The Miraculous Power of Shutting Up

I did a very smart thing about 6 years or so ago: I started listening

Not very revolutionary, right?

Except, holy shit at the things you can learn if you just stop talking long enough.

Here’s the thing: encountering feminism in college gave me the mistaken impression I had license to talk all the damn time. I was tired of my desires and ideas being marginalized–I’d grown up in a super-conservative space in which women were fully expected to take a backseat to their husbands and all that bullshit. And, maybe, I didn’t do a very thorough examination of feminism (I can assure you there’s a lot more to it than just claiming center stage. Actually, center stage isn’t really so much even a thing…). I just heard what I wanted/needed to hear in that moment (the message to claim my voice) and ran with it.

In some ways, that served me. In other, long-term ways, my voice ultimately got all kinds of in the way of my ability to hear other people’s experience.

The first time I caught a whiff of intersectional feminism (a phrase coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which examines overlapping systems of oppression, like being a person of color AND a woman) was when I took a head-over-heels-smitten deep dive into Alice Walker’s work in college. But, truth be told, when you aren’t ready for ideas, they just kind of slide off your psyche. And I totally wasn’t ready. The good news is that those ideas don’t just slide off into the abyss. They stick around, marinading in your brain until you are, in fact, struck down by the sheer magnitude of the truth of them one day, seemingly out of the blue.

For me, a woman with roots in Georgia and Alabama among people who were served by the social status quo of racism, I was afraid to take a serious look at my own internalized racism. Easier to just proclaim racism as “bad,”assure myself I’d never done anything (overtly) racist and carry on. I wasn’t hurting anyone, so I was a good person.

Right?

I think about that self (a little smug, but definitely full of fear and 100% lacking in understanding about the complexities and pervasiveness of institutionalized racism), and I want to shake her. Hard.

But that was my journey. And anything else just isn’t the truth. 

When unarmed black men started dying at alarming rates (or, more accurately, when cell phone video made it harder to deny that unarmed black men were dying at alarming rates), I started paying attention. And, once you see–really see–with your heart what is happening, when you witness the ravages in racism as real lives lost, real suffering, real and sometimes deadly inequity, you cannot unsee it. 

And it brings grief. So much grief. 

You can get overwhelmed by the grief. But let’s call that what it is: a cop-out. Because, y’all, there is so much work to be done. 

It’s instructive here to just grab a glimpse of what it looks like to people of color, who’ve been doing the grueling work of liberation and the uber-frustrating, often futile work of just getting white people to listen, when white folks jump into a shame/self-loathing cycle (which is mainly just a way to avoid actually doing anything). This excerpt is from a piece that appeared in The Root aptly entitled “Four Emails White People Send to Black People When Black People Talk or Write about Racism:”

I’m so fucking tired of White people and being a White person. We are so fucking awful. I hate myself. I hate my white skin and my even whiter than my white skin teeth . . . .Sometimes I look in the mirror in the morning and I just want to peel my skin off like an orange, taking each layer of whiteness off and tossing it in the trash with the rest of the fucking garbage. Actually, since oranges are covered in white pith after you peel them, that analogy doesn’t quite work. I guess bananas and apples and pears don’t either. Shit, have you ever realized how disgustingly white most fruit is when you peel the outer layers off? Goddamn there’s no end to this shit. Fuck racism, fuck white people, fuck whiteness, and fuck fruit.

Damon Young, Very Smart Brothas

While it’s true that sometimes if feel like there is no end to this shit, getting all fuck fruit on the systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States isn’t gonna work. Why? Because it completely lacks action. It centers whiteness and how “bad” we feel.

Feeling bad never changed anything. In fact, it’s a pretty clear path to self-pity and self-loathing.

Not helpful.

But one simple suggestion from Glennon Doyle a few years ago pulled me out of that fuck fruit cycle. She suggested that folks follow at least one person on social media that was different from them in some way. That’s it. Totally doable.

Rather arbitrarily I picked Ijeoma Oluo and Ally Henny. Seriously good choices that I deserve no credit for.

Here’s what these two women of color have offered this white girl: the ability to see the world from a different lived experience, deeper insights into the subtle ways of racism, and access to knowledge that I now don’t have to ask the black folks in my life for.

Because literally one of the last things your black co-worker, black neighbor, black friend wants to do is answer your questions about racism.

Totally not kidding on that.

If you have questions, if you’re having trouble envisioning how our culture looks stripped of the privilege of whiteness or if you want to know what you (as a white person) can do to make things better, ask the interwebs. Use Google. I hear its a pretty good search engine. Follow folks on IG or Facebook.

But remember that, to learn anything, you have to be willing to listen. Not justify. Not speculate. Not excuse. Not enable. Just listen.

It will break your heart. That much is true. But then you’ll know. And then you can move into action. Because make no mistake: racism a white folks’ problem. And now, NOW, is the time to fix it.

Author: Kendra Lee

I am smitten with Atlanta. I believe Black Lives Matter. I care deeply about housing justice, education, and transportation. I am a huge MARTA fan. I've got the most adorable second grader, an incorrigible Boxer named Delilah, and a pretty amazing husband named Simon. I've been sober for 9+ years. I heart coffee. On any given day I may write about all--or none--of those things.

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