The Day I Learned to Listen
It's not uncommon that you're quietly minding your own business on Facebook until the little sidebar scroll notifies you that your friend commented on someone else's status, right?
That's how trouble starts. In this case, it was trouble, embarrassment, hurt, anger, growth.
So there I was chillin' on my couch during AB's nap back in her wee days and figured instead of doing all of the things I should have been doing: napping or catching up on life, I was going to mindlessly drone through my newsfeed.
I stumbled across my friend's comment on a status that was expressing outrage over a white girl who wrote a blog about making Oakland her own, after having lived there for about a year. She had detailed her first impressions about the city and how she grew to love it and how she now feels a part of Oakland, Oakland a part of her, etc. That was the basic gist.
The contributors to this one specific thread were, I'd say about 95% Black people, and from what I learned, their anger had to do with the privilege of a white girl acting as though she could claim Oakland to be her own after a year, among other things ... the conversation expanded into issues with gentrification tossed in there as well, a topic I wasn't well versed in when this conversation was happening. To the commenters that were upset, they read it as a white girl having the privilege to pick and choose the things that benefitted her about Oakland, and then claim she was "so Oakland" because of those things, which I think is where the problem began.
Upon first read of the blog, as a white girl, I didn't find it problematic at all. My take? I read it as a story by a girl who had reservations and preconceived ideas about a city she then grew to love and find beauty in. That's what I read, or how I read it then, so I was confused by the outrage over what seemed like a rather bland piece.
The comment that caught my eye in said Facebook thread/conversation was a woman saying: "White people, come collect your cousin." I've never heard of this phrase and little ol' me was like, how offensive! So of course I had to join the party and be like: WUT? To which the gal replied, "I guess I'm holding the keys to the library."
The "dialogue" that ensued was UGLY. I was unprepared. See, I rarely had conversations about race at all back then. I mean, I don't and didn't consider myself racist, so to me, there was no problem — which is kind of the problem and I'll elaborate more on that later. The more I commented, the more my comments were met with "stop playing the victim," "stop tone-policing," and a lesson on who can be considered racist and who can be considered to have a racial prejudice.
For example, I learned about institutional racism -- a pattern of social institutions — such as governmental organizations, schools, banks, and courts of law — giving negative treatment to a group of people based on their race. Of course I knew racism existed, but I wasn't aware of what institutional racism was/is in this sense. As an ignorant white person, I believe I alleged that a statement was racist against a white person and I then learned a lot. Racism is about power, right? As a minorities, even if some has racial prejudice, their views don't hold power over anyone in the same way the majority race does. In other words, they could absolutely hate white people with every grain of fiber in their being, but it wouldn't affect white people getting jobs, or living their lives because they are not in a position of power. Therefore, while someone who belongs to a minority may express racial prejudice, it's not the same thing as being racist/its impacts cannot be compared.
The thread continued for a few hours and it consisted basically of me, my white friend, and a whole bunch of Black people schooling us. Of course, at the time, I didn't see it that way at the time. I was extremely defensive, my feelings were hurt, and I was like: I want to learn and I'm trying to understand, and I'm not against you! But with each comment I wrote, what they heard was: I'm not willing to listen.
See, part of the problem with white privilege and being unaware of having privilege is that you don't even know about all of the shit out there that others have had to experience/live with daily. I had no idea that tone policing was even a thing. Only in the last few years have I even heard of cultural appropriation and what it means. Even more recently am I even understanding intersectional feminism and what people mean when they say "white feminism." Me, with my own ignorance to my privilege was walking around for decades without having a clue about SO MUCH SHIT, because as a white person, these things don't affect me. So, when I entered this little thread with my "stop stereotyping white people" bullshit, I kind of deserved to have my ass handed to me. Honestly, I wish my education had been more well-rounded on discussions like this, but here we are, so we have to have the conversation now, and do better.
I didn't understand that then. I think I cried to my husband about everyone being mean when I was trying to understand and how they all needed to do a better job of their approach ... which is embarrassing now. Why is it anyone else's job to cater to my preferred style of being informed? If I'm ignorant, why is it, in this particular case, Black people's jobs to educate me on that ignorance, and then if if they are graciously taking the time to educate me in their own way, who am I to say: "I don't appreciate how you're saying that"? I mean, I was the asshat who inserted myself without invitation to their discussion and then attempted to basically tell them how they could and could not feel. I can understand why they were annoyed with me, didn't want to wear kid gloves to explain concepts they've been dealing with their whole lives, and didn't want to cater to me. Me. Me. Because why? Because it WASN'T ABOUT ME. I was not the victim! And instead of just shutting up and listening, I kept attempting to defend myself, which gave everyone the opportunity to say, "white people always gotta be the victim." Which then made me want to defend myself more because I didn't get it!
It took me a long time after that situation to really understand what happened, or where I even went wrong. I kept thinking, I'm not racist, why was I being attacked? And it's not fair, and waaaaah me. UGH.
My point in writing this is that I learned that it's not my job to tell someone how or how not they're allowed to feel about injustices toward them, or about situations involving them, or about experiences they've had that aren't mine own. I don't get to tell you that you're overreacting when I've never been pulled over because of the color of my skin. I don't get to tell you how you should be having a conversation about race and racism in society when I wasn't even invited to the party and I'm not the victim of racism. I don't get to tell you how you should feel after yet another blurry-lined shooting. I don't get to diminish your pain, frustration and anger. I don't get to tell you what opinions you're allowed to have in response to an article just because my own perception is or was different. I learned how to pay attention to how different races are portrayed in the media. I learned that understanding my privilege is not about having white guilt. That's insulting. It's about acknowledging that there's still work to be done and we all have to step up to the plate, listen, elevate others' voices and react together. The dialogue is out there. Tons of learning to be had but people don't like to get uncomfortable. It's inconvenient.
I learned that before talking, I should read. Read a lot. Follow conversations online about different situations and read the articles that analyze every perspective, written from people of all races and backgrounds. I learned that I should read the comment sections for different opinions and then research those. I learned that before I speak, it's my duty to inform myself to the best of my ability and that I need to be ok with being told I'm wrong or out of line if I am.
I learned that even though I don't like to feel embarrassed or foolish or wrong, that I've never once learned anything without a little stumble here and there.
I learned that I've never once been done wrong by listening.
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