Listening. Really, really listening.

The historic AME Church in Charleston where the shooting took place, (courtesy of
The historic AME Church in Charleston where the shooting took place, (courtesy of

I had an English teacher in high school who made us do listening exercises and not just speeches in English class. “We’re training kids to talk,” he would say, “and there’s too many people talking in the world, and very few people who are trained how to listen.”

I’ve heard that in the Isreali-Palestine negotiations, before anyone actually comes together to sit down at the table, the negotiating team first has to so thoroughly understand their opponent’s position that they’d be able to convincingly present their case. “We can only start talking once we really understand each other,” they say.

And so this is what I’m asking my white friends, especially my white friends who follow Jesus. I’m asking that we listen.

When headlines happen that involve the deaths of black Americans, before we speak (or before we don’t speak) can we listen to what our black friends are saying? Can we first see what this means to the black community? Followers of Jesus are encouraged to put into practice Paul’s words, “Do good to everyone, especially those who are your brothers in Christ.” When a black man dies, and it’s splashed all over the news, can we listen to what our black brothers in Christ are saying about it, and let that be the lens through which we view the situation, before we add on our political interpretations and agendas? (Check out rapper Lecrae’s op-ed on perspective here).

When a  white guy kills a bunch of black people at a historically black church, can we listen to the meaning that our black pastors are ascribing to this event? When they talk about how this reminds them of the Civil Rights era, and how that terror is still very real today, can we listen? Can we listen when they say they feel angry at how the white church was silent about the Ferguson shooting? Can we try to understand why they would feel that way? Before we jump in and talk about how our constitutional rights are being trampled by gun-control laws, can we at least hear where the plea for gun-control laws are coming from? Can we understand that history shows pretty clearly that if the federal government hadn’t stepped in, it might have been 1995 before black people could vote safely in many Southern states, and that for many black people, the federal government is an ally, not an enemy– all because they can’t trust the people in their own neighbourhoods and districts to vote in ways that lead to black lives flourishing? I’m not asking you to agree, I’m asking you to listen. And to listen in order to understand.

I’m asking us white Christians, who are really good at giving talks to girls about dressing modestly and inconveniencing ourselves out of love for our brothers with the clothes that we wear, to start giving talks about issues that matter to our black brothers. Taking down the Confederate Flag is exactly the same argument as the modesty argument. It might not be a big deal to you, as a Southerner, it might be your right to fly it, but as someone who cares for your black brothers and sisters, will you inconvenience yourself and take it down out of love for them?

In South Africa, can we find ways to listen to the black people in our lives—and make a space that is comfortable for them enough to share? Too often when interact with black people, we do so in a way that does not afford them the power to really say what they think. When we tell a race-based joke, are our black friends laughing because it’s funny, OR because they know if they told you it makes them uncomfortable you wouldn’t listen but would tell them to get a sense of humour and stop being so sensitive? When we ask a black collegue’s opinion, have we created an environment where they can really share and be heard, or do they need to tow our party-line? Can we listen to our black friend’s interpretations of the news before we jump in with our own agendas? Can we invite their criticism? Can we ask them to let us know when we’re being offensive, or pushy, or insensitive? In our churches, our workplaces and our dinner parties, are we listening to black voices?

And because I hate reading things like this that don’t have any practical applications, here are a few concrete ideas:

In the USA: 

  • Watch this series of 8 TED talks on race and racism in the USA. If you only watch two, make sure it’s this one about 3 things we can do to get over our internal bias (it’s super funny, too!) or this one, that discusses the criminal justice system.
  • Here’s a reading list that was put together to help people understand the context around the Charleston shooting.
  • Join a church or civic organization that is not predominantly white, and get involved. Join a choir, or a prayer meeting. Put yourself in places where you can have black leaders in positions of authority over you so you can listen and learn.
  • Change your neighborhood.
  • Get a different newspaper, or magazine subscription.
  • Take a course on African American history.
  • Take a course on African American literature.
  • Ask your black friends about what they think and really listen.

In South Africa;

  • This TED talk about bias is American, but the concept still applies in a South African context.
  • Join a church or organization that is not predominantly white, or seek out leaders in your denomination who are not white and be mentored by them.
  • Change your neighbourhood.
  • Take a course on black South African history and literature.
  • Read this series of blogs on race and South Africa by Brettfish – he gets some great guest posters of all races to weigh in, and as a white South African male, hearing his perspective and his journey of wrestling with race and privilege is super helpful.

Black friends, both in South African and the US, what are some things that you wish white people would do to listen better? 

2 thoughts on “Listening. Really, really listening.

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