I have lately been so heartbroken and angry about all that has happened in the last week (last months, last years). When I see George Floyd’s face it is all I can do to not cry. And today one of my friends told me she hasn’t touched, let along hugged, another person since March 11 – and she is very loving and a hugger. And I spent way too much time on social media posting things that send chills down my spine. I have come away from this week thinking – we need to remember to connect, we need to remember that we are human, and we need to remember that life is worth living and everyone deserves the chance to live a good life (even if you don’t agree with them).
We are in trauma.
My friend Michael wrote this today. He is a white man, early 50s, fairly well-off (and by that I mean, at least middle class, educated entrepreneur). I’ve known him for just about my entire life (since I was four or five). He’s normally a bit of a smart ass – but he is serious here and thought it worth sharing.
Shut Up and Listen
I’m an extremely private person and my social media is generally restricted to a cultivated appearance that is equal parts sincere and practiced persona. Time out from that:
For three years I’ve been in a relationship with a black woman. I’d say I’ve learned a few things but really I’ve learned one thing: I, as a white person, have no idea. No idea. I’ve been on this journey of discovery… not by choice, just incidentally… for three years and if there’s one thing I can pass on it’s this:
Shut up and listen.
I, in my hubris and yes “privilege,” thought I had something to say about race, about solutions, about blame, about everything. And I’m embarrassed now to look back at my clumsy and arrogant stabs at it. I’ve learned quite clearly that I still don’t have a voice in this. I still do not have enough knowledge, intuition, wisdom, empathy, call it what you may, to meaningfully add to the conversation. After three years of a peripheral involvement in the life of a person of color I’m still very firmly rooted in the “Shut the fuck up and listen and ask questions” zone. As I should be.
Shut up and listen and ask questions. Do not say “they shouldn’t loot.” Ask why they are looting. Don’t say “They should do this if they want such and such a result.” No, you’re wrong. You don’t get to walk into a brain surgery and observe for 30 seconds and then offer advice to the surgeon. Shut the fuck up. You don’t get it. I still don’t get it. I never fully will. Listen. Learn.
What you have as a white person is not the ability to offer up advice and solutions but to clear the path for those who are telling you what they need.
Do not say “listen to me” instead say “hey all, let’s hear what the experts have to say.” Concede the podium. The experts are the people that have been dealing with this for generations. The experts are not you watching TV and being outraged that Target has some broken windows.
Trust me, you will never be an expert in ANYTHING to the degree that the average black person is on racism and oppression.
My partner is a person that has no rival in her capacity to bring light and joy and beauty to those around her. She exhibits an extraordinary daily capacity for enriching lives she touches. And then there’s days like this week when her light fades, her joy and inspiration goes into deep hibernation, not to mention her own happiness, but the torch of joy she brings to those around her goes dark. That’s just one person. Multiply that by millions, day after day, the torch of potential love and joy and inspiration and knowledge and collaboration that those like her would otherwise be bestowing to everyone’s benefit is instead snuffed and dormant, turned inward into pain and hopelessness.
I think I’ve got a pass? I can say things out of love, right? Make comments. Offer advice? Make jokes? I think I’m being funny. It’s not funny. I think I’m being cute. It’s not cute. I think I’m being wise and helpful. I’m not. What it is… is tiresome.
Imagine wearing the biggest, most attention-grabbing hat in the world. And wearing it all day, every day. Everywhere you go. Some will comment, most will not. But you know everyone, to some extent, is thinking “What’s with the hat?” That is the experience of being a person of color. Your very existence in every moment, every interaction has shades of “what’s with the hat?” And when you walk through every door, the first thing you have to do is mentally assess the hat issue before all else. What is the mood of the room toward the hat. Is this hat going to keep me from getting the job? Is it going to get me killed? Are people being friendly so they can brag they have a friend with a hat? Are they going to give me unwanted advice on hat-wearing? Tiresome.
It occupies a part of your brain. It’s always there. Even for me now, to a miniscule but real extent. A police car. A pickup truck with a Trump sticker. Leaving the city for the countryside. Small risks, but proportionally higher than when I encountered the same stimuli without a black person by my side. And I think “It’s okay, I’ll tell them she’s a lawyer.” I shouldn’t have to tell them she’s a lawyer. Or more so I can say, “It’s okay…. She’s with me.” Never before have I thought that I’d add to my quiver of defense for my loved ones the idea that I can save the day merely by being white. Not big. Not strong. Not clever. Not with a gun. Merely that I can pull a Superman and open my shirt and instead of a costume, merely reveal that I’m white. It’s unlikely that will be the case and I’m prone to flights of fancy, but it’s not untrue. That scenario does exist. I MIGHT have to one day step in and diffuse a situation through her association with me, a white person. It’s okay, she’s with me.
We worry about our growing children as they venture into the world. Don’t take candy from strangers. Don’t jog alone in the woods. Don’t go into that part of town. Don’t drink a drink at a party you didn’t watch someone make. It’s endless. That’s the white experience. Add to that the black experience of “Don’t reach for your wallet, don’t talk back to authority, don’t try to protect yourself” on and on and on.
I’ve been going to the same grocery store for 20 years. I didn’t know they even had security officers until she came back to tell me one followed her out of the store. Clearly she’s paranoid… they don’t have security there. Until I went back and saw, they do. I didn’t even NOTICE before. It took her one trip to learn they are there. This is small potatoes, a mere blip in the big picture. A pretty professional black woman in a progressive city and it’s still a thing. My mind reels at what it’s like for a young black man in a less agreeable environment. Yes, I see the pictures and images of the extremes; the knees on the neck and the videos of brutality and racist comments.
But think of the hat… it’s always there, in every interaction. Always. And almost always bad. Certainly unwanted.
Please don’t make it a psychology experiment, or a virtue signal moment… you can not “walk in their shoes” for those of generations of oppression. But you can listen. You can learn.
You have no idea. Shut up and listen.