I was at the dentist’s long enough this past Monday to finish reading a new novel called “Weather” by Jenny Offill. In the novel, the narrator describes someone she knows as a good listener and says something like: She could listen to your story without responding with a story of her own.
It stuck with me because I catch myself doing that all the time, responding to someone’s story with the nearest version of the same thing I have in my repertoire. The intention, usually, is to build a bond, to share a common experience. But, of course, it can also turn the conversation 180 degrees. The writer Fran Lebowitz famously said, “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting,” as in, waiting for my turn to talk.
One of the most challenging aspects of racial reconciliation—or, better, racial justice—is for people who are used to talking to listen truly and deeply and extensively to people who are used to being talked over. How hard it is for some of us who are in the habit of asserting our viewpoints in conversation and who are energized by a strenuous back-and-forth to, instead, keep our mouths shut and listen with patience and humility.
Many times, people in small groups have told me that they’re still formulating their thoughts while the more confident talkers have had their say and the conversation has moved on. Their frustration grows and the group doesn’t get the benefit of their input. It takes intentionality and an attentive facilitator to even out this dynamic, so everyone gets heard.
In our country now, the need goes beyond that. What has always been the case is becoming blazingly evident. And white people like me have a responsibility that goes beyond making sure other voices are heard along with ours. We have a moral—and, for believers, a Christian—responsibility to listen, listen, listen, without interjections of self-justification or complaints that our intention, personally, was never to cause harm. Listen without responding with our own stories, unless asked, because, in many cases, we don’t really have corresponding stories.
If you don’t have opportunity at the moment to listen in person, there are plenty of books and other resources you can read. A few resources are listed on our denomination’s website (https://www.elca.org/Resources/Racial-Justice).
- A book by Lutheran pastor Lenny Duncan titled Dear Church is subtitled “A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US”
- More broadly read are new classics “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehesi Coates and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.
- Also, “Under Our Skin: Getting Real about Race” by Benjamin Watson
- And for churches, “Roadmap to Reconciliation” by Brenda Salter McNeil and “Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church” by Soong-Chan Rah.