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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!

Breonna Bland Arbery-Floyd (a poem for the slain)

George Floyd

George Floyd


Watch hip-hop music video here

I’m tired, I’m tired, but also inspired

Time to vote folks out get these DAs fired

Grandmas stand in front of cops defendin’ they kids

Grandpops now the man of the house if they ain’t dead

And I ain’t watching more videos of me getting killed

Cause I see myself in every video that’s real

And if I don’t see me I see my whole family

My best friends, my students, my community

If you don’t see yourself where’s your humanity?

What you gonna do to stop this insanity?

If you won’t stand up for you will you stand for we?

Show that black lives matter, fight for unity?

But I’m a let you know we ain’t waitin’ for you

We gonna fight until “all lives matter” too

Before the next one is murdered, we gon’ see this through

And make change with the girls and the boys in blue

Let me also point this out ’fore I continue to rock

The McMichaels, Zimmerman and Roof ain’t cops

So when they murder us in church or on the block

They represent white supremacy and that whole flock

And along with these cops they represent a system

Designed to take a black man and convict and kill him

Aligned to take a black woman and make her a victim

Then put ’em both on trial to dehumanize them

Then put ’em on TV to verbally brutalize them

Then never share stories of these cops and brethren

Then they let these killers prep the same story

And rarely ever charge ’em with a felony

The justice system doin’ what it was built to do

Protect the cops at all costs no matter what they do

But real change is gonna come it’s long overdue

Cause we had something that we never had before…YOU!

Jamar Clark, Breonna Taylor, Ousman Zongo

Cameron Hall, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo

Tamir Rice, Sean Bell, Jemel Roberson

Eleanor Bumpers, Walter Scott, Fred Hampton

Harith Augustus, EJ Bradford, Trayvon Martin

Lajuana Philips, Antwon Rose, RaShaun Washington

Daniel Simmons, Robert White, Tony Green

Clemente Pickney, Philando, Botham Jean

Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark, Alberta Spruill,

Nathaniel McCoy, Russell, Travares McGill,

Cameron Hall, Yvette Smith, Anthony Hill

John Crawford, Danroy Henry, Emmett Till

Yusef Hawkins, Michael Brown, George Floyd

Jerame Reid, Kayla Baker, Rekia Boyd

Juan Jones, Miriam Carey, Jordan Edwards

Atatania, Ahmaud Arbery, Medgar Evers

Deantea Farrow, Danny Thomas, Linwood Lambert

Marcus David-Peters, Diante, Michael Stewart

Malisa Williams, Claudia Gonzalez,

Ronnell Foster, Prince Jones, Anthony Baez

Jordan Baker, Henry Glover, Tony Robinson

James Brisette, Shem, Tanesha Anderson

Shermichael Ezeff, Freddie Gray, Ronald Madison

Oscar Grant, Ayana Jones, Dondi Johnson

Raheim Brown, Victor Steen, Cedric Chatman

Timothy Thomas, Aaron Campbell, Tarika Wilson

Ajibade, David Raya, Steven Washington

Nehemiah, Orlando, Patrick Dorisman

Ramarley Graham, Terence Crutcher, Daniel Simmons

Manuel Diaz, Alesia, Tamon Robinson

And to all the Chris Coopers and the coulda-beens

Could be you or me tomorrow, we must never give in!