Being a good ally is, in part, about listening. It is about recognizing your societal privilege (whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, etc.), and setting aside your own whatever (denial, fear, concern, guilt, frustration, anger, certainty) to just listen. That doesn’t mean you never get to talk, or that your emotions and perspectives are unimportant. To get the full picture, conversations about sex, gender, and race need all perspectives—and our current system creates problems for everyone. But because the voices of women and people of color are ignored, dismissed, sidelined, and erased by both the media and our educational system, their voices should be heard first. Conversations about race need the voices of those who deal, in their daily lives, with racism. Their voices are vital to understanding the ways in which racism is unconscious as well as conscious—the ways it is coded into every system we have. And when people of color speak about racism in America, the rest of us need to listen right off the bat—before we speak, before we ask a question, before we try to defend or fix anything. We just need to listen.
Right now, we are a nation in dire need of listening to the voices of black Americans. As President Obama said in his speech after the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial, “…the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
That history—those experiences—are shaped around the deaths of young African American boys and men. They are shaped around white fear, conscious and semi-conscious, overtly hateful or covertly biased. And those boys and men, precious to the ones who love and claim them, have names (Emmett Till, Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Timothy Stansbury Jr., Trayvon Martin)—names that many white Americans, if they’ve heard them at all, only know as a vague tragedy from our shameful past or an easily dismissed news story in our violent present. We need to bring their names into our homes, to know them and claim them. White America needs to set aside the paralyzing fear and shame and defensiveness and confusion that is the flip side of privilege, and to listen to the history that black Americans know by heart.
The first time I encountered a narrative about what it is like to be a black man in America—to always be on your guard against the threat that others perceive you to be, so they don’t become a threat to you—was in Brent Staples’ essay “Black Men in Public Space.” In this essay, Mr. Staples discusses his habit of whistling Beethoven and Vivaldi as he walks down public streets at night: “It is my equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.” (President Obama spoke of this cultural and personal experience when he said, “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”)
Now step into another perspective—not the black boy or man himself, but his mother or stepmother, his aunt, his grandmother. A woman who is raising him or helping to raise him. As Denene Millner puts it, “…after the roar dies down, after the police officers get off (they almost always do), after we commit the victims’ names to the long list of young black men who’ve died or been abused at the opposite end of a police officer’s gun/night stick/bathroom plunger (Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Abner Louima. Patrick Dorismond. Michael Carpenter. I could go on and on and on), who will stop the same from happening to my stepson? How do I protect my normal, brilliant, college-bound, sweet, black boy?”
That’s what you hear when you listen—you hear Americans fearing for their safety, and the safety of their children. It doesn’t take much listening to want to help change it—to work toward a society that doesn’t see black and male and immediately think threat. To want to protect all our children, not just the ones who get positive hype in the media.
Until white Americans begin to claim these perspectives and experiences as American, as part of our shared history from which we all must heal, we will continue—culturally and in some cases literally—to shrug our shoulders and shake our heads. We will continue to believe that when our black neighbors say that the system is unjust, they are blind or just plain wrong. But we, in the ignorance that has been shaped for us by our whitewashed culture, will be the ones who are both blind and wrong. And in our blind ignorance, we will unwittingly contribute to a system that paints victims as aggressors. (As Tim Wise has pointed out, one way we do this is to discuss and count “black on black crime,” but not “white on white crime,” which is, you know, a thing.)
But if we listen—and learn from what we hear—we can add our voices to the voices of those who live lives shaped by racism. And the collective power of our voices can create real change—the kind that allows sweet, brilliant, black boys to grow up and be just who they were meant to be.