Good Intentions Are Not Enough: On Listening, Fucking Up, and Having Hard Conversations

By Danielle Blechert

Setting up for aftercare at a predominantly white charter school, I overhear a conversation between a white male teacher and black female parent. She asks if the school’s director and teachers would be interested in participating in a conversation on what Portland Public Schools are doing to promote and support diversity. The teacher nods and gives a brief albeit vague comment about how she can get in touch with the director. The parent revisits the idea of having teachers attend and again gets a glossy, quick response from the teacher. He looks uncomfortable. He looks like he doesn’t know how or want to engage in a conversation about diversity and race. As the conversation trails off, he laughs for no apparent reason. I wonder if his laughter is the byproduct of being uncomfortable, a coping mechanism or a micro-aggression. Racial micro-aggressions are defined as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.” By laughing he asserts his position of power, subtly and maybe unintentionally, saying, “I’m not taking this conversation seriously.”

So, what does it mean to attend a college largely comprised of upper-middle class, white students, be one and call oneself an advocate for social justice? In part, it means redefining what it means to listen, to really listen. Such listening entails shutting up, giving space for anecdotes and potentially uncomfortable subjects. It means refraining from correcting, redefining and relating the conversation back to you.  All too often we respond to a friend’s story with one of our own. While this is well intentioned, an attempt to relate and build empathy, what it really says is “Ok, you told your story; I half-assedly listened; now it’s time to talk about myself and how your story relates to me.” Advocating as a white upper-middle class individual also means you may feel the inclination to speak for and about a group you have no apparent affiliation with. Accordingly, it means you should probably think twice about “helping” another person before assessing whether they actually want or need it.

That being said, as a recent article by Ngc Loan Trn noted, we should make space for fucking up, for making mistakes and respond by “Calling In” folks, as opposed to constantly calling them out. They define Calling In “as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.” Fucking up is a natural by-product of having biases that are deeply rooted in an often racist, sexist and classist society. We have to own up to the fact that our behaviors are habitual, deeply engrained and worthy of scrutiny. Constantly criticizing and monitoring others behavior discourages conversation and puts people on the defense, especially if it comes from the mouth of someone they do not trust or respect. Often, we’re so afraid of saying something wrong, we say nothing at all. Americans may have trouble openly discussing suicide, domestic violence, and race for this very reason. A coworker recently told me, “When opportunity arises to discuss these ‘taboo’ subjects, when you’re feeling uncomfortable, when things get icky, push through because that’s when progress happens.”

So here we go, let’s get icky. Let’s talk about how problematic the phrase “giving voice” is. It implies an inherent lack of voice when in truth; the voice exists. The phrase “we are giving voice to [insert marginalized community]” is deeply embedded in our language and seldom questioned. It’s problematic because while the “we” may amplify the voice, give it a platform, it sure as hell doesn’t “give” these folks a voice.  The fault lies in our ineptitude with listening. Case in point: the song Same Love. While I am in no way denying the impact of the song or picking a bone with Macklemore for writing it, I am drawing attention to the fact that, for many, it took a white straight male to finally hear the message that queer folks (often of color) have been spreading for some time. Let’s also talk about how problematic it is that middle-upper class white folks often “act thug,” engage in “ghetto” culture and make light of twerking. Let’s talk about how by being in a position of power, upper-middle class white folks get to “visit” what it’s like being black without having to experience the societal injustices often inflicted on black folks. Let’s talk about how I recently had a conversation with a white male LC student on the racist acts on campus and he responded, “What about freedom of speech? What if they were joking?”

Let’s talk about when to listen up and when to speak up. Let’s talk about how to admit and amend our fuck ups.

Let’s talk.

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