The false safety of “listening & learning.”
We stumbled into a reckoning.
It had been a regular staff meeting — standard announcements, small talk, and project updates— until we began discussing the results of the 2016 presidential election. My fellow white coworkers and I bemoaned the state of the nation. What went wrong? How did we get here? And why didn’t we see it coming?
After many long minutes of shock from a chorus of white voices, a colleague of color chimed in.
“We did see it coming,” she said. “We saw it coming in our work. We saw it coming in our country. We told you. You just didn’t listen.”
There was a long silence. I felt my stomach collapse in on itself, the telltale sign I was hearing a terrible truth about myself. She was right.
“Black women don’t get to be surprised. We don’t get to be exhausted or ‘woe is me’ or any of it. We’ve been here a long time. So, I guess, welcome, but what took you so long?”
With that, our office plunged into a conversation that so many white people fear. We were talking about racism. Not broad, systemic racism, too big to wrap our arms around, or historical racism, comfortably situated in the past.Not the discrete racism of the KKK or the white supremacists in Charlottesville. But an intimate kind of racism. The kind we created, excused, or allowed through our inaction.
Colleagues of color shared story after story about the racism they faced in their daily lives, and in the work we took on together. Their stories stung with accuracy and familiarity. The venomous ease with which white coworkers dismissed critiques from people of color. The reliability with which white men spoke over women of color on every call, in every meeting. The sad familiarity of expecting those women of color to ask nicely, just to finish a sentence without interruption. I thought about the times I had named that behavior too gently, and the times I’d been happy to complain after the fact without taking action in the moment. I wondered about the incidents I’d forgotten, and the moments I never noticed at all.
I watched the faces around the table: my boss. My staff. The sharp tension in the bodies of white people. The heavy fatigue in the faces of people of color, having to have this conversation all over again, fully aware that it would likely yield so little. They were spent from having this conversation, yet again, with people in the room who’d been responsible for it. It’s exhausting to spend your whole life teaching people how to stop hurting you.
We went twelve rounds, talking ourselves into exhaustion, until we finally drew the conversation to a close. We circled the room, each participant shared a single world to encapsulate their feelings in that moment. The words shared by people of color were striking. Angry. Frustrated. Exhausted. Disappointed. Done. Their words were raw with honesty, ragged and real.
But as we moved around the table, white staff sat, stalk still and tense, and gave strikingly similar responses, as if reading from cue cards. I’m just listening. I’m learning. I’m taking it all in.
We had borne witness to the hurt we had caused, and the harm we had done.We didn’t apologize. We didn’t take responsibility, or chart a path forward through all the rubble we’d left behind. All we said was I’m learning.
In advancing social justice, listening and learning are essential. But they’re almost never sufficient. In that room, they certainly weren’t enough.Listening and learning were, quite literally, the least we could do. Our colleagues of color had shared what they needed from us. And we responded with “I’m listening.” I’m paying attention. I’m not ignoring you.
We listened, absorbing this intervention in a deeper way than before. Some felt blindsided, shocked at the sharp edge of what felt like sudden critique. Some felt overwhelmed, standing in the shadow of the enormous problem we had created. And some sat in denial, unable to square their belief in their own goodness with what they knew about the cardinal sin of racism.
In part, we said we were listening and learning because it was true: some of us were taking some of it in. But many of us also responded that way because we were uncomfortable, and we knew that listening and learning were safe, respectful responses. Listening and learning allowed us to abandon the discomfort of a messy, vulnerable, challenging situation, and return to the clear expectations of a script that had been laid out in front of us.
Even as we heard about what we’d done wrong — failing to heed the warnings and feedback of our colleagues of color — we returned to the faulty practices that had led us there. We read from the script that ensured that listening and learning would keep us out of hot water. In so doing, once again, we chose our comfort over the basic needs of the people of color we worked with every day.
Stories of sexual harassment and assault have been flooding social media this week, all tagged #MeToo. They approach like rolling thunder, a cacophonous interruption to the otherwise reliable stream of birthday well-wishes, celebrity obituaries and photographs of perfectly plated meals. On Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, everywhere, women, femmes, and survivors of all genders are using Tarana Burke’s decade-old #MeToo hashtag to give voice to their experiences of sexual assault, abuse & harassment.
#MeToo shows what so many women and femmes know to be true: that for us, safety is an exception, not a rule. It is not a right, but a privilege that any man can choose to revoke. And so many of them do.
