When I was a senior at Syracuse University, I signed up for a course called “Black and White in America.” The year was 1970 and the country was roiled by marches against the Vietnam War, but also about civil rights and racism. I was looking forward to spirited discussions with a diverse group of students. I walked into class that first day to find no black students had signed up. Looking back, that wasn’t surprising. In those days, my school didn’t have the most diverse student body. Perhaps black students were wary of signing up for such a course when they might find themselves in the minority and on the defensive, with white students not ready to listen.
In the aftermath of the peaceful demonstrations protesting the horrific death of George Floyd, I wonder if we are ready now to listen. Not just to listen, but to really hear from members of the black community. I watch what some are posting on Facebook and I think there are still so many white people who are tone deaf. They counter the “black lives matter” argument with the “all lives matter” statement. They are missing the point. “All lives matter” implies that all lives are at risk. Not so.
That’s why I was encouraged by photos of former Vice President Joe Biden, now the Democratic nominee for president, sitting in a black church in Wilmington, Delaware, not only listening to what the black pastors and community leaders had to say, but taking notes! Biden still has work to do. Those meeting with him in the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, were mostly older. He still has to bring in to his campaign younger voters – both black and white – who supported Bernie Sanders. Hopefully Sanders will do more to address his supporters, to encourage them to vote for Biden. His support for Hillary Clinton was lukewarm and many still find him partially responsible for her defeat. I hope that Biden will listen to these young people like he’s listening to these black leaders and continue to take notes.
So how do we listen better? Let’s face it. Most of us like to talk more than we like to listen. Talking makes us the center of attention. Giving up that power is not always easy. In some professions, listening is a requirement for a job well done, but does that ability to listen hold in social situations?
I know I’m not alone in finding discussions of race challenging and I’m still learning how to engage in very serious conversations. Keep in mind that the purpose of active listening is to gain the trust of the person talking so you can begin to understand how they feel. Here are some of the suggestions I’ve received, things that could make all of us better listeners.
Be aware of time and place. Discussions about race can quickly become emotional. Asking a question that could open a floodgate is best saved for a private space, not in a crowd.
Talk face to face. While it might be easy to text or send an email, try to have these discussions so you can see the person’s face. With social distancing still necessary for so many of us, use face time or Zoom to talk.
Don’t debate. If you truly want to be educated don’t become confrontational. In the moment, you may disagree with what’s being said, but hold back. There can always be follow up conversations.
Maintain eye contact. Probably the best way to let the person know that you are focused on what they are saying. Don’t let your eye wander or be tempted to check your phone.
Don’t jump in with your own experience. We all, at one time or another, may have been in a situation which made us uncomfortable. But this is not about you and anything you say will diminish what is being said by the other person.
Make good on promises. If someone suggests a book to read or a film to watch, then follow through. Perhaps the next time a conversation happens, it will be deeper.
Know when to stop. Many blacks who were interviewed on TV during the protests said they are tired of talking about what it means to be black in America. Be sensitive to the person’s feelings, but don’t give up if someone you approach may not want to talk. Another time may come to restart the discussion.
There have been demonstrations in the past about shootings that have killed black people. But this time it feels different. The crowd sizes in so many cities, and the fact we are seeing demonstrations last for days, sends a signal that people are ready for real change. We are at a tipping point, a place where real progress may happen. And this is the time to have these conversations, months before a presidential election. Get involved, start talking, but, most of all, be prepared to listen.
Top photo: Bigstock