Learning to Listen in the Wake of Ferguson


A riot is the language of the unheard.
-Martin Luther King Jr.

Tonight, I write this as I sit in the living room of my new home. This week has been a frenzy of activity as my wife and I moved all our belongings out of one house and into another.

As things began to calm down, I checked back into social media today, reading with a horrid intrigue about the events that transpired over the week in Ferguson, Missouri. I don’t know all the details, but what I know is that Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot by police. I know a family is mourning and grieving the loss of a son. On all accounts, this is a tragedy that should not have occurred. But it did, and it does far too often. The killing of an unarmed black man is becoming an all too common occurrence.

At one point, I felt like I should just stick my head back in the sand. I have so many great excuses. I’m behind in my work because I took three days to move into our new house. My to-do list around the house is unbelievably long. The shows on Hulu aren’t going to watch themselves. It would be easy to not write about this.

And honestly, I don’t want to. Writing about race and the reality of systemic racism forces me admit my responsibility in a system that privileges me and my family. I know a lot of people will read that and write me off as a liberal dispenser of pungent BS. Fine. First, I’m not a liberal, but don’t care if I am labeled as such. Second, when a black man is gunned down in a Wal-Mart for carrying an airsoft gun and white dudes carry actual loaded assault rifles in restaurants and are simply asked to unload before they are served, it is hard to argue that people are being treated equally.

Admitting that, simply because I am white, I might be treated differently begins to open up the possibility for me to listen to the stories of others. Listening and admitting that the stories and experiences of others is different than ours might just be one of the most difficult things we can do. All of us have a narrative that explains how the world works. Typically, it is overly simplistic and reduces complex real world situations to cliches and talking points, and as such, offers solutions aligned to reinforce the world the narrative we want to be true. For example, we want people’s circumstances to be as simple as choices. People are poor because of bad choices. People are addicted to drugs because of poor choices. People are depressed because of poor choices. Reducing complex problems to ‘choices’ helps us keep the narrative that people get what they deserve and systemic injustice and pain aren’t real alive.

Life is more complex than most narratives would have us believe. And we will always find the facts to justify the narrative we hold.

Racism isn’t just about individuals actively hating people of different races. That is a reductionist narrative that allows us to breathe out a sigh of relief and say, “I’m not a racist.” Because I don’t dress in a white sheet with a dunce cap I can say I’m not a racist. But I do live in a predominately white suburb. I haven’t spent time educating myself on how race affects my black brothers and sisters. Let me admit, even to the point of feeling ashamed, that this past April was the first time I sat around a dinner table and was the only white person present.

It might even be the first time I was in a situation where I was in the minority while in the U.S.

I want to be able to say that I don’t have any role to play in the ongoing racism of our country. But that would be to deny the fact that I am a part of system that does have markedly more injustices towards black men than white men. It would be easy to say that I don’t know enough about racism and let others write about it. It would be much easier to stick my head in the sand and ignore what it is happening, but it wouldn’t be right. We cannot ignore the obvious evidence of racism. To ignore it is to be part of the problem.

The desire to stay lost in the activities of my life is a temptation to keep the status quo. Choosing not to say something is a choice for the continued injustice towards my black brothers and sisters. I cannot in good conscience actively choose that.

I believe in the God who continually sides with the oppressed. Who loves the Abel’s of the world, those who are killed by their brothers. In Jesus, God identifies with those who are unjustly killed. If I profess faith in Jesus then I must speak out against the injustices I see. It is hard to not admit there is an injustice when Black parents have to give their kids ‘The Talk‘. I will never have to give my son that talk.

As I have watched and read about the current events I keep asking myself, “What is my responsibility in this?” The best answer I can come up with right now is, I don’t know.

I don’t know my responsibility in the glaring systematic injustice.

I don’t know my responsibility in racial reconciliation.

I don’t know my responsibility in helping black boys have the same privileges my son will have.

I don’t know.

So I am going to do the one thing I know I can do: listen. I’m going to hold my narratives about the world with an open hand and listen to the stories and experiences of others. I’m sure it will be uncomfortable. I probably won’t like it. But I believe that is what we are called to do. To at least listen and let those who have been speaking, even screaming, for so long know that someone is listening.

Here are some of the voices I have been listening to.

Janee Woods – Becoming A White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder 
Osheta Moore – I Raise My Hands: A Prayerful Response to Ferguson
Ta-Nehisi Coates – Black People are not Ignoring ‘Black on Black’ Crime
Austin Channing Brown – Black Bodies White Souls

Who have you been listening to? What do you think is your responsibility?

photo credit: nefer | media