Dear Fellow White Moms: Martin Luther King Jr. Day is coming up and I, for one, am excited. History and social justice are important to me, and I always welcome an organic opportunity to discuss King's legacy with my children. But there's something else I will be talking about in honor of the great man, the first and most important thing that they, and all white people, must learn if they wish to make be a force of racial equality in this country. White moms, teach your kids to listen on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
I mean, duh, all moms want their kids to listen as a general rule. But I'm not talking about listening to (and obeying) the commands of authority figures. Pretty much everyone is going to tell my children to listen to authority figures for the rest of their lives, sometimes blindly. It's going to take more of a concerted effort to teach them to listen to the oppressed, underrepresented, and underserved, and that's going to fall mainly on me and their father.
Really listening can be hard, and it's often really hard for white people who, as a result of white privilege, are used to talking and being listened to, tend not to suffer any personal consequence when they don't listen to people who are oppressed in ways white people are not, and hear some really uncomfortable truths when they begin to listen to people of color. Now, if you're already bristling at any of this, bear with me, because I think this idea is going to be most useful for you.
Here's what I'm not saying: I'm not saying all white people, at all times, have untold amounts of power, believe themselves to be superior beings, or are in general uncaring, unfeeling, and completely ignorant to the humanity of others. I am not saying all white people have easy lives free from any and all hardship or struggle. I am saying, however, that being white has never been a source of hardship for white people in America. I am saying that being white has shielded white people from many of the daily inequities faced by of people of color (by design). I am saying the only way we, fellow white people, can contribute to the fight against racism and racial inequity in any meaningful way, is if we first sit down, shut up, and just listen. And then, even after we've listened long and hard, we keep listening. We never stop listening and we do not go back to a mental space where we've forgotten anything we've heard.
It can be frustrating for white people hung up on the idea that "they're being made to look like the bad guy" or people who haven't even gotten to the point where they can admit racial disparities exist.
This requirement can be frustrating for any number of reasons of varying egregiousness. It can be frustrating for white people hung up on the idea that "they're being made to look like the bad guy" or people who haven't even gotten to the point where they can admit racial disparities exist. It can be frustrating for well-meaning white people who think themselves already "woke" and and, in their blind enthusiasm, remain ignorant of what, exactly, needs to be done and what the goal is. To this last group I say: please, hold off. Because you can do good, but you have to consider a few things.
First and foremost listening, when done properly, is an action. You're doing something already! Listening is not a passive experience. It takes intent, energy, fortitude, and resolve. It requires you to process what you're hearing and move forward carrying that knowledge. Secondly, this isn't about you. This isn't about you taking the lead or riding in on your (appropriately) white horse to save the day. You can't do that without first knowing what the problems are and what's at stake and that requires (all together now!) listening.
I think of it this way: when I'm cooking, my kids often want to help. Now, any mother in any kitchen can tell you how much "help" a 3- and 6- year-old child can be. If I just let them dive in they're going to make a mess of everything, in spite of their good intentions. At the same time, I don't want to discourage their interest in helping (or cooking!) so I set some ground rules: listen to what I tell you to do and allow me to guide you. This may mean you don't get to engage in the recipe as you'd envisioned or wanted right away. But at some point, with patience and ongoing guidance, you will be able to do more on your own. But for now you have to listen and learn.
Well-meaning white people: we are all, at one point and often intermittently, the toddler in the kitchen, and that's under the best of circumstances.
Once you have some idea of the task and the stakes and the movement (and you will only ever have an incomplete picture, which isn't your fault but it's your understandable shortcoming in this arena) it's not up to you to decide the direction or destination of the struggle for racial justice. Our job, white people, is to listen, learn, facilitate, and support, not take over. That's not to say whiteness can't come in handy in all this, especially in a society as (intentionally) segregated as ours. By all means, leverage your privilege to help people of color have their voices heard. A particularly useful way to do this is to let other white people know, "Hey, listen to people color" or, "Hey, that was incredibly racist and I won't tolerate it." This is one area we can take a leadership position: letting our families and communities know that they, too, need to listen.
White people love MLK. We hold him up as a paragon of non-violent protest to create a world where 'the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.'
"Well," you might say, "Isn't this good advice for everyone? Shouldn't we all be trying to understand each other? Shouldn't we all listen?" To which I say: when you're talking about understanding the plights of different groups, this is a useless activity for people of color. White people, as a group, do not have a plight on account of their being white. Moreover, American society is and has always been built around the comfort levels of white people. People of color often finding themselves code-switching — changing speech, behaviors, and observing unofficial but vitally important sets of different rules — to enable them to get by or even survive in American society. The way a person of color experiences America would be completely alien to an American white person. So trust that people of color get our point of view. White people have spent hundreds of years codifying it while intentionally suppressing, distorting, and vilifying theirs.
Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles White people need to overcome in accepting the importance of listening is the stigma of not knowing or understanding something. And trust me, I get it. I'm an insufferable know-it-all. I don't like to admit I'm unaware or don't know the answer. But you don't know what you don't know. There's no shame in admitting that, even if there is necessary accountability one should take for not knowing about something so crucial to another human being. But there's tremendous shame in choosing to remain ignorant rather than face the reality that you have been. There's shame in brushing aside the lived experiences of others with platitudes about how you, in your self-appointed ignorance, believe they should use "different tactics" or that you "don't see color."
There's also shame in choosing what aspects of the struggle for racial justice we wish to hear and attempting to whitewash the rest into invisibility. Martin Luther King Jr. is a prime example of this phenomenon in action.
Listen, learn, and teach your children that there is no getting around either if we want to realize Dr. King's dream.
White people love MLK. We hold him up as a paragon of non-violent protest to create a world where "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." But they ignore the work achieving this dream will entail. They ignore the fact that King's concerns were intersectional, and that his message extended to socioeconomic and sociopolitical concerns of working class people. They ignore his criticisms of capitalism, American foreign policy, and militarism, especially as it pertained to the Vietnam War. They ignore the dismay King felt that "the white moderate" was, as he expressed in Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963, "the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom." They ignore the fact that, while he was alive, King was reviled by much of American society.
In Where Do We Go From Here, King wrote
And so, fellow white moms, this MLK Day, truly honor this luminary man by listening to what he's said, to all that he said. Listen, learn, and teach your children that there is no getting around either if we want to realize Dr. King's dream.
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