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

Christina2

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.

White people in the United States are brought up to expect a lot—often without realizing it, and often without realizing that people who aren’t white expect very different things. (If you’re in doubt about this, go read Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”—or, for a funnier version of the same idea, “Product Review: The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege from L.L. Bean” by Joyce Miller.) 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, and 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.

Black people know a whole lot more about racism than white people do. Black people know more about racist policing, and racist police brutality. Black people know more about racism in employment, education, fiscal policy, election policy, drug policy, prison policy, urban planning, and labor laws. Black people know more about microaggressions, the small pieces of unconscious racism that they encounter every day, dozens of times a day, from the day they’re conscious until the day they die. Black people, and other people of color, are the experts in racism—in a way that white people will never be.

And maybe more to the point: What is this national conversation about racism about? 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. We are the supporting cast this time—and we need to listen to the leads.

Here are a few specific ways to listen: read books and articles by black authors, and 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 an 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 say, “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’t 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 educate us, they’re doing us a favor. We can ask—and accept if the answer is, “I’m not in the mood, here’s a nice Racism 101 resource”—or even, “I’m not in the mood, do your own damn Googling.” We can understand that our desire to be educated 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 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, experiencing 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.

  • http://www.bianymeans.com/ Trav Mamone

    I have to keep this in mind a lot when I talk about racial justice. I mean, us white folks need to talk about this, but it’s not our movement, y’know?

  • Yehuda Levi

    No, it does not mean to “shut up and listen.” It means to stop grouping people and making judgments about them – including people who don’t share your skin color.

    One does not ‘cure’ racism by thinking like a racist. A racist groups people and assigns a negative value to them based on their skin color. A sexist does the same thing. To stop doing this, one needs to recognize the fact that people are not groups – they are individuals – and need to be treated as such.

    There is no monolithic “white” group. Most Jews are light-skinned and most Germans are light-skinned – but they are very different people. There is also no monolithic “black” group. These are abstract creations of blocks of people who all think and act alike that do not exist in reality.

    Thinking of people as individual human beings, not groups, is the way to improve all human relations. We are all wonderful and unique individuals who are equally deserving of respect. Grouping us denies our individuality and assigns values the same way a racist does. Stop grouping and start treating everyone as an individual – because that it what we truly are.

    • Azkyroth

      I suppose in a sense it’s nice of you to provide us with such a perfect example of exactly what she’s talking about.

      • Yehuda Levi

        No, what I provided for you is an example of a human being that uses their own mind to determine what they will or will not do, not taking demands from the author of any article.

        If you have a problem with free will thinking, what are you doing here?

    • Sally Strange

      No, it does not mean to “shut up and listen.” It means to stop grouping people and making judgments about them – including people who don’t share your skin color.

      This is in response to Greta’s advice about how white people should participate in national conversations about race. Greta’s thesis is that to participate effectively as a white person who opposes racism, one must shut up and listen.

      Your thesis appears to be “pretend you don’t have a brain.”

      Seriously. Stop grouping people and making judgments about them? About as sensible as telling people to stop perceiving light whilst opening their eyes on a sunny day. Groups are not the problem. Judgments are not the problem. Racism is the problem. Groupings and judgments form a rather small part of the overall phenomenon that is racism.

      One does not ‘cure’ racism by thinking like a racist.

      Assumes facts not in evidence: namely, that noticing race and tailoring your responses to conversations about race according to whether you are a target or a beneficiary of racism is akin in any way to “thinking like a racist.”

      A racist groups people and assigns a negative value to them based on their skin color. A sexist does the same thing. To stop doing this, one needs to recognize the fact that people are not groups – they are individuals – and need to be treated as such.

      Incorrect on a few counts.

      First, simply assigning negative value based on skin color is not sufficient to be racist. One must also be part of a racial group which has historically held power and benefited from racially biased government and economic policies, and assign value judgments in accordance with those historical biases. Actually the assigning value part is rather incidental. One can still act in accordance with racist policies without personally assigning any particular value to any particular skin color.

