“Americans make choices constantly as they try to navigate through the racial landscape. And their first choice is how they listen. Blacks and whites do not listen well to one another. They infer, assume, deduce, imagine, and otherwise miscommunicate. They give each other little grace and allow small room for benefit of the doubt. Dialogue is exceedingly difficult. Nor do blacks and whites listen well to themselves as they stigmatize, derogate, slur, slight, and otherwise offend. . . . It takes practice to learn to listen.” (A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, by David K. Shipler, ©1997)
With 36 years Africa experience, most of it in a relatively volatile, post-colonial and post-apartheid context, you would think of all white males I would know better.
Among a diverse group of professionals I recently spoke analytically to the contentious topic of white supremacy, or its equally bitter-tasting kin—white privilege.
My cerebral statements understandably met immediate (black) resistance and reaction. Understandably, because my colleagues had been sharing painful personal and past experiences of racially tinged or infused injustices, and of a local city’s white establishment’s historical misuse of political and economic power in disenfranchising entire African-American communities.
Some of my friends contended that white supremacy, aka, institutionalized and/or racist white power structures will be eradicated globally within a relatively short time period.
Instead of simply listening to my friends’ pained narratives, or vocalizing my solidarity with them against past and present social injustices, I intellectualized what up to that point had been a mostly emotionally laden discussion.
At the time, my “invisible, weightless knapsack of accustomed white privilege,” as Shipler coins it, processed our dialogue with two rational thoughts—
First, “How can we talk of eradicating white supremacy, when it’s both a local and global belief that people hold, specifically, a belief that whites are superior to all others different, and therefore entitled—for the betterment of society—to control the mechanisms of power?”
And, secondly, “I agree. We can and should dislodge unjust white socioeconomic and political power structures, such as occurred with slavery America and apartheid South Africa, but we’ll never eradicate white supremacy, or any other color of supremacist belief, as my colleagues seemed insistent on.
Thinking the best of each other, I’m sure my black colleagues knew I wasn’t advocating for white supremacy or arguing against efforts to unseat bigoted power structures, just as I knew they weren’t naive to think supremacist thought could be annihilated.
Perhaps a greater sensitivity and awareness of our respective cultural differences might have mediated our group’s differences of opinion. At least for me, anyway.
By reminding me that lack of passion on my part, or a mere intellectualizing or pondering of social injustices, will not communicate support or understanding.
Whether any part true or simply another racial generalization, I’ve read somewhere that passion, emotion, the ability “to stir up” are traditionally valued traits for many African-Americans—perhaps a survival tool during the slavery era—explaining in part, perhaps, the appeal of the rapper, the preacher, the impassioned politician.
Regrettably, only in retrospect did I see that my lack of passion, and my mere intellectualizing of an issue so close to many of my black colleagues’ life experiences, simply communicated (white) insensitivity to and self-denial of the persistent, everyday realities of scores of millions of historically disenfranchised and displaced people in the U.S. and around the world.
While I regret my misstep, I don’t lament risking encounter and dialogue. As Shipler rightly notes, “The journey does not have to be a (white) guilt trip; it is just an encounter with the facts of life.” Dialogue—talking and talking and talking—opens new “pathways to closeness” among people and cultures different. Each person must LISTEN to the other, however.