Recently, my friend Khalilah told me a story that changed me.
We weren’t engaged in any kind of formal truth-telling process. Hell, we weren’t even at work. We were just chatting on the phone. And it was just an anecdote. But the story had punch and it managed to muscle its way into my consciousness and push the boundaries of my understanding.
She told me about a time when a White person left a rose on her desk as a gift. When she picked up the rose, the thorns pricked her. Then the White person who gave her the rose asked her if she got the gift that they left her. (Because Whiteness demands acknowledgment for every good deed.) And she jokingly said something like, “Yeah, and it pricked me and made me bleed, because even when White people try and do something good, they do harm to Black people.” The person was caught a little off guard. But Khalilah was kidding. Mostly.
When she told me the story, we laughed. Khalilah says gangster shit like this all the time and this is one of the many ways she disrupts White supremacy in her day to day. Now that’s not to say that the rose was an act of White supremacy. It wasn’t. But that’s not the point. The point was that she was expressing a general truth that’s difficult for us White folks to hear.
(A side note: I’ve been on the receiving end of righteous noticings like this plenty of times. Learning to say “thanks” for them has taught me that hearing expressions of PoC truth and having our White supremacy pointed out to us will not kill us. Really learning that and understanding it deeply has brought me a feeling of freedom and joy that I’d like more White folks to experience.)
Weeks later, I was leading a restorative justice training for a community based organization, partnered with some NYC public schools. The group was young (read: woke af), mostly folks of color, and had just been through a week-long RJ training with a different White woman. I started my training and right away dropped phrases like “White supremacy” and “school-to-prison pipeline abolitionism” without thinking twice.
These folks didn’t know who the fuck I was. And that is exactly what they told me. And they also told me that hearing those words from a White person they don’t know (read: have not seen any of my receipts) is really fucking painful.
And it made so much sense. Here I was, making everybody bleed with my thorny-ass rose.
I called Khalilah later that week just to chat. A lot had been happening. I told her about my training and mentioned it was like me handing out roses to everyone that were just painful to hold. Because sometimes it doesn’t matter what the package is- if it’s delivered by Whiteness it carries its own violence.
And Khalilah was like, “Wait- that happened to me. Did I tell you that story?”
I’ve been engaged in story-telling and listening processes for about a decade now. And I’ve noticed that something happens when we move from head to heart and start talking and listening from a place of share and not exchange. When we talk from the heart and not from the intellect, it’s almost like the stories tell themselves. They need to be told and brought out into the light. We channel them. And often we don’t experience the memory of the telling in a concrete way.
I’ve been in circles where a deep story gets told (or tells itself) and the sharer later expresses something like; “I don’t even remember what I said.” But they can describe how it felt. And everyone that was a witness to the telling is changed.
Whiteness is a shitty listener.
In fact, I would argue that Whiteness is deaf to PoC dignity.
Because of this, one of my most essential anti-racist practices is listening for human dignity.
And I hear it everywhere.
I listen for the core self and tune-in when I hear it expressed through even the simplest of anecdotes.
And I’ve found that those stories populate the boundaries of my understanding. And the more I hear, the more those boundaries get expanded.
We talk about “listening to understand” a lot in anti-racism and equity work. But that doesn’t seem sufficient to me anymore. Whiteness wants to make a to-do list and check off boxes. Whiteness wants to take an obstacle, crush it, and move on to the next one. Whiteness wants to operationalize friendship and basic conversation. Whiteness wants to tell you how to talk and how to listen and “engage.”
That makes me wonder; how are you talking and listening when you’re not thinking about talking and listening because you’re with your friends or loved ones who truly see you? How do you feel when you’re shooting the shit with someone you love and letting the stories tell themselves?
What happens when we take the agenda out of a conversation?
I know when it happens to me I feel deeply known. And I feel like I’m deeply knowing my friend. Because who they are integrates with me and my understanding of the world.
Hannah Arendt described totalitarianism as “organized loneliness.” I would argue that listening to know and be known is active(ist) listening. You’ll know it when you experience it because it creates a feeling of happiness and ease. When Khalilah told me her rose story, we were laughing and poking fun, moving seamlessly from one topic to the next with no agenda or discernible destination. There was no competitiveness or analysis. We were just shooting the shit.
And that’s where the magic is. We dismantle something oppressive in learning to be better friends to one another through simple, loving conversation. We start to feel, as I did that day, changed in some small but profound way that will inevitably impact the way we move through the world.