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The challenge of listening

Rev. Irene Monroe

Several white Americans have asked me whether the civil unrest Americans still see across the country against anti-Black violence and police brutality and demanding systemic change is a movement or a moment that is likely to die out in a couple of months.

I reply by saying it depends on whether you get involved, how you get involved and whether you can listen as an ally. For example, Portland’s Wall of Moms was initially thought to be an initiative in which whites were responding to the George Floyd protests as allies. Their goal, however, was to get federal officers out of the city. Their chant said it all: “Feds stay clear, moms are here!”

Now, these moms have been called out by Black community leaders of Portland for assisting in diverting attention away from the Black Lives Matter movement. The president of the Portland NAACP depicted their involvement and that of other white protesters as “a largely white spectacle.”

WOM is accused of excluding Black moms, showing disregard for the safety of Black protesters, and co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement protest for their agenda. The viral images of “Naked Athena,” an unclothed white woman, won accolades for flashing federal officers as a brave and bold ally of the cause, is another example of co-optation.

Both WOM and Naked Athena contested criticism, saying they had good intentions. In response, Lakayana Drury, executive director of Word is Bond, a Portland-based nonprofit, told the Washington Post, “I want us to remember why we’re here. What’s happening downtown is not a Black issue.”

John Lewis’s posthumous essay “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” which he requested to be published on the occasion of his funeral, stated, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

To improve our democracy, we need to first listen to one another. Martin Luther King made that request decades ago. In his 1967 speech, “The Other America,” given at Stanford University, King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” During the summer of 1967, 159 race riots erupted across the country. In the speech, King asked the following:

“What is it that America has failed to hear?”

The Wall of Moms and Naked Athena failed to hear what their local NAACP and Black Lives Matter movement requested of them as allies. However, with the cacophony of voices and continued violence in the streets of America, we all, in various ways, are missing the vital importance of listening. George Floyd’s death was an inflection point for many Americans, and many more people are now listening. Nevertheless, listening to one another across our differences and perceived well-intentions is difficult because it requires being non-defensive, hearing without judgment, taking notice and responsibility of one’s action, and acting toward the requested change.

In my opinion, there are five levels of listening. However, the one that would bring about the Beloved Community requires compassionate listening.

Ignored listening makes no effort to listen. Pretend listening gives a feigned appearance to be listening. Selective listening hears what interests or serves one’s agenda, as the WOM  and Naked Athena did. Empathic listening hears with both one’s heart and mind to understand a person’s feelings and struggles. However, what Martin Luther King preached about in depicting the Beloved Community, and John Lewis wrote about the Beloved Community in his final request to us as Americans requires compassionate listening.

Compassionate listening and empathic listening are related. They differ in that compassionate listening not only hears with one’s heart and mind, but it’s also listening with an impetus to help and to improve the lives of the suffering. Compassion means “to suffer together.” From a theological perspective, I understand compassion to be both rooted in a praxis of action and an ethic of social justice. Compassionate listening is a type of consciousness and an “awokeness” to others’ distress. It’s an understanding of the interconnectedness between ourselves and others; thus, providing an opportunity for radical inclusion.

The Wall of Moms and Naked Athena might have had a better outcome and faster success in getting the federal officers out of the city had they listened and embraced BLM’s intersectional concerns and goals. The federal officers are inextricably tied to systemic anti-black racism and police violence. They could have confronted the problem, together.

It starts with listening!

Irene Monroe is a Boston-based theologian and syndicated columnist.

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