Radical Listening

I am blessed and proud to live in a beautifully diverse community in Long Beach, CA. Diversity, however, sometimes pushes ugliness to the surface.

Today, I dashed to the post office in between (miraculously) rain showers. On my way home, a fabulously dressed black woman steps out of a shop, glances upward, and says "It's going to rain again? Hell no!" It was hilarious. I giggled. Then a small, shuffling white man shouts from across the street "Use proper English, black *W%)@%," and various other horrible racist epithets. I froze for a few seconds, then walked slowly back toward the woman. As the exchange ended, a few young Latina women nearby said "Just ignore him." All I could think to say was "Ma’am, I'm with you." She smiled and said “Thanks, baby.” I thought about the women’s march on Saturday, and about what the simple actions of walking and standing can convey. Literally, where and when we walk and stand matters.

Anyway, I don't want to give the impression that I did anything particularly good or heroic. I didn’t. And this woman was in no way "victimized." She yelled “Hell no” about six more times. She did not appear to be intimidated, and she was smiling when I left.

But that is just the beginning of this story. I continued my walk home. As I turned a corner, the same man was there, walking the same direction down the sidewalk. I walked two blocks trailing slightly behind. It was very easy to hate him, to envision punching him in the face, to rehearse in my head the brilliant lecture dismantling all of his absurd, despicable beliefs. But then I thought about this insightful article, which explains how mundane, in-person contact was the only thing that, in the end, could turn the tides under Hugo Chávez’ militant dictatorship in Venezuela. I thought about listening, about radical compassion. 

We stopped to cross the street. I’m right next to him now, and he’s still mumbling “black this, black that” under his breath. And I do something I would never have done before the 2016 US election. I turn and ask him what only another white person can safely ask this man: "Why don't you like black people?"

It felt very odd to ask this question, like I was violating some deep moral law. The very existence of the sentence is offensive, and it tasted foul as it left my mouth. And, significantly, the 2 seconds of time that it took for me to speak it aloud felt SO MUCH HARDER than getting up at 7am on a Saturday, sitting on the train for an hour, and walking slowly with 750,000 other happy people on a sunny morning in Los Angeles for twelve blocks. This two-second question was a whole different category of hard.

Yet, the question came out. It traveled at the speed of sound through the few feet of air space between us. And the man’s response, initially, was the type of racist propaganda regurgitation that you might expect: “They’re uneducated and don't know how to speak proper English and don’t respect America, blah, blah, blah.” But then he said this: “I have a BA in journalism and I’m homeless.” I didn’t get a chance to ask any more questions. We were on the other side of the street by then and he wandered into a Rite-Aid on the other side.

Now, based on that statement you might rightly argue, “He's educated. All the more reason he should know that what he is saying is ridiculous.” Journalism, of all things: a field devoted to investigation, to facts. It just made the whole episode even more ironic.

BUT, when he told me he was homeless, something clicked in my head and in my heart. This man was struggling. Things were tough for him. He actually needs help. To be clear, there is nothing in this world that can excuse this man's behavior. It is wrong in every possible way. AND, simultaneously, he is a human being who has lost something, and whom, perhaps, the system has failed in some way. I don’t know and I'll probably never know his story. But, for a few hot seconds, I was able to hold these two truths in my awareness at the same time, and honestly, I no longer wanted to beat his head against a wall. I really didn’t. I actually wanted to find out what had happened to him; maybe, even, to invite him over for dinner to meet the intelligent, charming black man who is my husband. If I see him around the neighborhood again, maybe I will.

What might happen if we started listening in unexpected places? If you’re white, where can you use your “skin privilege” to ask questions and listen where others cannot? Leave your thoughts in the comments.