Quick to listen …

I wrote my shortest blog post ever a few years ago (see here) about the need for white people to listen better to the pain of our black neighbours. (this one may be my longest!) After this last week, I simply wanted to post that one again, but feel perhaps there is more to be said about our need to grow in ability to listen – truly listen.

It is also worth adding from the start, that listening is not something I find easy, especially when it is ideas/ideology related. I am pretty good when it comes to friendship-type listening, because I love human beings deeply and love hearing others’ stories and journeys and struggles and joys. However, when it comes to ideas, worldviews, ideology and ‘truth’, I tend to listen with the need to respond, get defensive of my position, and think critically, like a lawyer (my second choice of career) seeking the gaps in the argument and looking for the ‘counter’ argument to gain the ‘fuller’ picture. The point being, I write from a place of constant need to grow in this area – I speak as one who is learning slowly to listen better.

This morning I read a Facebook post by a young black woman for whom I have great respect expressing her thoughts, ideas and feelings around a specific topic (in this instance, it was the prayer gathering in Bloemfontein, but here you could insert any number of events and incidents that have risen to the surface during the past two years in particular). She was reflecting on someone’s blog expressing ideas around the prayer gathering being a missed opportunity for beneficiaries of apartheid. The blogger is a black leader for whom I have great respect too – who has been a significant part of my journey towards ‘seeing’ and gaining greater understanding as a white person who seeks to live a more just lifestyle in a country where I have been ‘top of the pile’ for decades. 

In response to her post, as is common if not 100% predictable, a white male, this time apparently a pastor/Christian leader, responded with the cliched comment which sounds something like this: 1. chastise subtly for incorrect theology/idea/understanding of idea, worldview etc. 2. Correct ‘incorrect’ ideas. 3. Throw a scripture in for good measure and to back ‘teaching moment’. 4. invite to a greater understanding of Christ and how he would handle this. And sometimes, a call to ‘move on’ and find healing. And in doing so, in varying levels of harmful measure, undermining the person’s ideas, emotions and expression of both, and denying their personal experience of said issue, and their knowledge and truth based on their perspective and journey. I literally put my head in my hands every time this cliche pops up on my screen. 

I was part of a workshop recently that was diverse in its demographics. The facilitator asked a question that related specifically to the black women in the room, and I cringed as a white man put his hand up immediately. The facilitator looked for a black woman to answer, and there was a moment of awkwardness for those who could ‘see’ what was going on, mostly woman but not only. I observed a ‘good’ man who is completely used to being heard, having a voice, being on top of the proverbial ‘pile’, respond in the most natural of ways to him. This was a nice guy. The fact that he was in the room meant he is seeking some kind of different way. He was enthusiastic, open and eager to participate. I do not believe he was/is evil, any more than any of us human beings. He was just not listening. At all. He felt he had an answer to a question directed at women and particular to black women.

I am sure he felt overlooked and awkward as a few people raised their eyebrows, one person gasped and indicated to him with a shake of the head that this was not his time to answer, and the facilitator made it gently clear that she was looking for a woman to answer. I have seen this play out in so many ways in so many contexts, except the facilitator is not always as aware and intentional. I am reminded of a good quote that says something like, ‘when you have been privileged so long that equality feels like oppression. 

I have watched this ‘top of the pile’ power or whatever you want to call it, play out in the public lynching of a black female editor this past week. Yes, she was responsible for a poor and unprofessional editorial decision and subsequent action, but bore the full brunt of ‘touching the white male on their studio’. If all editors were held to the same high bar (which is a good high bar, in my opinion), then I would not have found this past week so repulsive and depressing. But this is not the case. At all. And with some listening and reflection, it is not too difficult to connect the dots.