      Second: the same applies to gender.

      Third: all evidence shows that to stop doing this, what is necessary is a realization, not about individuals and groups, but about one’s own self. Introspection and the realization of one’s own fallibility and susceptibility to cognitive errors is the key.

      There is no monolithic “white” group. Most Jews are light-skinned and most Germans are light-skinned – but they are very different people. There is also no monolithic “black” group. These are abstract creations of blocks of people who all think and act alike that do not exist in reality.

      Kind of like how money is an abstract creation of blocks of people who all think and act as if money is a thing that exists in reality?

      This is the tired old “Race is a social construct therefore race is imaginary” trope.

      Race is a social construct. White people are not monolithic. Neither are black people. This does not change that fact that here in reality, “White people” and “Black people” really are monolithic categories that really do exist in this reality, regardless of how poorly the individuals expected to belong to each category fit into them. Kind of like how “men” and “women” continue to exist both as mental categories, abstract concepts, and as physical beings who fail to conform to the standards for each category in many ways.

      Thinking of people as individual human beings, not groups, is the way to improve all human relations.

      Incorrect. Humans are an obligate gregarious social ape. What this means is that groups, cooperation, group membership, and the evaluation of groups are hard-wired into our behavior.

      We are all wonderful and unique individuals who are equally deserving of respect.

      True.

      Grouping us denies our individuality and assigns values the same way a racist does.

      Utterly, completely, dangerously false.

      You are merely betraying your own dangerous ignorance about what racism is and how it works.

      Stop grouping and start treating everyone as an individual – because that it what we truly are.

      Nice sentiment. Too bad you’re too confused to see how Greta’s advice does not contradict it at all.

      • Yehuda Levi

        Sorry, but you are one confused individual.

        You can imagine the world however you want, but it does not make it so no matter how convoluted your reasoning is.

        Oxford University’s definition of racism: “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

        Nowhere does it say anything about one race having to have power over another. Racism is blight on humanity that comes in all skin colors just as hate can come in all skin colors. If you are a humanist, you should know that skin color does not define any human being.

        If you want to continue to harm human relations by collectively identifying people and assigning negative values to them, no matter what their skin color (or gender or religion), your interest is not in improving human relations but in destroying them.

        • Raquel Essence

          If you want to continue to harm human relations by collectively identifying people and assigning negative values to them, no matter what their skin color (or gender or religion) and SEXUAL ORIENTATION your interest is not in improving human relations but in destroying them.

          If you invalidate any portion of that statement YOUR interest is not in improving human relations but in destroying them.

          Game Ovah.

  • oregonred

    How does a “white” woman know how black people would react to what we say? This article seems to be about, “shut up and listen to me, a white woman, about how black people think.”

    It also seems condescending to believe that all black people think exactly the same way. Are you sure about this? What if there was a black person who disagreed with you or black people who disagree among themselves – who is right? You? Does skin color, and nothing else, really define all human beings?

    I get that this is an opinion piece, but I am not sure I agree with the argument or its premises.

    • …in a handbasket

      Perhaps she is just saying: shut up and listen to other people’s experience.

      Perhaps you don’t know Greta is a vocal feminist and out lesbian. Do you think she knows nothing about the frustration of not being heard about the things that matter to her?

      Here she is acknowledging she doesn’t know about this important issue but she does know who might: The people it is about.

      • Janice Rael

        I thought Greta was out as bi.

        Also, good article.

    • jh

      Greta is describing how the recipient, who is not black but white, should react. Greta is not black but she does have experience as a member of a minority group. She’s telling non-blacks, especially whites, how to react when a black person decides to speak about racism.

      Learn to read.

      • oregonred

        I know how to read – so the gratuitous insult is not necessary or an adult response.

        When a person cites through the article how “black” people will respond when you say certain things, then yes, they are telling you how black people think. Based on her way of thinking, a white woman does not know how a black person thinks.

