The Art of Listening

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  Admittedly, when I first heard that we got the day off of work, I didn’t really think about what the day was honoring, I was just excited to get a day off of work.  Luckily for me, I have a Mark, and he has always had a deep respect for history.  This weekend, we’ve listened to Lin-Manuel Miranda recite Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam”.  His words give me chills.

History has been very interesting in it’s remembrance of Dr. King.  When I was younger, I saw the quotes everywhere about having a dream and being good to each other.  I had this rhetoric in my head that if you wanted to resist, you had to do it in this perfect way, you couldn’t be frustrated, you had to be happy with every ounce of good will from others.  When we learned about Dr. King, we learned about how the Black Panthers and Malcolm X were too angry to be right, and the correct way of dealing was to bite your tongue and be well-spoken like Dr. King.

I felt like a weight was lifted when I delved deeper into Dr. King’s history and his speeches.  Yeah, I’m linking a Mashable article, but it provides a lot of quotes that made relate better to Dr. King.  He too was frustrated by people continually saying that you should pick yourself up by your bootstraps (quote #2) or lazy allyship (quote #3).

The last quote though, the last quote perfectly captured my recent frustrations.

I’m often very frustrated with well-intentioned people, and I fight with myself to figure out why I’m upset and have feelings of unease. I have these conversations over and over again where someone reaches out to me, especially after the last election, and they tell me that they’re an ally.  That’s great, I’m glad people are thinking about that.   Sometimes, they even ask me how they can be a better ally.  I will launch into a story of something that has happened to me so that they can understand my struggle.  In my mind, to be a good ally, you need to understand what is actively happening around you to other people.  I get *very* frustrated when halfway though, someone will start saying that they’ve never heard anything like that or they’ve never seen anyone act like that (I get it, your brain doesn’t have mappings for it so it’s very foreign to hear such things).  Or, if they know the person, they start making excuses for them because they understand their mindset and culture more.

The majority of the time, I don’t even get to the part where I can tell them how to be a better ally.  I feel like I’m bombarded with half-baked solutions by well-meaning people.  Despite my better judgment, I often try to explain why the solution won’t work, and then I’m seen as very negative or as a person who just wants to complain.  It’s agonizing because I’m revealing something that’s close to my heart in an act of trust, and I feel like I’m scrambling to find the words to get people to truly understand what has happened other than what they heard on the surface.  Sometimes, if I don’t know the person well, I just let them give me trite solutions and then pretend like they’re a good ally.  I get a little more jaded and I feel like the whole purpose of them talking to me was so that they could have this nice, stamp of approval from a minority. Other times, I try to continue and forge forward and try to get them to realize that they don’t get it even though I know it often ends in people feeling like I’m too radical or hostile or too intense.

Is it worth the effort to explain to people why their “understanding” truly isn’t that deep?  I know that there’s this desire to not admit that you don’t know everything about a particular struggle because you won’t seem “woke” enough.  I also recognize that sometimes it’s hard to admit you don’t understand the importance of particular things.  At the end of the day though, it’s okay to be consciously unknowing.  What I mean by that is that it’s okay to recognize that you won’t ever truly understand what it’s like to be brown if you’re white or have cancer if you’re healthy or a multitude of other things, but that you can still have empathy for those in those situations.  It’s okay that you will understand something that you will never experience. No matter how close you get to it, you will never be it.

What I want from a better ally is for people to listen more to understand before they provide excuses for others and misplaced solutions.  Think about how I’m feeling.  Don’t downplay my emotions.  Don’t make excuses for others, especially when you can actively engage with your family members and help them understand.  Seriously, I understand that everyone is well-meaning and wants to do good in the world and probably don’t mean to harm others.  But, at the end of the day, people do hurt others, and good intentions will only get you so far.  Allyship means active listening and not interrupting and telling me how awesome of an ally you are. Can we just start there?

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