But connect the dots, many will not. Because they will not listen and reflect. As I have said, whilst much of the arrogance and domination stems from intentional evil, much of what we see playing out daily in all spheres comes from growing up, living and breathing, and generally, existing on ‘top of the pile’. It is an operating system. This is the stuff that ‘blind spots’ are made of. I have plenty. I used to have even more. How does one hold up the blind spot mirror to one’s self?

There is much I do not know, and power dynamics I find overwhelming and frustrating, but this one thing I do know – and it would be a good place to start – listen to black people. Listen to people who have suffered and continue to suffer, or whose family suffered unimaginable injustice in the past. Listen. Not to respond. But to hear. Just listen. If you are used to being the one listened to, or whether you are unsure of where you are on the scale of ‘heard’ and unheard’. When in doubt, if you are not from a group who has suffered deeply and been oppressed, in reality, assume a listening position.

I have seen white males, and I mention race and gender for obvious reasons in this post, listen and listen well in the past months too. When Zapiro’s latest rape cartoon was being posted far and wide on Facebook, some men were asking questions around how this was being received by women, many for whom the cartoon triggered distress, myself included. (I must take a moment to honour a friend Sindile Vabaza here too as a man who asks questions, and listens to the answers, and asks women what they feel and think about things and is open to changing his perspective appropriately). I read responses by many men who were basically saying – it is a clever, brilliant cartoon that accurately expresses what corrupt leaders are doing to our country. That women, in particular, black women who are the most vulnerable to rape in SA, were saying the cartoon was distressing, was of no consequence to many men – online, at least.

I saw a white male friend of mine, Graeme Codrington, state that the cartoon was brilliant initially – and then I noticed him engaging with women, listening, asking questions – and finally updating his Facebook comment with a changed opinion – after listening to others. He basically said something along these lines: after listening to women on this topic, I realise that my initial response was not taking into account the issue of rape and violence against women in SA and how this has made many women feel. I was so encouraged, and relieved, and also challenged personally – to keep on listening and changing my ideas accordingly.

And if anyone reads this as ánti white male’ or saying any type of human being’s voice does not matter or have its place in society, one is not listening to the heart behind this piece. This is about a people group who are used to being listened to, learning to listen better to people who have very different and painful lived experiences, and thus, worldviews. The polarisation in our nation is significant. It does not have to be. We are humans trying to live life well, and many of us want to see South Africa work well, and embrace true diversity and a more equal society. I have cried very real tears this past week as I see what feels like an ever-widening gap in understanding and some people just not hearing  (or trying to) why something is painful to others. What I am saying is that some of us are used to being heard – and it is second nature to us. Like breathing. And we assume that position naturally, when what is needed is  a more humble posture, seeking understanding that comes from listening and listening alone.

There are some things we need to unlearn as people who have not been oppressed or experienced the kind of suffering most black South Africans have – if we are going to gain better understanding of what is going on in our country, and find our communal humanity in deepening ways. As Christians, let us not simply follow the way of the world and culture around us – defend, point fingers, expect to be heard without listening ourselves, correct without listening and hearing the heart of what someone is expressing, assuming superiority in worldview, etc. We have an opportunity to listen and learn at this time. We need to be intentional and humble, to resist the path of least resistance (simply responding in exasperation or going with the flow of unchallenged common thought from people similar to one’s self). This is getting us nowhere. 

Some questions I ask myself: From whom am I learning? Whose writing am I reading? To whom am I listening the most? Am I listening or reading with an open mind and heart? Am I listening to respond? Or listening to learn and broaden my understanding? This requires humility – and that is something worth seeking as a basic Christian principle and value that most of us who follow Jesus would agree is the ‘Christ’ way. Or simply, worth seeking to be a more decent human being. 

A quote I need to remind myself of – as one who always has plenty to say and is used to being able to say it mostly – and it goes something like this, “When you speak you say what you already know, but when you listen, you learn.” I am under no illusion that this would solve all our problems as a polarised nation whose wounds are being exposed, but I am 100% certain it would make a significant difference. And is a very good place to start.