Dear White People: Try Listening

Black Lives Matter Meetings, White People’s Entitlement and Psychedelic Orange Juice

“Step up, step back.” This phrase implies the concept that those whose voices are not generally heard in society need to speak up, and those that are always heard in society need to step back and listen. The idea is that raising your voice is not the only way to support a cause, sometimes taking a seat and listening is way more helpful. For example, if you are a racial justice advocate who is a white person in a black space, try raising up the black voices in the room, instead of speaking over them. Tonight I went to a Black Lives Matter meeting that was aiming to center the experiences of black people, but the few white people there took much of the floor.

When I initially arrived at the meeting, I almost turned around and drove back home. Almost. I showed up, and there were only a few cars at the meeting place, so I knew attendance would be low. I am an extremely introverted and formerly shy person who generally always feels nervous going into public spaces, and I especially get nervous going to Black Lives Matter events because I am never quite sure of my place as a white person.

However, after driving around the block three (maybe four) times, I finally steel up enough courage to walk in. And it’s just as empty as I thought it would be, and I sit down, say hello, and realize that I am still alive. I can do this. I need to do this. This is the only way that change happens in the world, and this is something that I genuinely care about. Also, it’s good practice to be in a space where you are the minority, and I like to take every chance I can get. It’s like drinking some kind of psychedelic orange juice- it’s great for a person’s body, but then also expands their conceptions of the world.

There ended up being only about 15 of us at the meeting, and since it was such a small group we all introduced themselves. We ate pizza and chips and watched episode five from the new series “Dear White People,” together. After watching the episode, the black facilitators reminded the group that the discussion following was primarily for black people to participate in. Though Black Lives Matter meetings are open to all, this specific meeting was for black voices to be centered, and heard.

The group begins discussing black people’s experiences, talking about respectability politics, inherent poverty, white fragility, generational trauma, “looking away to survive” v. “not noticing” (i.e. oppression v. privilege), accountability and the idea that white folks have to get used to losing social power if they are to truly engage as an ally to the black community and confront racism in everyday life. They also talk about unqualified folks continually being given a platform to speak and be heard, and blind entitlement.

There were two other white people in the room besides me, two older women who were sitting right in front of me, and who did not seem to heed this advice about staying observant and just listening during this discussion. If there ever was more evidence for white privilege, it’s when two white people take up 40% of the discussion time talking about themselves, their own movements, and interrupting the black people in the room with “I know I know I know all that already, I was a protester in the 70s.”

If a person of color calls you out for not saying something right or about trying to think of something in a new way, please try not to get defensive and argue. If you are going to do this, please don’t come to this space that is for centering black voices- go to a SURJ meeting (an organization dedicated for white people organizing around racial justice to explore biases in society, and within themselves).

However, the white ladies were unphased by the vibes in the room, from the giant platform they were creating for themselves to learn, instead of a place for black people to collaborate and discuss the world together. They also continued to talk about Bernie Sanders and “progressive groups” and “why aren’t you people joining these groups, they are in your best interest?”

That right there is exactly why, white lady. Because you are TELLING these people, in this specifically black space, what they should do, you’re TELLING them what’s in their best interest. You need to LISTEN.

I want to tell these ladies that they can’t magically expect people of other cultures and races to show up at their groups unless they’re able to put the time in and go to their groups. And your group is still not going to be a welcoming space for people of color if you only come to black spaces to recruit, talk about yourself and your agendas, and not listen to what’s actually being said right in front of you by the black community.

And when you get defensive when they try to call out the problem. The problem being: white entitlement. It’s so ingrained into these white ladies minds that they don’t even realize that they are a part of our racist system. They think they are the white saviors who are doing gods work by going to the black people’s meetings and trying to convert the black people to their political agenda groups. That’s the problem, white ladies and white people. You need to show up at spaces where you’re the minority, and then you need sit back and listen.

White people don’t really have much of any experience sitting back and listening to other perspectives, because our culture is built around our perspectives. You need to practice listening if you want to build bridges across races, across movements. You need to learn about black culture and sit and hear the perspectives of the black people in the room. Not argue them, this is not a space for that. You need to listen, and you need to take all of their opinions as valid human experiences. And you need to set your agendas aside for a little bit, and actually learn about this people you’re with before you can even think about trying to get them to join your movement. You need to show you have a vested interested in their issues, you need to show that their issues are your issues as well. And you show that by listening, not by speaking.

And maybe you’re learn over time why you as a white person telling a group of black people “you know what’s best for them” is so fucked up. And maybe you’ll learn about the history and the culture and the humanity of the people you’re around who have lived a different life, and thus have different world views than you. And maybe you’ll see how the methods of achieving racial equality you were using were merely perpetuating the systems and patterns that created oppression in the first place.

Stop talking over everyone, and especially stop talking over people of color in their own spaces that they invite you to. It’s super disrespectful, and not at all the way toward any kind of allyship or a way to be an accomplice in social justice. It’s just entitled, rude, uneducated and distracting from real conversations to be had between people of color, and the lessons to be learned by the white people.

At the end of the discussion, the facilitator gives the white people their chance to speak, though the white women in front of me have felt comfortable taking a good portion of the past hour and a half already. “So why are you here, white people?”

I’m bursting behind these two white woman who continue to speak, speak, speak again. My hand is raised for a few minutes, then I put it down while they continue to speak. Finally, at the end of the meeting, one of the facilitators points me out, and asks if there was anything I wanted to add. I turn toward the two white ladies, and I lay it out for them in front of the room.

“This is the problem. And this is exactly why people of color don’t want to be in predominantly white spaces. Their opinions and thoughts are discredited and spoken over by us as white people. And even here, in this predominately black room with only three white people, the white people are still taking up much of the conversation. This is what the facilitators specifically asked us not to do in the very beginning. Why would anyone want to put themselves in your “progressive” spaces with all white people, when just three white people are streamlining this room’s conversation? A room that is mostly made up of black people? This is the problem.”

The meeting ends soon after, with the facilitator restated one more time that this is a place for centering black voices.

Dear White People: Show up, sit down and listen please.

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