcare plan.

The biggest issue for me, however, is education. Today I heard an excerpt from a speech that was the impetus for me writing this article. He stated that children should not just be measured by test scores. He asserted that children must not only excel academically, but also in music, arts, and poetry. As a teacher and performer, I visit schools all across this country and see the exact opposite happening. States like California are building more prisons than universities. I visit middle schools on the east coast that have no foreign language, music, or art programs, yet they are competing with $30,000 a year schools where students are learning foreign languages in preschool. My doctoral dissertation deals with the arts as a tool for social change so you can see why this excites me. I have yet to hear a candidate address this issue so specifically.

Now that all that official stuff is out of the way, I will end this article endorsing Sen. Obama on a very personal note. As a Black man in America, I was very fortunate to not only grow up with a strong father; I also had 3 older brothers who protected me from inner-city streets. The problem that myself and many of my black male peers had is that growing up, we had no black national male figures who were 15-20 years older than us that we could look up to that were not athletes, actors, or musicians. Either we looked up to people like Reverend Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Bill Cosby, and President Mandela (role models on many issues for us), or we aspired to be like slain greats such as Malcolm X, Dr. King, and Steve Biko. Outside of that, it was be "like Mike"–Tyson, Jordan, Jackson, etc. There was a generation of visible national Black male leadership that my generation was not privileged to witness.

In 2007 and 2008, this has changed significantly. I now see Black males under 50 on the national political scale from Michael Baisden and Roland Martin to Tavis Smiley and of course Sen. Obama and it feels great! Young Black males in their teens have guys like Cousin Jeff and Kevin Powell to aspire to emulate. When I see young Black males say that they want to grow up and be like Sen. Obama and not 50 Cent, for example, that means something to many of us, particularly those of us who do/did not have strong Black males in the home to look up to.

So there you have it. Those are my personal and professional reasons as to why I support Sen. Obama. I encourage all of you reading this to dig deep into the personal and political reasons for the candidates and choose whoever speaks to you on the level Sen. Obama speaks to me and vote for that person. Do not get caught up in legacies, fear tactics, and experience. I mean truthfully, Sen. Obama has more legislative experience than Sen. Clinton but nobody mentions that. Go for your candidate on the issues and then who moves you. I am moved by Senator Barack Obama.