But amongst the predominantly progressive men I know, the response has been heartbreakingly lacking. Many say they are sickened at the breadth and depth of harm that has come to the women they know and love. Othersquietly offer their likes to #MeToo posts on social media. But when asked what they will do differently, they offer so little: I will listen. I will learn. I will believe you.
As women, femmes, people of color— anyone on the down side of power and privilege — we pull out the stitches of unhealed wounds, allowing the people who hurt us to see the anatomy of the injuries they’ve caused. Here, the jagged jut of exposed and broken bone. There, the tender purple of a fresh bruise, blood that has settled as a marker of where they hurt us. And when they’re done examining our bruises and lacerations, they offer their sympathy, tell us how much that must hurt. But they don’t help in its healing. They don’t promise not to do it again.
We talk about the harm, the hurt, the cost of it all. But when we ask what comes next, we’re too often met with radio silence. Now that we’ve shown you the depth and breadth of our pain, the harm that’s been done to us, what will you do? How will you stop it?
Often, all we hear in response is woefully insufficient: I’m listening. I’m learning. I believe you. As if attention is action.
These responses are heartbreaking in their safety, their opacity, and their lack of vulnerability. Of course, I need all of those things from you. But learning isn’t an action. Listening doesn’t do anything to change the conditions that we live under. Belief doesn’t reach beyond your own internal life. Listening, learning and believing are all passive actions. Like offering thoughts and prayers after a mass shooting or natural disaster, listening and learningbecome ways to offer condolences without committing to the messy, crucial work of preventing tragedies before they come to pass.
Of course we need to learn. But that learning must be in the service of action.Because when I think about the men I know and love, I don’t just need them to learn. I need them to grow.
Learning is easy. Growth is hard.
Learning requires only passive exposure. Learning means listening intently, saying nothing, sitting in the safety and discomfort that comes with hearing someone else’s vulnerable, painful experiences. It is uncomfortable, and it requires our full attention. But it doesn’t require anything more of us.
Growth is active. It calls on every muscle we’ve got, and every skill we’ve built.Growth means opening up our pasts, sorting through the fragments that remain. It means revisiting events that we remember fondly, and realizing that our actions in those moments may have caused real harm. When I asked her out, was she uncomfortable? When we stopped speaking, was it because of something I did? Was her “yes” enthusiastic and real, or did I just imagine it?
Growth means hearing hard feedback about who we are, what we’ve done. It means sitting in the specific hurt we caused when someone needed us and we weren’t there.
Growth means recognizing our own failures and returning to the site of them until we get it right. It means failing again and again, cutting through the dark forests of unfamiliar terrain. That’s what makes listening and learning such appealing escapes: they offer comfort in a strange land. Listening and learningkeep us free from the messiness of our mistakes, and the discomfort of our own amateurism.
Listening and learning offer us comfort, because we’re so unaccustomed to thinking of ourselves as novices. Privilege teaches us that we’re experts. That our physical safety, economic security, social standing and education are markers of our merit, a prowess that we’ve developed and fought for. That our lives have been shaped by our mastery, not by anything unearned or unfair.We aren’t fortunate sons, we tell ourselves. We weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths. Privilege is reserved for James Spader characters in John Hughes films, cartoonishly abusive men, caricatures of the one percent.Wealth, power and privilege make for bad people, we’ve been told, and we know ourselves to be good. We struggle to hold room for our belief in our own goodness, and the advantages offered to us in an unfair world.
But most of us aren’t a caricature. We are neither the underdog hero we believe ourselves to be, nor the mustache-twirling villain born of untold wealth. Most of us are on the down side of power in some ways, and beneficiaries of incredible privileges in others. And our behavior bears that out. None of us know everything there is to know about privilege and oppression. None of us have lived every experience, walked every path, learned every lesson. We are staggeringly imperfect, our experiences undeniably incomplete. Of course we need to listen and learn. There’s so much we haven’t lived.
But when our only response to witnessing oppression is to say that we arelistening and learning, we push away from our own imperfections. We shrink from the challenge of growth. We feel better, but we don’t do better.
The steps to growth are simple, but they’re never easy. Listen to others’ life experiences. Honor their requests of you. Apologize when you’ve hurt or harmed someone. Make a plan to do better, and make a plan for when you inevitably fall short. Build honest, candid relationships with people who will tell you when you stumble.
Growth requires the strength to be vulnerable, the generosity to hear detailed accounts of the worst of us, the courage to own up to our mistakes, the fortitude to pick ourselves up when we fail, the integrity to follow through on our actions, and the heart and humanity to stay the course.
Growth requires the best of us. And the best of us is so, so much more than just listening and learning.