        I won’t throw in another gratuitous insult here, but you get the point.

        • Sally Strange

          I invite you to explain to us on what basis you think it’s incorrect to surmise that black people might dislike being listened to.

  • Sarah

    It always seems this way. White people talk over black people, drown out our lived experience, and then people like Greta come out to remonstrate with them and stand up for our voices. Which is great. Then when it turns out our voices don’t come from the American left (even if its from the marginally different British left), or disagree with a precious or indisputable opinion of our White Heroes we’re told that we’re not the right WoC to listen to. Listen to black people, unless they disagree with us about what’s racist, or how best to combat racism, or what their own experience have been and whether you can generalise from them. If in doubt seek Official^tm Approval from your designated white anti-racist. Do not listen to the bad black folk, just the ones who agree with us.
    Really I can only support this article. But I wish people who write these articles and people who follow the suggestions within actually followed the advice completely, and listened both when we agree with you and when we oppose you, without shouting our voices down as somehow not validly PoC because we disagree on some abstruse progressive point. (And yes, I’ve seen Greta be guilty of this particular double standard – she certainly doesn’t listen to the black religious people who oppose her interpretation of their experience of religion and religious oppression, or the black conservatives who disagree with her over many issues)

    • jh

      I suspect that Greta and others would shut up if you provide evidence. As it is, I have no respect for people who provide a “counter” thought but have no evidence or supporting logic to justify their “counter” thought.

      If you have a point, you have a point. If you feel you have a point, that’s just a feeling.

      • Sarah

        Thank you for exactly demonstrating my point. Shut up and listen, unless the white gatekeepers would rather demand evidence, then don’t, instead tell them you have no respect for them. Because you white folk decide what counts.
        I don’t think you understood Greta’s article at all. If you did, why the hell aren’t you shutting up and listening?
        Or are you supporting her post by doing the opposite of what she asked?

    • Packbat

      The immediate reaction I have, as a multiracial atheist from the American left, is twofold. On the one hand, Greta’s advice to shut up and listen to black voices is not the same as advice to agree with and amplify black voices. You can, in fact, understand exactly what someone is saying and believe they are completely wrong. On the other hand, though, the reason why white people need to shut up and listen to black people is the same as the reason why men need to shut up and listen to women: because they have been trained from a very young age not to expect these people to have useful things to say. They have been trained from a very young age to see comments that do not seem immediately true as being worthy of consideration from white people and unworthy of consideration from black people. So the correction that white people – and mixed-race black people with a lot of white privilege and enculturation, like me – need is a correction towards taking black voices seriously, especially when those black voices seem to be completely wrong. That seeming is too often a matter of the white audience’s failure to understand or interpret, not the black speaker’s failure to understand and communicate.

      I don’t know much about Greta Christina’s behavior – I don’t think I’ve heard her talk about the black church, or black conservatism, or the UK. (There was a period of many months when I wasn’t reading her blog at all.) So I can’t comment on that part.

  • Mike

    I have seen this basic argument before and I still think it is wrong.

    The basic premise is “you are white so you don’t understand and therefore have no right to participate in the discussion and by the way you are automatically racist”.

    Do you really believe that any substantial change is possible without the support of a significant number of non-POC’s?

    Telling potential allies that they have no useful input in the fight “because they don’t understand” is no way to get allies.

    Without allies, this will be a short-lived fight.

    • Cristalexi

      Black people should stop wanting white people as their allies, this is what is destroying them. Black people need to live their lives free of white influences. Build business, families, etc. that put their own communities first like other groups of people do. Stop putting white people first, this is also what is destroying them.

  • Cristalexi

    White people don’t want to understand racism otherwise they will have to change the power structure and they don’t want to do that. Black people should just wash their hands of white people and get on with their lives, just like other groups have (i.e., Indians/Chinese). It will be whites who suffer in the end.